Juhl: How to cry like a girl

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A child who can’t hold back tears any longer covers her face with her hands in an attempt to hide her vulnerability from the world. She’s trying to be brave.

A little girl falls and skins her knee. She can hear her mother’s cheerful voice: “Up again!” She won’t show weakness; not today.

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A teenager holds her lips tight and keeps her eyes steady. She looks angry because every cell in her body is screaming they don’t deserve her tears.

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Ask any of these girls if they’re OK and the answer is swift and practised: “I’m fine.” She wants you to see her as strong. But she also wants to have a little cry.

Despite great strides in society’s acceptance of emotions and a decades-long campaign to show it’s normal and good for boys to cry, girls are still leaders in the waterworks department. A recent survey of a tween reveals when girls cry at school, “everyone runs to comfort them” and when a boy cries, “he’s on his own.”

Actual scientific studies confirm women cry more than men, and back up the idea girls are more likely to cry around other girls and boys less likely to cry around other boys. It can be attributed to hormonal and cultural differences, but researchers are cautious to note crying is subjective and there are many factors at play, including a person’s background and personality — and inducing crying in a laboratory environment is suboptimal.

Babies cry with their first breath. If they don’t do it, we’re alarmed, and for good reason. Their crying persists for years as a way to communicate they need something. As their vocabulary and understanding expands, an adult’s response to tears also evolves, from a gentle “Up again!” when they fall, to great, enveloping hugs, to the potentially damaging, “Big boys don’t cry” or the even worse, “Don’t cry like a girl.”

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As we get to know our children, we can often suss out emotion behind the outburst: they are hurt, angry, sad, disappointed, manipulating. Some kids hold in their tears in social situations for fear of being called hysterical or attention-seeking, then come home and either lash out at their safe people or burst into heartbreaking sobbing.

“Have a good cry,” we’ll tell them. “It’ll help.”

Researchers poke at that myth, though. They’ve shown it’s not the crying that makes a person feel better, it’s the support they receive when they break down. A person who cries alone is more likely to report they feel the same or worse afterward, whereas someone who had someone to lean on recovers.

Continue to tell your boys it’s OK to cry, and tell your girls the same thing. We’ll make space for their tears.

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