Thoughtful Parenting: ‘Don’t cry about spilt milk’
The expression “don’t cry over spilt milk” is meant to tell someone to not overreact to a seemingly trivial situation. The problem with this expression is that it makes fun of a person for his or her reaction to an event. It’s possible that the event provoked a strong reaction within the individual for reasons that aren’t apparent to the person who offered the advice. What is spilt milk to you may not be spilt milk to me.
Children react to circumstances differently than adults. Children’s brains are different from adult brains and, therefore, process experiences in a different manner than adult brains. Though that might seem obvious to many, not everyone takes into account developmental differences when they respond to children.
Beneath the tears of many children’s reactions is fear, the fear of emotional (and possibly physical) abandonment. Children gain their sense of safety in their early months and years, when they learn they can rely on their parents to be consistently present in their lives and keep them safe. This is the bond of trust. When a child behaves in a manner that’s unacceptable to his or her parents, the parents’ reaction to the behavior can help the child think either that the bond has been broken, or that it has not. Believing that they caused disapproval or rejection from their parents leads children to fear abandonment by their parents.
Of course, children (and parents) aren’t aware of the core of their reaction, but they do need reassurance that their behavior has not ruptured their bond with their parents.
A sudden movement startles a crawling child. Parents pick up the child and reassure her. A toddler fears lightning and thunder. Parents try to help the child believe he is safe, but also let him know the sound and light are startling. A preschooler flees to his mother when he sees a spider. His mother knows spiders are scary (an instinctual reaction), and it’s OK to be afraid and move away from the creature. Mother (or father) lets the child know that being afraid of spiders is acceptable and normal.
School-aged children worry about not doing things well or to an adult’s satisfaction. Parents do their best to tell the child that it’s his or her effort that counts, and it’s OK to feel frustrated and not to get it right the first time. Adults know that we learn from our mistakes. School-aged children don’t have the ability to accept that fact. They believe they are their mistakes and that their parents, or other important adults in their lives, will see them as failures and not love them.
A huge task for school-aged children is to be able to differentiate between who they are and what they do. Many adults struggle with that concept.
‘Crying over spilt milk,’ may seem silly to adults, but to a child who fears punishment, and possibly abandonment, spilling milk is far from silly. Children’s tears and fears let us know that they are in distress and need comforting, reassurance, support in settling down and then, perhaps, help in problem-solving.
Chris Young, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice specializing in children and families. For more information, visit her website at mdyphd.com. She can be reached at 970-291-9259.
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