In Times Like These, Tell Your Children It's OK to Cry

Kelly Niebergall

Bottled in and gasping for air, this is how my daughter approaches me. Strawberry red splotches are scattered across her cheeks. I want to pick each one and eat it for her, to consume her rage and sadness and worry. This is what we do as mothers.

I’ve certainly been in her emotional position before. These are unprecedented times. A virus rages through our communities, shutting off our connections and inviting us to survive alone inside our homes. For my daughter, a social butterfly coming into her own, this has been hell.

She is 5 years old, wild and free. She cannot be contained, and often this means her own emotions have trouble finding ways to surface. Her tantrums are epic and can last hours. At times, she tells me she can’t breathe. What I often hear the most is that she can’t stop crying.

When she says such things, my own battles with mental illness perk up. I become on high alert, wondering if she, too, will experience depression and anxiety like I do. I have battled this mental illness duo for years, partly due to postpartum depression and partly due to some unresolved trauma of my past. I am no stranger to tears.

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I grew up in a time when emotions were never talked about. I was told to stop crying. Stop being emotional. Stop being so sensitive. I learned to turn my feelings inward, to put on a mask that I was tougher than I truly felt. It has taken me years to shed such a skin, to embrace the true empathetic nature within me.

With my daughter, I’m not sure how mentally similar she is to me. She could be experiencing typical 5-year-old feelings. Aside from this, we are in the midst of a global pandemic and most likely this is what adds to her emotional outbursts. How can you explain the concept of quarantine to a 5-year-old? So much of her world has vanished. School, friends, routine, community, cousins, grandparents, all of it is gone from her life due to social isolation.

These are the things I cry about, too. I grieve the loss of my own little world, one I so carefully crafted in order to sustain myself against mental odds. Healthy coping skills is what my therapist calls them. Schedules, group exercise, book club, social mom nights out, date nights with just my husband, time to write, extracurricular activities for my daughters — this is what kept me going.

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All of it has been lost or at least changed. I’ve had to relearn how to cope with much less. We all have. Including our children. Including my daughter who comes to me with her face full of pain because her world, too, has been upended. She, too, grieves.

As my daughter stands before me, I realize it is 8:30 p.m., an hour past her bedtime. It had already been a strenuous day with her, one full of meltdowns, refusals and arguments. A part of me wants to rage back at her, to unleash the hold of the day all on her tiny shoulders so that she can know what it’s like to parent in times like these. I am also tired.

“Will you lay with me?” she asks between hiccups. I look at her face so similar to my own and I feel myself soften. I kiss her cheek and taste salty tears.

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“Yes,” I say. I walk her back to her room and I hold her in my arms while her cries continue to shutter against me.

“I can’t stop crying,” she says. I can hear the fright rise in her voice. She is entering a state in which she often takes hours to undo, a panic attack that consumes her whole spirit.

I tell her what my mother never told me. “It is OK to cry,” I say.

“But I can’t stop!” she says, louder.

“It is OK to cry,” I tell her again. I worry that she’ll wake up my younger daughter with her rising voice. I pull myself inward, attempting to find a way into her shoes, into her bones. She is young, tired, scared, emotional and sensitive. I try to remain calm and I tell her what I would like someone to tell me. “Maybe this is what your body needs right now. Let the tears fall. It is oOK to cry.”

I hold her and lie with her until her eyes flutter and she becomes quiet. She pulls down her pajama sleeves she had rolled up from being hot and flustered. Pink moons against a purple night. My dreamer, my pursuer of the skies. She settles deeper next to me and I feel her breathing slow. Finally, she is asleep.

As I hold her tiny body next to me, the body I created, I let my own tears fall. I tell myself what I’ve always wanted to hear: It is OK to cry.

It is OK to cry. And should you currently hold your own heaving child in times like these — whether 5 years old or 10 or 15 or 30 — tell them it is OK to cry. We are in a pandemic. We are all uncertain of where our lives are going at the moment. Tell your children it is OK to grieve.

Then tell yourself the same.

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