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?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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soundoff (220 Responses)
  1. Kraig Rasool

    Tears and crying for me is a very touchy subject...I dont adhere to any
    rules on how and when to cry, and how a man should not cry.! Many
    instances have occured that have tears start their stroll down my face,
    sometime without me even noticing them. I do think that that when I
    see a story of triumph of the spirit when all odds are against that
    person is when crying can become uncontrollable for me...It is true that sad things make many people cry, but tears of happiness are also
    in the same arena...Society i think has become a tad numb to those
    who are in the limelight only because we see so much of it..which can
    be a little dangerous because the tears could be meaningful and not
    at all fake....However I think all of us when we see children cry nothing
    can stop streams of water from rolling down our faces.

    December 1, 2009 at 11:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. ACinCincy

    When I was a child, a parent used to routinely belittle and laugh at my sibling and I for crying during touching movie scenes, or during periods of emotional stress. I learned from this that crying = weakness, and opened the door for someone to attack you when you were down. I couldn't even cry in front of my own (very sweet, supportive) spouse for fear of the same thing happening.

    I find it is hardest to cry in front of those closest to me, because for my entire childhood, those are the people who effectively kicked me whenever I was down. For years, I even had a hard time releasing emotion even when in prayer!

    I am now trying to "unlearn" this, which is VERY hard as an adult. After 30+ years of swallowing the lump in my throat, even when beloved family members DIED, it is still hard to let myself be so vulnerable, particularly in front of people I know (strangers, ironically, have no impact). I have learned to cry in front of my spouse only just this year after 17+ years together. I truly envy those who can freely cry with no fear.

    Adults, *please* be aware of the long-term effects and damage that can be done to a child by not permitting them to cry or appropriately express sadness/distress when they feel it.

    December 1, 2009 at 13:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Franky, Land of Lincoln

    I cry because of those reasons you mentioned but when I do, is usually personal and meaningful, not spontaneous or unpreditable.

    Even when someone close to me passed away, I didn't cry for their passing. I don't know, I guess is a defensive mechanism I create when it don't affect me personally and emotionally. I get emotional but I don't use it to portray others. It can be biased and reflecting on how you will be perceive and judge. It can be systematically wrong.

    But that is a good point. Tears is a behavior we have when we are born, arguably the first thing we do when are out of our mothers womb(thowing up), we cry, that's the first thing. But we do know that crying is a tool for children that use to get something or ask for something. Is used as a trait when we are young. As we get older, it can be used as a trait as well but more coherent and logical in defining what we are crying about.

    I think it is true, people associate crying with sadness or melancholic, it can be good or bad. But in realioty, it is an emotion that we have as children and use it to express our behavior and personality. We cry but there's a reason behind that. It makes sense though.

    December 3, 2009 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. vabeachjazz

    ACinCincy, you hit it right on the nail. Great advise for parents! Thanks.

    December 8, 2009 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Martha Lopez

    I love to cry and I will go ahead and cry at every opportunity. Happy tears, sad tears whatever. They help me know I am still human and still have fellow feeling. I always let me children see me cry when they were young and I would explain why I was crying even when sometimes ther was just no reason I could identify at the moment. That, I think, showed them that it is ok to be human and to cry. Tears are cleansing and sometimes even soothing. A really good cry can make me feel like the sky looks after a storm. Thanks for approaching this topic. Our emotional health is connected to our physical health and my true belief is that tears are an indication of spiritual health which is the bedrock of all health. Party on Sanjay.

    December 9, 2009 at 20:34 | Report abuse | Reply
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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.