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November 30th, 2009
03:22 PM ET

Tears - Kids have the right idea

By Ashley J. WennersHerron
CNN Medical News Intern

My preschool-age cousin was hospitalized last year for a bad infection. A happy and good-natured kid, she kept her spirits up with visits from family and friends, as well as multiple viewings of “The Little Mermaid.” After nearly a month, she was well enough to go home, as soon as she had her chest port surgically removed.

The surgery was brief, but required her to have general anesthesia. After waking up, she felt sick from the medicine, she felt pain from where her port had been, she felt frustrated by not being allowed to run around and play like normal — it’s a lot for anyone, and it’s even more overwhelming when you lack the ability to articulate all of those emotions. The feelings build up and, often, crying is the result.

Tears show emotion, but we didn’t always have such a clear indicator. According to a study released this spring by the University of Maryland, humans developed to shed tears to efficiently communicate distress, whether it’s grief, fear or frustration. It’s suspected that before we developed the vocabulary to express our emotions, our tear ducts advanced our ability to effectively communicate.

In the study, participants were shown sets of photographs. They were asked to identify the emotions in each pair. The pictures were identical, except tears were digitally removed in one photo per set. The individuals viewing the photographs ranked those with tears as sad and those without tears as less sad, puzzled or confused, even though the facial expressions were the same in every other way. The tears portrayed sadness for those viewing them, but in the photos without the tears, the same message wasn’t as clear.

Children, without the vocabulary to explain a simple emotion or even a need such as hunger, cry. The tears demonstrate that they need attention for something. When we grow up, we can describe what we want or need, but emotion builds up for even the most-level headed person. No, we don’t necessarily cry because we are hungry or tired, but something sad or upsetting can cause the tears to spill.

We use tears to show others a need for understanding and compassion. It’s a cry for help, literally. It’s instinctual, even as infants, we know crying will bring what we need, even if it’s simply attention.

Why do you cry? How do you react when you see others crying?

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.