From the U.S.: My three year old stepson will burst into tears at random moments. He says he can’t help it, and when we ask him what’s wrong he says nothing. When we ask if he is happy or sad or mad or scared, he usually answers that he is happy. He will cry during a meal, playtime, family time, or when watching cartoons. At first we thought it might be attention seeking, but we don’t give him attention when he does it. We just send him to his room and tell him to come out when he calms down. This has been ineffective, and I don’t know what to do. He turns four next month and has trouble communicating still. This could be due to ear infections and tubes, but the crying isn’t. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this or what could be wrong?

A: There are two issues here: First, make sure you stay on top of his medical needs. Hearing problems can put a kid behind in his communication skills. He may need some extra help from a speech and language therapist if he continues to struggle.

Regarding the crying: I think you are doing exactly the right thing. It may be that when his feelings, positive or negative, get too big for him to handle, your stepson cries to let them out. He may be one of those kids whose feelings are a little closer to the surface than other kids. This is common in a sensitive child. He’s only 3. This kind of thing usually resolves on its own if the adults stay calm.

By not making a big deal of it, you are not making it into either an effective attention seeking method or a power struggle. Going off to be by himself for a bit to gather himself is a great skill for him to learn. Stay matter-of-fact about the crying episodes and simply prompt him to take a break — just as you’ve been doing. If he doesn’t figure out how to be better at regulating his emotions over the course of the next year, you might want to have him evaluated by a child therapist to get more advice. It’s a good idea to help a kid learn to manage himself before he gets to kindergarten where the other kids might not be understanding.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Aug 2014

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2014). My 3-Year-Old Stepson Randomly Bursts into Tears. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2014/08/18/my-3-year-old-stepson-randomly-bursts-into-tears/