Sudden Unexplained Crying in Toddlers

By Shellie Braeuner
For centuries, parents have been trying to figure out why toddlers cry.
For centuries, parents have been trying to figure out why toddlers cry.

Toddlers cry. Many parents have even chronicled the odd reasons their toddlers cry on the Internet, posting pictures of little, tearful people with captions like, “I gave him milk in his favorite cup.” The truth is that parents don’t often know exactly why their toddler is crying. Unfortunately, the toddler often doesn’t know either. Dr. Michael Potegal, who studies tantrums at the University of Minnesota, tells parents to relax. For toddlers, crying is as natural as breathing.

Physical Reasons

There are a wide range of physical reasons why your toddler may be crying. Your little guy may be tired or hungry. Look for any part of her body that he may be holding whether it appears injured or not. Toddlers don’t always react in the same way adults do. Dr. William Sears explains that some toddlers may cry and seek reassurance for minor injuries. Toddlers learn how to gauge their own reactions by how parents or other trusted adults react.

Emotional Reasons

Toddler’s emotions are varied and strong. This is because all the different parts of your child’s brain don’t mature at the same time. Potegal tells parents that the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop. It also happens to be the part of the brain that governs emotional responses. So your toddler has virtually no filter between what she feels and what she expresses. She’s also trying to make sense of a world with magical thinking. So the monster that gets bigger on the television screen may actually reach out and grab her. If you pull a quarter from her ear, she isn’t sure what else might be lurking in her head. These are terrifying thoughts and she may react by crying uncontrollably.

Social Reasons

As your toddler learns to interact with other, he faces a whole new set of frustrations. Language development isn’t always even, and he may understand more than he’s able to express. When he gets frustrated or angry, he may use the wrong words only adding fuel to the fire of his emotions. Some children learn early that crying earns time with Mom or Dad. When parents react with anger or sympathy, the child earns positive or negative attention and may cry for more.

What Parents Can Do

First of all, take a deep breath and keep calm. Understand that your child’s outburst isn’t your fault. Potegal suggests that parents keep the child safe, but ignore a tantrum. Left to their own devices, most outbursts are over in three minutes. However, if your child’s crying jags last longer than 10 minutes, talk to your doctor. Something else may be the culprit.

About the Author

Based in Nashville, Shellie Braeuner has been writing articles since 1986 on topics including child rearing, entertainment, politics and home improvement. Her work has appeared in "The Tennessean" and "Borderlines" as well as a book from Simon & Schuster. Braeuner holds a Master of Education in developmental counseling from Vanderbilt University.