Responding to crying and whining

Many people feel uncomfortable with these displays of emotion. Learn how to respond in a more effective way.

Why this matters

If you’re uncomfortable dealing with your own tears or sitting with someone else who’s crying, it’s important to figure out why and how you can manage your response more effectively.

Repressing emotions can lead to physical and mental harm. Keeping emotions bottled up can also cause us to behave in ways that seem out of proportion or inappropriate to the current situation. When we treat tears as a fact of life and respond to the underlying issue rather than the behaviour, we can more easily resolve situations and provide support.

Let’s explore some examples.

Explore and reflect

Crying and whining, like all behaviours, are attempts to meet needs. You can read more about that here. When we’re curious about the need someone’s attempting to meet, we react to crying and whining as we would to most other expressions of emotions – we seek to understand the other person’s perspective.

There are many reasons why we might feel uncomfortable when someone’s crying or whining. Explore what you might feel when someone else is crying or whining. Consider if the thoughts you have about crying and whining include:

  • They’re trying to manipulate my emotions so I feel sorry for them, and that annoys me.
  • They must think I’m somehow to blame for whatever they’re upset about, and that makes me defensive.
  • I’m afraid this person is fragile. Whatever I say or do may push them over the edge, so I feel paralyzed.

In these examples, your thoughts become assumptions, which lead to your response. In these cases, your response could include being patronizing, angry or annoyed, defensive or argumentative, or afraid to say or do anything. None of these are likely to be helpful to you or the other person.

What if they cry all the time?

Crying is a fact of life no matter your age. Some of us have learned to suppress our tears most of the time, and some of us cry very easily. This can be due to our emotional state, upbringing, certain medications or health conditions, pain tolerance or distress level.

For those who cry easily, you may want to ask, “What would you like me to do when you cry? How can I respond in the most helpful way?” There are many benefits to asking this question:

  • It acknowledges that it’s difficult for this person to avoid crying
  • You may reduce the stress and pressure that comes from trying not to cry, which will, ironically, reduce the likelihood that they’ll cry
  • You’ll have clear instructions from them – whether they’re to offer tissue, take a break in the conversation, ask what’s wrong or just keep talking through the tears – which will reduce your anxiety and discomfort

What if they whine all the time?

Whining can be a difficult behaviour to respond to or avoid. You may believe you never whine but think back to the last time someone close to you wasn’t listening when you were speaking to them. You likely lowered your voice and spoke in an accusing, pleading or complaining tone. Some people whine as a result of learned behaviour, or because they don’t feel heard, included or understood. As with crying, if you’re curious about the motivation behind their change of tone rather than reacting to the sound, you can respond more effectively.

For dealing with those who whine frequently, you may want to try one of the following approaches:

  • Validate their underlying emotion while identifying their behaviour: “You seem upset by this. I can hear it in your voice.” Pointing out their tone of voice is often enough for someone to stop whining.
  • Take a break: “I want to discuss this with you. Let’s take a 5-minute break and come back ready to talk about how you think we could resolve this.”
  • Ask for a different approach: “Take a few minutes to write down your concerns. I find this makes the conversation less stressful, as we can go over them one at a time. Be as objective and factual as you can.

Feeling annoyed

A colleague asks you for feedback on a report. You give them your opinion, which includes a critique. They begin to cry, and you feel annoyed by this unprofessional behaviour.

Less effective response

You say, “If you didn’t want my opinion, you shouldn’t have asked for it.”

More effective response

You’re curious about why their reaction is so emotional and gently ask, “What are you feeling right now?” You may find out that they’re having self-doubts, that they’re going through difficult life stressors or that their mental or physical health is poor. This is especially true if crying is not a usual response for this person.

Feeling blamed

You tell a friend you can’t make it to their party. They begin to cry and whine that you never come to their parties. You just don’t like parties.

Less effective response

You get defensive. You say they never consider your schedule first. You tell them how hard you work all week – you’re busy and you have lots of responsibilities. The truth is, you’re free at this time, but don’t want to feel blamed for their upset.

More effective response

Your friend obviously wants you at their party. It’s a compliment to you. Being honest with them rather than feeling defensive might do more for your relationship. For example, you might say, “I’m glad you want me at your party. The truth is, while I value your company, I’m not fond of larger gatherings. Let’s set up a time when just you and I can get together.”

Feeling afraid

Your friend is sobbing about a broken relationship, and you fear they’re dealing with depression.

Less effective response

You say that the other person was terrible, even though you don’t believe that to be true. Or you sit awkwardly patting their shoulder and wishing you could run.

More effective response

Take a deep breath and replace your fear with the question, “How can I be helpful for you right now?” By following their lead and wishes, you’re unlikely to say or do the wrong thing. If they’re open to getting help, you can refer them to health resources.

Take action

Learn more about your emotional triggers so you’re better able to choose your responses.

References

  1. Hendriks, M., Croon, M., & Vingerhoets, A. (2008). Social reactions to adult crying: the help-soliciting function of tears, The Journal of Social Psychology, 148(1), 22–42.
  2. Rydé, K. & Hjelm, K. (2016). How to support patients who are crying in palliative home care: An interview study from the nurses’ perspective. Primary Health Care Research & Development, 17(5), 479–488.