How Much Crying Is Normal for a 5 Year Old?

Updated on November 16, 2018
E.M. asks from Brooklyn, NY
15 answers

I’d love some insight because my niece “Emily” seems to go straight to tears a LOT over just about any minor disappointment, and I’m not sure if that’s normal for a 5 year old or if I have unrealistic ideas about how well 5 year olds should be able to manage their emotions. She goes from zero to shrieking and sobbing about every 15 or 20 minutes. Not quite temper-tantrum level - she is usually (but not always) able to calm down and go about her business within 3-5 minutes. It’s just constant and it gets on my nerves.

For example, yesterday there was no school so I took Emily and her 11 year old sister, “Jill” to the park and the zoo. We start at the playground where she wanted to go on the swings, which were all in use at the moment. She shrieks “but I wanna swiiiiiiiing, I’ll NEVER get to swing!” and cried for a few minutes. One opened up. Jill ran to go grab it for her sister, which Emily mistook as Jill taking the swing for herself – fresh sobs until she realized Jill was giving the swing to her. Then she’s happy. Jill pushes her on the swing until another one opens up and she goes to swing. Emily asks me to push her, so I do a few times and then encourage her to try pumping her legs to swing herself. She tries once and then wails that she can’t, begins sobbing again. Jill asks if she wants to go on the slide, she does, is happy again, and goes off to slide. I eventually announce that it’s time to leave the playground so we can go to the zoo. More sobbing that she hasn’t been to ALL the parts of the playground. Once we’re walking across the park she’s happy again. Wants to ride in my son’s stroller since I’m holding him – sure. You’ll just need to get out once he needs it for a nap. 5 minutes later I need to ask her to get out so the baby can nap, more sobbing, wailing that she can’t walk. Jill distracts her by finding her a cool stick, and they carry them til we get to the zoo, where I say we’ll need to leave the sticks at the entrance. I see her start to get upset and I try to get in front of the tears by saying “wow Emily, this was such a cool stick. Lets tell the stick thank you for all the fun we had together, and then lets find a safe spot for it to live so he can be a happy stick”. No use. More crying. I am feeling super impatient by now and want to tell her to just Cut It Out, but I’m not her mom and I’m not sure if it’s reasonable to expect her to not cry over every little thing, and I don’t want her to get the message that having emotions is not okay. So I try a different tactic and kneel down by her, and say “Emily, I know you are very sad about leaving your stick. It’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to cry, but we’re not going to walk around the zoo while you’re crying. So we’ll just hang out right here until you feel like you’re done crying. Okay?” Mistake. I don’t know if that was indulging a bid for attention or if she now could not handle the additional disappointment of waiting to walk around the zoo or what, but the sobbing amped up several degrees and we were there for about 15 minutes before she was able to calm down.

She’s not a spoiled child; her parents do not indulge her every whim or cow to her crying. My sister-in-law is awesome and I generally admire her parenting. When Emily does this (which she does just as much with her parents as with me, at home, out in public, etc) her mom is super chill and doesn’t scold her but also doesn’t give her extra attention or try to fix it; she more or less responds to her as though she wasn’t crying. I don’t know if this is the best approach (though considering the extra drama when I went the route of saying we were going to wait until she was done crying, I suppose it’s better than that).

So, is this normal? Is it a phase? Is there a better way to handle it or teach her to respond to disappointment differently? I want to try to be consistent with the way her parents handle it, but it drives me a little nuts. I don’t know if she’s been like this her whole life as we’ve only lived close to them for the last 2 years, but she’s been this way for at least those 2 years. Any suggestions?

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So What Happened?

Thanks all. This helps put things into some perspective. I do think the suggestions about food are good ones and I will be more proactive about planning snacks in the future. We did head straight to the cafe once we were in the zoo after the crying had subsided, and it helped.

I also appreciate the concern about Jill's role in this, and that she shouldn't have to be responsible for her sister's happiness. I agree, and I do try to do stuff with just her from time to time. Considering she lives with this though, I'm sure there's still quite a bit of imbalance. I do think she's old enough and mature enough at this point to be able to have some conversation about it, so I'm going to try to talk with her next time with have a Jill & Auntie day. Just to make sure she can gain some healthy perspective on what is or isn't expected of her as the big sister (or as a friend, or down the road as a girlfriend, etc), let her talk about her feelings, etc. (This wouldn't be me going around her parents or trying to parent her myself - I'm very on board with them - just being there for her as a trusted adult she likes and can talk to who isn't her mom or dad.)

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M.G.

answers from Portland on

At five, I wouldn't have expected my kids to be able to handle a playground AND a zoo. That would have been a bit much for mine - unless they'd had a snack and had been well rested kind of thing. I hit parks/playgrounds early before they were packed. I would have let mine keep the stick if it meant they would lose it.

Mine were not sobbers - no, but I tended to avoid situations where they would have meltdowns at all costs. We also left if they had meltdowns.

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M.D.

answers from Pittsburgh on

Some kids wear their hearts on their sleeves, and it takes them until they are a little older to figure out how to handle their big emotions. Emily's mom is handling it just right. Do the same, and try to have patience. As much as you want to say "cut it out", no person ever stopped crying after being scolded for crying. It just makes it worse because now they are upset about the original thing AND upset that they've been scolded.

ETA: It doesn't sound like a temper tantrum to me, which I define as a child crying on purpose to manipulate others to get his/her way. I handed temper tantrums differently. This sounds like a kid who is still learning to handle disappointment. She'll get better at it over time.

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T.F.

answers from Dallas on

I don't know what is considered "normal" or not. It sounds like her parents are addressing the issue. It is very kind of you to take notice of the behavior and try to deal with it in a way similar to how her parents do it. It sounds like her older sister is aware of the issue and tries to help.

I am in the classroom a lot as a teacher and I deal with 5-6 yr olds. Kinder is not my favorite age group. Many of them are very emotional and still very immature. Lately , I have been coaching PE and it can sometimes be a nightmare with the tears.

Some children will break down and sob if you just look at them crooked, others when they don't get a turn the way they think in a game, get "out" of a game, didn't get the blue ball vs orange ball, etc.

We do not have time do deal with each meltdown and honestly, we know which kids do this routinely (habit for attention) vs ones who don't. When it happens and it interrupts class time, it is addressed immediately and the student is removed from the class area until they get control of themselves. By removing I mean sitting outside the room by the lockers, sitting in a special area of the room, etc.

Of course, you have to evaluate and see if a child is upset for good reason or just for attention. Many in that age group thrive on the sobbing to get extra attention. Once we figure out who does that, we deal with it accordingly with the sitting out and other measures so the student does not get special attention for a bucket of tears. Usually they start realizing that the tears only gets them isolated from the others as in not participating in an activity, etc and it starts clearing up pretty fast.

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M.6.

answers from New York on

Yep, been there, done that. The way that the mom is handling it is exactly the correct way - don't give in, don't coddle, just go about your business as though the crying isn't happening. While Emily may always be an "emotional" child/adult, the attitude of not cowing to it will at least create a situation where Emily doesn't start using it as a crutch, or worse, as emotional blackmail to get her way.

I actually think the real concern here is Jill's behaviors. She obviously as the older child feels a responsibility for Emily's happiness. It is possible that she is just a super empathic child, but also, living with a high-strung, emotional child day after day, does take it's toll on a person pretty quickly (look at how frustrated you were just after the playground incident, let alone living with it 24/7).

I would encourage Jill and Emily's mom to actually look at Jill's behaviors during Emily's meltdowns before I would even remotely worry about the actual meltdowns. Jill's behaviors could lead to a lifelong need to be a co-dependent/fixer, rather than a emotionally strong and well-balanced woman.

Good luck!

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E.B.

answers from Honolulu on

I agree that Emily's parents are doing the right thing by ignoring the crying. When a child is crying for reasons other than manipulation/revenge/attention, it's really difficult to get the child to try to rationalize the crying, or talk it out, or listen to reason regardless of how helpful it may be.

I would continue to try to spend time with your nieces but I'd limit the amount of activity that Emily is expected to participate in. Shorter walks, smaller venues, only one attraction at a time. Just going for ice cream, or feeding ducks at the pond - smaller, simpler things.

As far as Jill goes, I feel badly for her. Jill is spending her childhood trying to placate Emily or trying to avoid an Emily sobbing scenario. Does Jill get to be a kid? Can you do things with just Jill, like movies, a manicure, something an 11 year old would like that a 5 year old might not? Jill needs attention, she needs time to be a child with no responsibilities for her emotional sister.

I would also consider whether Emily is eating enough protein, healthy fats, etc. My dd used to have hypoglycemic episodes, and they involved more emotional/mental symptoms than physical. She would cry, rage, be unable to handle anything. I carried cheese sticks, and portable peanut butter snack things (little things you can put in a school lunch with pretzels and a side dipper of peanut butter), and other little protein/fat snacks that were easy to carry. Not sugary candy, not green and purple glittery yogurt stuff, just basic cheese, peanut butter, fruit, etc. It really helped. Emily sounds excitable and emotional and she may get anxious or excited or too frantic before an adventure to eat enough.

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S.T.

answers from Washington DC on

yes, that sounds excessive. if she's not super indulged she may have an emotional issue that requires some professional help.

none of which is your affair. yes, you stay consistent with the way her parents handle it. they sound sensible.

if it drives you nuts, spend less time with her.

this is not yours to fix.
khairete
S.

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D.B.

answers from Boston on

Some kids don't transition well from Activity A to Activity B, or from Topic of Discussion C to Topic D. So, warnings & "heads ups" work. "In 10 minutes, we're going to have to ______. So is there a swing or slide you want to have a chance to use before we go? If so, you might want to go soon. Then after 5 minutes, give a second warning.

However, I agree that the oldest sister should not be making everything easy for the younger one. Jill needs to get to play too, not always be on call to grab a swing or distract a 5 year old. It's really okay for kids to experience some disappointment and learn that they can survive. I think following your sister's lead is a better idea. There's nothing wrong with what you did - it just didn't work with this kid. If Emily is making all the other kids miserable or causing a disturbance, then I suppose you have to leave and remove her from the premises. I also think it has to get to the point where Emily understands it's now her choice to go home since she cannot control herself. I realize you can't leave her in the park while you go to the zoo, but you can let her wail on a park bench while you push your little one or the older child on a swing. So, "We're going to sit her until you stop crying" may, in this child's world, give her carte blanche to keep crying because it gives her control over her environment. Most kids would get bored and realize that they'll have more fun if they pull themselves together, but that's not working with Emily.

Consistency is going to be your friend here while this child works her way through life's frustrations. Doing things as much like your sister does will probably be easier, unless it conflicts with how you're raising your child. In that case, you kind of give her the "My house/my rules" talk.

Also, kids sometimes can't do 2 activities at this age. If you have a little one in a stroller and the older niece, both are probably easier to pick up and move from Point A and Point B than the 5 year old.

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G.♣.

answers from Springfield on

She's not completely out of the ordinary. There are plenty of 5 year olds who do not get as emotional, but there are also plenty who do. Some of it is personality. Likely she will always be a "feeling" person. Some of it is maturity. Just like babies, kids learn things in their own time. She may be on the later end of learning this one, but she's not crazy late.

If i were her parent, I would be working on some strategies to help her better deal with her emotions. It's a life skill, and it's not going to happen over night. But that's really easy for me to say. My son is on the Autism Spectrum. We dealt with much worse than this when he was 5 (and 6). He's 9 now, and he has really improved. So in some ways I've been there and lived to tell the tale. I'm not saying she's on the Autism Spectrum. I'm just saying, this is something that really can be improved.

It's also possible that the park and the zoo were too much or that I snack would have really helped. You can always ask her parents if you tried to do too much or how often she needs to eat (one of mine needed to eat every 2 hours at that age! Seriously!)

Your job is to just be the best aunt you can and try not to worry about it. Go with what works, because it's not your responsibility to teach her every skill. It was your job to have a fun day with her and keep her happy and safe.

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B.C.

answers from Norfolk on

Some kids have a harder time handling their emotions than others.
Still it seems like she has full blown temper tantrums at the drop of a hat - and that's not normal for a 5 yr old.
She's not 3 anymore.
Since her parents don't give in to her when she does this - I don't think she's learned to get her way by doing it - so that makes me think she can't help it.
There might be some books to help with dealing for a high strung child.

The stuff you are describing would concern me enough that if I were her parent I would talk to the pediatrician (show the doctor some recordings of these meltdowns) and see about getting her evaluated for behavioral issues.
The sooner she gets some help the better.
Tantrums like this at school is not going to help her make friends.

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Z.B.

answers from Toledo on

I think it's very sweet that you want to help her, but that's really her parents' job. You can absolutely be a positive influence, but I wouldn't worry too much about trying to "teach" her. You get to be in the position of being a fun person in her life, not a disciplinarian. Do your best to be fair to her and to her sister and to you and your son, and try not to worry too much.

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M.P.

answers from Portland on

I suggest she's quick to cry because she's responding to a lack of attention when attention is reasonable to expect. Perhaps she is feeling unloved in general.feeling unloved. She may be crying because there's a load of unmet emotional needs. Her tears may not be just for the current situation. It may help to give her more attention when she's not crying. Paying attention to what she does other times. Praising her when she's doing ok. Give five positive comments for every negative comment.

You said her mom doesn't give in to her daughter. Could she be too cold, unintentionally separating herself from her daughter which causes her to feel unloved. I would expect a mother dealing with this all day to shut her daughter out when she cried. One can validate feelings without caving in. "I hear you, know you're upset. Please go to your room until you're able to stop crying." Said in a loving like tone of voice.

Ignoring her is not working. Time to try something else. For my granddaughter who is 5 it helped when her mother did something with only her and started praising her more. Last week they went to a movie. Her mother does one thing with her every other week. On the weeks in between Mom does something with her sister.

This has not totally stopped the tears but they've helped.

I recommend a book by Adele Farber and another women. Both are professionals working with children. The title is similar to How to Talk so Kids will listen and How to Listen so Kids will Talk. How we talk makes a difference for our children. Same with adults. We withdraw or become angry when we hear something is wrong with us. I worked best with supervisors who spent friendly time with me and not just when I needed a talking to.

Added: often an older child protects the younger child when she believes the younger child is mistreated or not getting the support the needs. The older child may feel responsible because parents have placed her in that role. Or she may be trying to protect both of them from their parent's anger. You don't know the parent's reaction when you're not around.

This is the parent's responsibility. All you can do is how to treat them when they're with you.

I'm often with my grandchildren. Both their mother and I ask if you need a hug. Hugs are common in their family. A sympathetic hug fixes many things.

For Jill it's important to accept that what her parents expect of her may not be the same you expect of her. Listen. Be careful to not say or intimate that her parent's expectations are wrong. Ask questions before giving any advice. It's important to support the parents while empathizing with their children.

One thing that sometimes helps with my grandkids is to redirect their attention. For example, when out and about to say hold my hand, let's run to the corner or help me find the carrots or a pretty leaf.
Do you see whatever they might be interested in. We can't do that now. We can do this and give choices when possible.

I try to stop an activity before the kids are tired, before they start whining or not getting along. When they don't want to go to the zoo and are having difficulty staying where you are, I say, ok, it's time to go home. Sometimes the kids then choose to go to the zoo instead of going home. Giving choices is more helpful than issuing "demands."

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R.K.

answers from Appleton on

Some where this child learned the quickest way to get her way is to cry. The best way to put a stop to it is to walk away. The swings were all full "I'm sorry Honey, we can't swing today. Let's go to the zoo." And start to walk toward the zoo. Keep her in sight but stay a few yards away from her and let her come to you. If she takes to long to join you then you tell her well we will have to cut our zoo visit today because you wouldn't come over to us.
Consequences will teach her to stop crying at every little thing.

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N.C.

answers from San Diego on

I have dealt with a cry baby child like this before a 6 year old of an ex.

What I did was set rules to deal with meltdowns.

If we went to the beach I would dig him a hole to sit in one for crying.. If he wanted to cried he could do so in his hole away from everyone.

If he had a break down at home I told him he could cry in the garage all he wanted but not in my house.

One time he started crying in my car. I stopped the car I told him and his dad to get out and walk because I don’t allow crying in my car. It’s rude, disrespectful and unsafe as I could not concentrate on driving.

At a theme park he started crying in line for a ride. So I removed him from the line telling him little babies are not allowed to ride.

At a restaurant or any public area if he started crying, I would immediately remove him from the location. He could cry outside all he wanted but not disrespect the other diners.

Hold this kid responsible for her actions.

Treat her like the little brat she is...her parents are not and feeding into this behavior.

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T.P.

answers from Indianapolis on

It's normal in that her parents probably give in and lets her have her way. She knows crying gets what she wants and she uses it. My daughter would try this but nipped that in the bud quickly. I'm from the old school if you cry you better have something to cry about.

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J.G.

answers from Chicago on

yes, it's normal for this age.

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