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What to do with a Crying Teen

Did you just giggle a little when you read this title? Maybe even snort? That’s okay.

For some people, crying teens are nothing to fear. They’ve got the tissues ready and know what to do. For others however (and research shows that these ‘others’ are most likely male), crying teens scare the living daylights out of them. They don’t have a clue what to do when a student starts bawling.

First of all, crying is not a bad thing. On the contrary, research shows that crying not only brings physical relief to most people (it’s a stress reliever because your breathing becomes more even), but also emotional release. Many people report feeling better after a good cry. So crying is not something to discourage, or to try and stop. It’s a healthy catharsis of emotions that someone needs to express.

Treating crying as a positive occurrence is a good first step in learning how to cope with tears then. The second is to know what to do when it happens. That all depends on how, where, and why the crying takes place.

If someone merely wells up, the best approach is usually to ignore it or to address it subtly. This is even more the case if it happens in a public place or amongst other people. A casual handing of a tissue, a quick pat on the shoulder, or an affirming warm smile usually do the job here.

If the crying progresses to tears, or even sobbing, more action is needed. If you’re in a group, see if you can lead the student to a more private place where someone can comfort him or her. Tissues are usually much appreciated in this stage.

Now comes the much-dreaded task of comforting. What do you do with a teen who’s really crying? My advice: validate, listen, and touch appropriately.

Validate

When the teen is still highly emotional, validate his or her emotions by saying something along the lines of “It’s okay”. That’s usually enough to make them feel accepted in their emotions. Whatever you do, affirm their worth and dignity, because crying is a mighty scary, vulnerable thing.

crying teen

Listen

Listening means waiting for the teen to start talking. Sometimes, the crying opens the door for teens to share what’s bothering them. Other times, it doesn’t. Guys especially can be embarrassed by the fact that they’re crying and they may want to get back to normal as soon as possible. Either choice is perfectly fine.

When they start to talk, just listen. Don’t immediately jump on the advice train—wait to see if they actually want your advice, or if they merely need to vent. And when they do ask for advice, be gentle. People are vulnerable in an emotional state like that, so tread carefully.

Touch

The third aspect is an appropriate touch. This is really a matter of how well your relationship with the teen is, if you’re of the same sex or not, and if others are present.

I’ve had teens who needed a full hug like a parent would give them. I remember one girl who stood in my arms, with her head on my shoulder, and cried for at least twenty minutes. It was the most healing cry I’ve ever experienced, since she released so much pain and thus was open to accept love from me.

Other times, I just hold a students’ hand, or put a hand on the shoulder. It really depends on how well I know them and what I think they need. The key here is that usually they will give signals to how much physical touch they want. Sometimes they’ll initiate the hug or contact, or they’ll break away when they’re done. Respect their boundaries of course.

When they’ve composed themselves again, some teens may feel embarrassed, or stupid. If you sense that’s the case, affirming the validity of crying may be a good step. You could even share a quick personal story where crying helped you work through something, just to level things out.

OK, back to you: what do you do with a crying teen? Any tips you’d like to add?

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