Is this toddler sadness reasonably normal?
January 15, 2013 1:31 PM   Subscribe

My 2.5 year-old daughter has gently, soundlessly sobbed when I sang to her at bedtime twice now. It seemed like a deep and genuine sorrow that shocked me terribly the first time it happened. I feel extremely concerned. Is this normal?

My daughter is a happy, confidant, enthusiastic girl with a sense of humor. Very strong-willed, but also sensitive (she hugs crying children, she cries not from outrage or frustration but from shame and/or hurt feelings if scolded). She has a generally happy and stable home-life, although my husband and I are not perfect and we sometimes squabble in front of her (and she says "Mommy, Daddy, stop!", which makes me proud although this is really unacceptable and we are working on it). I don't know exactly what happens at daycare (although, of course I hear about bigger incidents), nor can any parent unless they spend a full day or several days observing. She is deeply loved and gets lots of attention and affection.

The first time she cried in this way, she seemed out of sorts in the evening (maybe tired, teething, who knows). And I'm sure she was under stress during this period, since I was under extreme stress, anxious and distant most evenings and working at school every weekend. Anyhow, I was gently talking to her, asking her if she was sad, and she nodded her head. I asked her about possible reasons she was sad, and she nodded to all of them (are you sad because Nana just went home? Because Mommy is so busy, etc?). But if you know kids at this age, you know that sometimes you can ask them anything and they'll agree or say yes. Anyhow, I cuddled her and started to sing the Beatle's "I Will". Right away I heard ragged sobby intakes of breathe followed by deep quiet sighs - the kind of cry adults do when resignedly, hopelessly sad. I felt her eyes to confirm that there were tears. I was so shocked that I reacted badly by starting to cry myself, but my husband came in and we comforted and settled her.

A month later I'm not stressed, just happily job-searching and spending a lot of time with her. But last night she did the same thing when she woke up hysterical in the night (bad dream?) and I calmed her down and then started singing "You Are My Sunshine" at her request.

Clearly, both events were preceded by stress and upsetness. But this kind of crying just seems too adult for such a young child. She's not quite verbal or reliable enough yet to tell me why she is so upset, and I do try to be careful about putting words in her mouth. I don't think she understands or at least knows how to answer the question "why?"

tl;dr - I am really worried about this. I remember being about 4 or 5 and learning how to cry without making a sound, and realizing how said this was (since making a sound when crying is asking for help; being silent hides the sorrow from others). Am I overreacting and is this just a fairly normal stress response? Is it simply a matter of catharsis? If there are things or something she is very sad about, how can I help her? Should I stick to less sentimental, happier songs and bedtime? Thank you in advance.
posted by kitcat to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It's good that she feels she can cry to you, and that she can always tell you if she's sad.

Maybe try more upbeat songs, too?
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:35 PM on January 15, 2013

Response by poster: I should also add that I asked my psychiatrist about this (I have anxiety and depression) and she said that I am projecting my own childhood feelings onto her, and that I should not even talk about sadness with her at this age (I don't agree with the latter since she should learn to identify her emotions, but I may have overdone it that one night).

My mom and a kind teacher both said "Kids are resilient. She'll be fine."
posted by kitcat at 1:36 PM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Yeah, it's outstanding that your girl is so outspoken and empathetic but she's two and a half years old. She doesn't have a complete set of tools for expressing herself yet. Crying could mean any number of things -- relief, anger, tiredness, stress, just feeling overwhelmed, you name it. This is almost certainly a bigger deal for you than it is for her. Just make sure she's reassured and safe.
posted by trunk muffins at 1:40 PM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You don't have to do an inventory with your child as to how she is feeling and why she is feeling it. Sometimes the world is rough, even for a 2.5 year old and they get blue. Crying is a very normal response to being tired.

All you really can and should do is hold her tight and make her know that she is safe and loved.

Her identifying her emotions will come with time...especially with a hyper-aware mother and her own sensitive nature. Don't force the journey.
posted by inturnaround at 1:44 PM on January 15, 2013

Best answer: I think 2-2.5 is about the age when toddlers are developing the ability to recognize more complex emotions, and I think realizing that music can evoke emotions is part of that. Among my 2-year-old kid's peer group I've been hearing from a number of mothers that their kids are starting to cry when they hear certain songs--most notably "You Are My Sunshine." One of them will even ask for You Are My Sunshine "because it makes me cry". So I would guess that this is less about her being genuinely sad than perhaps experiencing "verklempt" for the first time in the setting of being tired/stressed.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 1:44 PM on January 15, 2013 [18 favorites]

Some kids are like this. My Godson is very sensitive and when he was your daughter's age, he too would cry when he was sad.

It's okay, encourage her to feel what she feels. When little kids are very tired or very stressed or just overwhelmed, that real, deep sobbing is how they express it.

Just speak soothingly to her, tell her it's okay, and that it's okay if she's sad or upset, she's allowed to feel that way. At some point she'll start feeling a bit better and you can hug and sing.

Also, those cries are cathartic, and some kids really enjoy the release.

It's okay for kids to be sad or angry or annoyed. Keep verbalizing that for her. Don't worry about cajolling or changing her mood.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:46 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

But this kind of crying just seems too adult for such a young child.

Going from the imperfect view presented here, I'd be inclined to agree with your psychologist. We have a an 18-month old and lots of friends with toddlers. They cry in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons, but ultimately they are terrifically resilient little buggers, not plagued by melancholia etc.

It sounds like you're quite conscious of this already, but I would be careful to tailor my reactions to the crying - of course there's nothing wrong with comforting an upset child, but I wouldn't want to be teaching her that she will only get a particular response if she acts in this one particular way.

Sounds like she's doing great, and you're doing great. Good on your for being such a conscientious parent.
posted by smoke at 1:46 PM on January 15, 2013

Best answer: I have a new song for you to sing to her, and listen to yourself, particularly for the final few lyrics:
It's alright to feel things, though the feelings may be strange,
Feelings are such real things, and they change and change and change...
It's alright to know feelings come and feelings go,
And it's alright to cry - it might make you feel better.
From the song It's Alright to Cry from the "Free To Be You And Me" album. I mention this because sometimes you don't need to analyze why you're sad, you just need to feel sad. Trying to figure out why you're sad can make you feel like you're trying to justify your own sadness to yourself -- and that can make you think that you won't have the right to be sad if you don't come up with a good enough reason for your sadness. doesn't work that way.

And it especially can't work that way when you're two, because you don't even know how to articulate feelings, much less explain them. But you have them.

This is a song that I think can let the both of you know that it's okay to have feelings and express them, and also remind you that sometimes expressing them makes them go away.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:49 PM on January 15, 2013 [21 favorites]

I cry when I listen to the second movement of Beethoven's 7th, and have since I was two. Music can be cathartic, and I'm guessing that after a rough day it was a release of sorts.

I also wonder if you didn't compound things by asking her leading questions about why she was sad. Children are highly suggestible, and she may have thought "Oh yeah, look at all these things I have to be sad about!"
posted by Specklet at 1:52 PM on January 15, 2013 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I want to mark these ALL as best answers, but EmpressCallipygos, that song is outstanding!
posted by kitcat at 1:56 PM on January 15, 2013

But this kind of crying just seems too adult for such a young child.

I'm not sure there is any existential frustration worse than being quasi-verbal, almost entirely dependent on others, beginning to confront that one is not magic (making food/people/dry pants appear simply by wanting it), being able to feel your teeth and bones growing, and suffering a rate of neurological development so intense that it is not unlike a head injury.

If anything, that kind of crying is almost too elemental for grown people.

She doesn't feel good, she's vulnerable, she's routinely exhausting her physical resources, and even at less than three years old is aware that you are a person she can let her guard down around. It's a vent popping open. Teaching her that that's okay - how to manage her anxiety - is more important than making it stop at any cost.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:04 PM on January 15, 2013 [13 favorites]

Best answer: From your description, it sounds more to be like an easy flow of tears that comes when you are finally safe and can relax and let go. So, my guess would be that this is not about some super deep sadness in her but rather more like the simple, clean feeling that you might feel when something beautiful or loving really touches your heart. The first time, she was stressed and out of sorts and when you began to sing, she realized that she didn't have to continue to work hard at whatever 2 year old problems she had, she was now in the perfect safe place and could relax and tears flowed easily, without sobs because there was no strain. Similarly after the trauma of the nightmare, your singing let her know that the scary part was over, everything was OK. Anyway, see how this fits as a different explanation for her behavior.
posted by metahawk at 2:04 PM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

My parents say I cried like this -- you specifically say it's an adult kind of cry -- at certain songs from a very young age. I've always just been really sensitive to music, and as an adult I realize it's not even always necessarily meaningful. (Sometimes it's just a monkey-brain response to a chord progression.)

That said, if you find these songs melancholy, your kid may be picking up on that--one thing I was hypersensitive to is Christmas carols, and most likely it's because my mom had all kinds of complex sadnesses and whatnot wrapped up in the holiday and the music.
posted by like_a_friend at 2:05 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it helps, I have a kid who will be 3 in a couple months and she is sometimes deeply, profoundly sad about having to take a nap or go to bed. Weeping, sobbing misery. Yes, she cries silently, and loudly, and every which way. I am 100% sure that the only problem is that she does not want to go to bed. When I ask non-leading questions, that is pretty much what she says. For a toddler, lying down and closing your eyes is really that bad.
posted by steinwald at 2:06 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a perhaps overly empathetic child who had very good verbal skills at young age, song lyrics were something I was very responsive to, and both of those songs have sad lyrics. This is something my mother, who loved to sing to us, but who's notorious for mondegreening because lyrics aren't so central to her, never really picked up on.

I think it's a very good sign that your child feels safe expressing her feelings in front you, particularly ones that are coded as "negative", and I disagree with your psychiatrist that she's too young to be talking about sadness. But what's important to keep in mind is that "sadness" for your child is not the same as "sadness" for you. There's a different set of experiences and causes underpinning her emotions, and her experience of her own emotional reactions is different to yours.
posted by EvaDestruction at 2:10 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your daughter is noticeably sensitive/empathetic to begin with, she might just be one of those kids who react strongly to music or experiences music as an amplifier of whatever she's already feeling.

My parents report that I was a music crier from a very young age, and there didn't seem to be any pattern to the songs that would trigger it. I only recall sobbing inconsolably every time I heard "Your Wildest Dreams" by The Moody Blues, but it wasn't necessarily because I didn't want to hear it—I just couldn't keep my shit together and didn't have the vocabulary to express that something about the music moved me and made me feel nostalgic, even at whatever ridiculous age that was.

I don't think this did any lasting damage to me, but I still cry at songs all the time.
posted by ausdemfenster at 2:10 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This all sounds like terrific advice, and I'd just add: it stresses out even me to hear you feel like you have to justify things like not knowing what's going on in daycare every minute or occasionally squabbling in front of her with her father. It feels like part of what you're dealing with here is SUPER high expectations of yourself when it comes to parenting. What wafted off your post, to me, was not a sense that your daughter is troubled, but a sense that you're really, REALLY hard on yourself. Giving yourself a break might help with those stress levels that you're concerned she's picking up on.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 2:14 PM on January 15, 2013 [13 favorites]

Wait, but the second time, the music was how the OP calmed her daughter, not what triggered the crying.
/just clarifying
posted by salvia at 2:18 PM on January 15, 2013

This happened to me! Starting at about the same age there basically wasn't a song in the world I could sing without my otherwise cheerful and well-adjusted toddler weeping almost uncontrollably. To this day hearing me sing anything but the happiest of songs makes her emotional. For some reason, she doesn't feel this way about her dad singing. Also, my dad was a singer and I can't remember a time when hearing him sing didn't make me cry.

It's a mystery to me, but I've never worried about it. I just always encouraged my daughter to tell me when something I was doing was making her sad (even inadvertently!). I didn't sing at all in front of her for a few years and now I only sing the happiest songs I can think of, especially ones SHE likes to sing. And she knows I will stop singing any song that makes her sad.
posted by stinker at 2:20 PM on January 15, 2013

Kids often have much more complex emotions than they can articulate. Just because they can't tell you what the feeling is, doesn't mean they're not having it. I remember having distinct feelings of resentment towards a preschool teacher who was condescending to me when I was four years old, but it took years for me to learn those words. Finally when I learned what "resentment" was, I could say — THAT'S what I was feeling in preschool, aha!

But at the time? I was just grumpy and didn't like the teacher. Your daughter may have a real and complex emotion that she simply can't articulate. Crying is a perfectly fine way to get it out.
posted by amoeba at 2:23 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

My mom always makes fun of me for how I used to sob and sob and sob whenever she would sing "You Are My Sunshine" to me (roughly between ages 1.5 and 3). She makes fun of me particularly because of how uncharacteristic it was for me then, and especially for how my personality grew as I got older. I have no recollections of this, and agree that it seems really bizarre for my temperament, but whatever. Cats dogs kids are weird.

I'd file this under reasonably normal.
posted by phunniemee at 2:35 PM on January 15, 2013

"You are my sunshine" still makes me weep, and I'm twenty nine. It's an incredibly sad song.

I was so shocked that I reacted badly by starting to cry myself, but my husband came in and we comforted and settled her.

I don't think this is necessarily a bad reaction. It sounds like you have a lot of shame around crying (what with the whole teaching yourself to cry silently as a kid--how awful that must have been!). I think it's important that you teach your daughter that it's okay to cry, and part of that is being emotionally open, yourself. Honestly, I'm kind of touched by your description of the moment. Both you and your daughter were incredibly stressed but were able to find comfort in one another.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:38 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yup. Music. It hits all ages, when one's disposition is right for the moment. Heck, as a professional musician I sometimes wished more people were that sensitive to what I'm doing.

It's okay.
posted by Namlit at 2:53 PM on January 15, 2013

Even kids have deep, strong feelings that overwhelm them without necessarily being a request for help, the way screeching when you get a booboo is a request for help. I think the best thing that you can do is affirm her need to do this and be there with her.
posted by windykites at 3:42 PM on January 15, 2013

Out daughter does this. For her it seems to be related to being very tired in combination with feeling safe, as someone up thread said. I'm not sure it's sad as much as exhaustion.

I don't think you should not talk to your daughter about being sad, but I do think that suggesting things that she might be sad about may not be helpful. Like you said, she is inclined to agree with you, being that she's at that age, and asking her may suggest to her that she should be sad, or that you are sad, maybe?

I'm constantly amazed by the complexity of kids.
posted by dpx.mfx at 4:20 PM on January 15, 2013

Best answer: This entire thread is making me cry as I type this.. I say this as a grown man who admittedly cries on a semi-frequent basis (and yes, most often musically-triggered). Sometimes it just feels good to let it all out.. whatever "it" is, to have a good cry, to not have to process or articulate thoughts or have to explain exactly why it is you're crying.. something about feeling safe enough at that exact moment to just express through the show of emotion in crying.

Kitcat, your daughter seems like a wonderful, sweet, sensitive kid. I'm not a parent or anything, but I have a feeling that several years from now, you might look back fondly on these times your little girl expressing raw emotion to you like this. And you are charged with the important task of comforting her and making sure she knows she is safe and sound in your arms. I think I would cherish memories like that as a parent.
posted by wats at 4:35 PM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Are you sure she was sobbing? I do this weird thing when I'm tired where I take deep breaths (maybe sounds like sighing?) and then yawn and my eyes water profusely and my nose turns read and it REALLY looks like I'm crying (my son does the same thing). It's hard to explain to people that no, I just yawned and now it looks like I'm distraught. Maybe she was also sad, but perhaps it's a physiological more than emotional event? Just thought I'd throw it out there...
posted by madred at 4:39 PM on January 15, 2013

What is it about that song. When I had my first daughter, I wanted to sing it to her, but I knew it'd make ME cry. I changed the lyrics and this is what we sing now:

You are my sunshine my only sunshine you make me happy when skies are grey
You'll never know dear how much I love you til you have your own baby someday

The meter is off but it works much better for us this way.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:11 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had to stop singing "Dream A Little Dream" to my son at about that age because it made him cry. Around the same time, his sister (7 years older) gave him something - a trinket box or figurine or something? - with Winnie The Pooh on it and the caption, "Promise you won't forget about me, ever. Not even when I'm a hundred." And even though he couldn't read, when she read it to him, he burst into tears. There are complex little souls stuffed into those little bodies.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:40 PM on January 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

I'm so glad to hear so many other kids do this. Once my daughter received an birthday e-card with some mermaids and some computerized music that was supposed to be happy. She burst into tears! She was old enough to tell me the music was sad, and still continues to tell me when the music is getting to her. I also remember a time when we played the Beatles "In My Life"--sobbing! She told me I was never allowed to listen to that song again. Sometimes it's the lyrics (and I admit, I am often oblivious to lyrics) and sometimes it's the melody. I agree that "You are My Sunshine" is an incredibly heavy song--would make me cry now if someone sang it to me.
posted by biscuits at 6:05 PM on January 15, 2013

Response by poster: I truly had no idea that this was so common, even so especially common with "You Are My Sunshine." The way I see it now is that her response is really nothing more nor less than perfectly appropriate human sorrow coaxed into expression by tender and beautiful music. Your responses have all been so kind and thoughtful; I have been more than a little 'verklempt' reading all this. Thank you so much. You have made me feel like a good mom. I won't stop singing the 'sad' songs so long as they seem to help her and not frighten or overwhelm. I think I'll head over to the "what's really great about having kids?" thread above and direct them over here :)
posted by kitcat at 7:52 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I cried because of music as a kid and still do. If anything, kids aren't as jaded or composed as adults so anything earnest can make them cry pretty easily and deeply. I'd be more concerned if she felt she couldn't do that around you, because honestly, isn't that why most of us stop ourselves when we stop ourselves? Along the way we learn it makes others uncomfortable, or makes others judge us. Kids don't know about any of that yet, and don't have good emotional control yet anyway, and are more in their own heads than others' heads.

I think you should be glad your daughter feels free to express herself. :) And I think your therapist is right that you are reading a bit much into it because of your own stuff. I have noticed that people who suffer from depression can be really anxious their kid will too, and so very early on the kid is subjected to questions about being sad. Kids are very suggestible, so be careful your daughter isn't getting the idea being sad all the time is what she's supposed to do, because then she'll focus on it and do it. It's difficult to let a kid know it's okay to be sad while simultaneously not wanting to encourage sadness that wouldn't have been, so I would suggest just not "prompting" her for sadness. Let it be obvious she's sad before you ask simply because she sort of looks sad (or maybe tired? or bored?) and you're worried. You can ask, "How do you feel?" instead of suggesting an emotion. Kids do try to take on their parents' emotions and identities, and as much as I'm familiar with depression and heredity, it made me feel somewhat concerned when one very young child with a depressed father would talk about how sad he was. He could barely talk yet, and of course the father would comfort the kid and give him lots of attention when he said things like that, but it seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy because I really got the impression that the kid thought this was what he was supposed to do to fulfill his father's expectations. :/ So it's hard to know whether the kid would have felt sad if he hadn't been forewarned so much that he would sometimes feel sad without reason and it all seemed so important to his dad. A kid doesn't realize that something isn't wrong with him if this thing his father said would be happening to him isn't, you know? Genetics is only part of depression, and the other part is entrenching harmful patterns of thinking. I know that I was depressed from a young age at least in part because my parents modeled the behavior that it's normal to wallow in sadness and just be all about how sad one is, and I associated that feeling with belonging, no matter how painful. In effect, I learned that love and sadness and pain are all tangled together, and if the bad parts weren't there love seemed lacking.

So I understand why you would be nervous about your daughter's emotional state, and I know this sucks to hear if you're suffering from anxiety, but if you dwell on prompting her for sadness or monitoring her for sadness or basically treating sadness as anything particularly special, she will give you sadness and start learning to be sad from an early age. Try to take a step back and don't suggest sadness so much. Also, she might have already gotten to think that you're looking for the answer "sad" when you ask how she feels, so try not to fuss overly much over her when she says this, and be sure you're just as attentive when she's happy or anything else that doesn't worry you. :)
posted by Nattie at 9:23 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I am very glad to say that since the first incident, one day out of nowhere and repeatedly since then I have asked her, "Are you _______?" I can't remember if it was 'ok', 'tired', 'sad' or 'mad'; it was one of those. She brightly proclaimed "No, I happy!" It was (and remains) the best thing ever, and taught me quite the lesson.
posted by kitcat at 9:52 PM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Sounds like maybe you should read this Jamie Lee Curtis kids book, um, to yourself:

Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods That Make My Day
posted by Dansaman at 11:35 PM on January 15, 2013

I agree, this sounds normal and healthy. Everyone has emotions, and it sounds like she is dealing with them in an appropriate way. At 2 and a half, she is doing better than most adults in that respect! I would continue doing what you are doing.

(My sister is like this, and always has been. Has the ability to sob at the drop of a hat. Yet, she is one of the most emotionally mature people I know. Because the crying isn't about frustration or manipulation or tantrum-y, it is about comfort and sharing. She works through it and moves on.)

So yeah, I would only be worried if as she gets older, it starts to turn manipulative and/or she lets her tired/sad/crankiness affect how she behaves. Appropriate expressions of emotion = good, inappropriate expressions = not good. Should this behavior start, remind her that she is free to feel sad and shitty, and she is not irrational or "bad" for feeling that way, but she can't use her bad feelings as an excuse to act out. This subtle message is one that parents have struggled with since time immemorial. It is very easy to accidentally make the kid feel bad for feeling bad, which sets off a long string of emotional distance. (Hi mom and dad!)
posted by gjc at 4:39 AM on January 16, 2013

Somewhat related: previously
posted by marylucycraft at 5:45 AM on January 16, 2013

Since alternate lyrics to "You are my Sunshine" have already been posted: I'm pretty sure my daughter did not understand the full sentimental power of the song before she started singing "You are my Sunglasses, my only sunglasses... " to her beloved sunglasses.

By changing just one word, "You are my Sunshine" can be completely subverted from a song about sorrow and fear of losing a loved one into a much less poetic but HILARIOUS song about random assorted stuff that you like and don't want Mom to take away:

You are my Melon, my only melon...
You are my Marshmallow...
You are my Sippy Cup...
You are my Truck...
You are my Blankie...
You are my Pooh Bear...
You are my Dinosaur...
ETC. Enjoy.
posted by steinwald at 10:05 AM on January 16, 2013

I'm not a parent, but I'm a mildly anxious adult woman with a moderately anxious mother and a (late) severely anxious grandmother. I would encourage you to do whatever it takes with your therapist to moderate your anxiety and not project it onto your daughter, because research suggests that anxiety has a learned component. You're clearly a good mom who wants her daughter to be emotionally healthy as she grows. You're on the right track because she trusts you enough to be emotionally free and relaxed around you. But taking care of your own anxiety is an important thing you can do for her, right now, while she's young enough not to pick it up from you. I'm not sure if you've tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but my work with counselors with CBT took me from suicidal levels of anxiety/depression/burnout to being a pretty healthy person.
posted by lemoncakeisalie at 6:13 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

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