"Do toddlers need to be held whilst they cry?" - moving from crying-in-arms to setting loving limits

I've noticed that a particular issue often comes up for parents who begin practising Aware Parenting when their children are babies in arms.  They know that babies need to be held when they cry in order for the crying to be healing.  When their babies start to crawl, and then walk, these parents often think that their children still need to always be held when they cry in order to sense safety and love.  

I certainly believed this with my first child, Lana.  Once she could walk, I would always pick her up whenever she got upset, and she would generally stop crying.  Only with time did I realise that there was a quality with which I picked her up which was short-circuiting the release she was needing.  As she got older, she cried less and less in my arms.  I began to see that picking her up and unwittingly distracting her from her feelings, and then expecting her to cry in my arms when I was ready, was actually making it very difficult for her to cry.  My husband had quite a different way of dealing with things.  If she was upset, which often happened out on walks in the local field, he would stay close and present with her but not pick her up.  One of the pictures of her crying in the Aware Parenting Pictures section was taken during such an episode.  I felt really uncomfortable when he did this, and often angry at him.  A consultation with Aletha helped me see that her crying without being picked up was stimulating my own feelings around not being supported when I cried.  Yet it took me a long time to become comfortable seeing her cry (with my loving support) without me holding her.  

There will be times when toddlers and older children do need to be held close when they are crying; but because they can crawl or walk, we can trust them to let us know how much closeness they need in any particular situation when they are upset.

Now my son is nearly 21 months old and I feel comfortable seeing him cry out of my arms yet giving him my loving presence.  For example, today he was quite agitated after having a very stimulating day yesterday and only a five minute cry before sleep last night.  Various events gave him opportunities to release some stress today.  This morning I gave him some medicine and he wanted some more.  Due to the nature of the medicine, it didn't meet my need for safety for him to have more.  I gently said to him something like, "I see you really like those and would love some more.  It's not safe for me to give you more.  No more medicine,  Sunny."  He cried quite intensely and tried to climb to the medicine shelf.  I stayed next to him and repeated something similar a few times as he cried.  After about five minutes he stopped and went on to something else, but was still clearly agitated.  He had a couple of small (5 minute) cries in my arms during the day.  At dusk, we went for a walk with our dogs out in the countryside.  As usual, he has choice of various methods of transport (walking, being carried, self-propelled on his toddler trike, or being pushed in a tricycle with a parent handle, or in the stroller), and (unusually), he chose the jogging stroller.  We went out for the walk, looked at the cows, and started back towards home.  Once we were nearly home he indicated that he wanted to go out again, so I turned around and we went back to where we had been.  When I turned around again to go back home he started to cry, and tried to turn the stroller around.  It was nearly dark by now, and I wanted to get home before it became totally dark.  So I stopped, got down to his level, gave him some empathy, told him what I was wanting, and then kept walking towards home.  He stopped crying, but when we got in the back gate and I went to lift him out, he started crying strongly.  He got out and tried to push the stroller out of the gate.  I was confident that I had listened and responded to his requests, had gone for an extra walk, had given him empathy, "You'd really like to go back that way," and expressed myself, "I'd want get home before it gets dark."  I was also aware of what a big day he'd had yesterday, how agitated he had been all day, and how he was needing to release some stress.  So I just held the stroller still as he stood next to me, trying to push it the other way.  I gave him my loving attention, stayed right next to him, and just listened as he cried and expressed his frustration.  After about 10 minutes, it was totally dark and getting cold, so I picked him up and took him inside.  He carried on crying intensely and I sat down and held him in my arms whilst he cried for another 10 minutes.  Then he fell into a peaceful sleep.

I was aware that I would never have felt comfortable doing this with my daughter when she was his age.  I would probably have kept pushing the stroller back and forth until it was completely dark, and I was resentful and fed up, and would somehow have kept her from crying until I could get her home and into my arms, when I would have tried to encourage her to cry.  Now I trust that Sunny is securely attached and confident in the knowledge that I am right there with him when he expresses his feelings.  

The process of attachment is a developmental one.  Whilst a baby needs to be in arms to know he is secure and loved, and for his crying to be healing, he learns as he grows.  Once he can crawl, he can move a distance away from his attachment figure, and return again when he needs reassurance or connection.  As he gets older and able to walk, the time he can be away and the distance he can go whilst still sensing the support, both get bigger.  A securely attached toddler who is regularly supported to cry may choose to express his feelings of frustration or sadness when his mother is on the other side of the room.  He has internalised her support and loving acceptance, and can feel it even when he is out of her arms.  As he gets older, he can feel it even just hearing her voice.  For example, when my daughter was five years old, she started crying about something in the room next to me.  I was feeding Sunny at the time, and sensed that she was healing from something to do with having a baby brother, and that hearing my voice was the level of support she needed.  I kept talking to her, and she kept crying.  I sensed the loving connection between us.  At any time she was free to come in to be with me, and I offered that to her.  I was learning to trust that she knew the distance that allowed her to feel her feelings and also sense the support.

As babies become toddlers and children, events in their daily lives give them opportunities to heal, and because they know what needs to heal, they also find situations to allow that to happen.  We do not need to engineer their crying or raging.  They will find just the thing to help them express what they need - whether it be through being unwilling to cooperate with us or a sibling, or doing something they know we don't like, or falling over, or finding something really frustrating to do.  When we trust that they do these things to ask us to help them heal, we can refrain from pacifying or getting frustrated ourselves, and just see that they are asking for help to let some feelings out.  We need to be willing to be the target of their feelings.  Depending on the situation, we can set a loving limit, like, "I won't let you hurt your sister", or just be present with them, knowing that doing so provides that balance of support whilst they express all the feelings that they are feeling.  Our love and acceptance of them is expressed in our loving tone, and the way we look at them.  All is needed for healing to occur is to find that balance of support and feeling.  For that to happen, it requires that we are willing to be present and hear what they are expressing, and to trust that they will tell us how close they need to be to us to let that happen.  Sometimes that may be in our arms, at other times it may be at arm's length, on the other side of the room, or where they can hear us and we can hear them.  As older children, the distance stretches to over the telephone.  Their confidence in our loving support becomes stronger, and less and less dependent on our physical presence.  We trust ourselves and them and they trust us.

Edited May 2008