The Train Analogy That Will Completely Change How You See Your Crying Child

My 4-year-old was climbing into bed, his face turned away from me and toward the wall, when he asked the question.

“Where’s Glenn?”

His tone made the question sound like an afterthought, but I know better. Glenn is the opposite of an afterthought; he’s the tiger lovey blanket my son has been carting around with him since he was old enough to maintain a tight grasp. 

The Train Analogy That Will Completely Change the Way You See Your Crying Child

My husband offered to head back downstairs to search, and I absently commented that I actually hadn’t seen Glenn around that evening, which was unusual.

At that, my son slowly turned around to face me but without making eye contact, his mind racing. His eyes were fixed on some background point as his mouth twisted and turned with each darting thought. They met mine only as he realized it, his shoulders straightening and his back growing taller as the panic scaled him. 

Finally, the shout: “I left Glenn in the back of Gigi’s car!!!”

Gigi, of course, was one state away by this point, which means we were facing my son’s first night since he was an infant—the first night ever in his little memory—without Glenn curled up in the crook of his arm.

Oh, sure, we’d lost Glenn before, but he’d always been found before bedtime, even if sometimes it required what felt like hours of searching. And then there was the time my son held him out the car window and accidentally let go, so Glenn spent a bit of time playing chicken on the yellow lines of a busy street. 

But still, there had never been a bedtime without Glenn.

The initial shock was, of course, followed by electric currents of anger that coursed through my son’s little body. He punched the air and gritted his teeth and screamed, “I WILL NOT SLEEP WITHOUT GLENN! I WILL NOT GO TO BED UNTIL HE’S HERE! I WILL NOT GO TO BED EVER AGAIN!” More punching, more gritting, a few angry flops onto the floor. 

At this point my husband had returned from his futile search, and was looking at me for direction. How are we handling this one, mama? 

I don’t know if the look I shot back reflected confidence, wisdom, and clarity, but believe it or not, that’s what I felt.

Because right when I needed it most, I remembered the train analogy.

The Life-Changing Train Analogy 

The analogy was nothing new, something I’d learned in my own therapy years before I had kids and something we’ve all heard in the form of an overused cliche. Truthfully, I’d always struggled to apply it to my own rush of emotions, but here, with my poor child flopping around on the floor like a fish out of water, it seemed like the only reasonable response.

The Train Analogy That Will Change the Way You See Your Crying Child

The analogy goes like this:

Difficult feelings are tunnels, and we are trains traveling through them. 

We have to move all the way through the darkness to get to the—you knew this was coming!—calm, peaceful light at the end of the tunnel.

It sounds simple, but it’s way easier said than done.

Where Well-Meaning Parents Go Wrong

The problem is that we well-meaning parents and caregivers often attempt to intercept our children on their journey through an emotional tunnel.

For example, watching my son wrestle with his anger and sadness and fear at not having his lovey, I could easily have said:

It’s only one night. We’ll get him back tomorrow.

We have so many other stuffed animals, just sleep with one of them tonight.

You’ll be fine, I promise.

Those would all have been true statements, not doubt, but they would not have been helpful ones.

So often when our kids are struggling with a difficult feeling—sadness, anger, fear, embarrassment, loneliness, guilt—we try to logic them out of it. We explain why they’re overreacting, or how WE know it will turn out just fine in the end.

We’re trying to help our children, of course, but if we peel back the layers a bit, I think we’ll find that what we’re really doing is trying to make OURSELVES feel better. Because our children’s pain hurts US so deeply, makes US so acutely uncomfortable. 

We’re the ones who want their crying to stop as quickly as possible—not them. 

Back to the analogy: If emotions are tunnels and we are trains going through them, then we NEED to keep moving all the way through to the other side. 

What we adults often do when facing our own emotional struggles is attempt to get out of the tunnel early—banging on the sides, ignoring the cavernous echo, and wondering with confusion why we can’t see daylight yet.

Sometimes we squat in the darkness, close our eyes, and just pretend we’re not in a tunnel at all. Everything is just fine, thank you very much.

Sometimes we do a whole host of other things—eat ice cream, drink wine, shop online, run marathons, binge watch Netflix, play games on our phones or scroll mindlessly through Facebook—to distract ourselves from the fact that we’re in a tunnel in the first place.

But none of those things gets us out of the tunnel, does it? 

Then, when we FINALLY let ourselves scream and wail and bang our fists and crumble onto the floor and have a good cry, we suddenly feel so. much. better. 
Same goes for our kids. We can’t teach them there’s some secret side exit when there’s really not. There is no way out except through, and it’s our job to guide them there. 
That’s why I didn’t say a word to my son. Instead, I just sat next to him as the ripples of anger melted into shaking and sobbing. When I thought it was OK to do so, I started rubbing his back—still without speaking. He kept crying and crying and crying. 
As those tears flowed, I realized I had just done what Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate call “dancing our children to their tears.” In their book Hold On to Your Kids they write:
“…a parent must dance the child to his tears, to letting go, and to the sense of rest that comes in the wake of letting go…[a parent must] come alongside the child’s experience of frustration and provide comfort. The agenda should not be to teach a lesson but to move frustration to sadness…Much more important than our words is the child’s sense that we are with her, not against her.” 
With that in mind, I was actually delighted that my son was shaking with sobs because I knew that meant he was traveling through this emotional tunnel rather than getting stuck in it.
He cried and he cried and he cried.
Until he wasn’t crying anymore. 
Until, from his vantage point splayed out on the floor, he caught a glimpse of a nearby book about world-recording-holding dogs, pulled it over, and started paging through it. As if nothing had happened at all. 

I peeked at the clock. It had been eight minutes. 

Building Resilience

I decided speaking would be OK now, so I asked my son if he wanted to make a plan. I told him I knew that bedtime tonight would be extra tough, but maybe we could think of some ideas together to help him through it. 

(Had I suggested such a thing two minutes prior, he would have EXPLODED. But because I waited until his train was through this tunnel, it was fine.) 

Without any additional prompting from me, my 4-year-old chose two different stuffed animals to sleep with that night, then asked if we could read two extra books before bed to help make the evening more special. 

Later, as I kissed him goodnight and he turned onto his side to fall asleep, he said peacefully, “I’m going to be OK tonight.” 

Yes, dear son, you are.

Because this is where resilience is built.

Had I driven an hour each way to retrieve Glenn, we wouldn’t have built resilience. 

Had I told him over and over again it was no big deal, it’s just one night without one stuffed animal, we wouldn’t have built resilience either. The message there would have been that his pain was invalid and that his struggles weren’t worth being taken seriously.

But simply sitting by his side as bumped his way through the tunnel? Allowing him to feel the rush and the panic, and then come up for air all on his own? THAT is building resilience.

Remember Your Job

So the next time your child is deeply frustrated, angry, or upset, remember what the job of a parent really is.

The job of a parent is to:

  • Provide comfort through the frustration.
  • Draw out our child’s cleansing tears.
  • Show empathy to our child’s struggle.
  • Allow the life lesson to be learned naturally—not through preaching.
  • Support our child’s journey through the emotional tunnel.

The job of a parent is NOT to get our child to stop crying as quickly as possible. Tears are a sign of parental success, not failure.

So rub your child’s back. Sit with them in silence. Stay alongside them as they chug chug chug through their tunnels of feelings. And be with them when they finally reach the calm, peaceful light at the end.

156 responses to “The Train Analogy That Will Completely Change How You See Your Crying Child”

  1. That was really a great, emotionally-packed, well-written, heart-wrenching blog. Thank you for sharing. I realized I was applying it also to the grieving process about 1/2 way through. But I’ll def share it with my kiddos-now-parents.

    • “Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.”

      Catherine M. Wallace
      Author, Poet, Essayist

    • Wow this is absolutely the best advice with the best analogy (I love analogies). It is so true. As a parent and children’s therapist I find this lesson very on-point. It’s the easiest thing to apply logic from our wealth of experience to a childs troubles, yet it does not help them in the slightest. It only serves to belittle them.

  2. A bit unrelated, but what’s the book about world record holding dogs? My 4yo would love that.

    Good reminder that when the days are long and the tempers are short to take a deep breath and just be there for my child rather than give an exasperated reply (which is easy with one kid and oh so hard when two are in the same place at the same time pulling me in four directions).

  3. This is something I’m going to try with my mostly non verbal 2 year old. But what do you suggest doing during frustrated tantrums in public? I can’t sit and let him have a fit in the middle of Target with my 5 month old strapped to my chest.

    • And that’s where this kind of advice breaks down. It’s nice and sweet, but it’s pretty limited. Part of being a parent is teaching children that we should be aware of others and how we affect them. A child having a tantrum in the floor of a store for 8 minutes, for whatever reason – justified or not – is unreasonable, and not fair to the business owner or other customers.
      While their feelings are real and valid, not all of them deserve public processing.
      When the author is listing the job of a parent, glaring is the omission of teaching our children how to act in public and around others. We have far too many young adults growing up more concerned with how they feel and less about how they impact others.

      • This completely goes against the Word of God and what it teaches. When your child is out of line you’re to correct them by spanking them. They are only learning that they don’t have to control their emotions by allowing them to have tantrums. I find it so disturbing that parents think this is a healthy way to respond to their children. We are to be led by the Spirit, not our emotions, and tantrums, believe it or not, is not a fruit of the Spirit.

        • Wow. So, you’re saying if your child is sad and is showing that physically you are going to spank them? I’m not against spanking, but in the case the author described here her son was not throwing a tantrum. He was upset that the thing that brings him comfort for bed was not there. Please, be careful. You can help them learn to feel and manage their emotions without hitting them and telling them their emotions are wrong.

          • Comments like this are what make people think that real Christians are insane. Spanking your child for being devastated that he lost his favourite stuffy is abusive and cruel.

          • The word spank is nowhere in the word of God! The only word is rod and it’s taken wrongly by Christians regularly! A rod is what shepherds used to gently guide their sheep! They did not beat them with it! Research it. And spanking is not a fruit of the Spirit either! The fruits of the Spirit are: Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, GENTLENESS, goodness, faith meekness, TEMPERANCE. I see no spanking there.

          • You Sydney are completely out of touch with reality! Your children must suffer miserably for your misinterpretation of what a Christian is supposed to be. I will spell it out for you. Christian means to be like Christ.. Jesus never hit anyone!! All of us who strive to be more kind, less judgmental, giving, and spiritually filled each day do not engage in the idea of hitting our children because it is the Word of God. For your children’s sake please seek help from a counselor or clergy that can point you in the right direction.. I will pray for you and your children.

        • Spanking a young child for having the totally normal, age-appropriate emotion over something as serious to them as a missing dearly loved stuffed animal??? Good grief. There is nothing out of line about that. He’s not being “naughty,” or making a poor decision. Your kids are going to need a lot of therapy, if that’s how you choose to cultivate the emotional health of a young child.

        • Obvious troll is obvious, lol!
          Even if you were serious, which I’m sure you cannot be, I wouldn’t regard your advice as anything real or valuable.
          I don’t know what koolaid you drank, but I’ll pass.

        • I wanted to reply to Sydney.
          Your response made me so sad. God is a god of great compassion. The Bible says he is near to the brokenhearted, to those who are crushed in spirit. Hannah wept so loudly the priest thought she was drunk, but God heard her cries and gave her her heart’s desire, a baby boy. Jesus himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus out of compassion. I can only imagine if you see God in such a punishing way you are probably really hard on yourself. Go back and read your Bible again. Ask God to show you his tender heart, and let him speak to you. You can stop the cycle of seeing God as being harsh and cruel.

        • A lot of ppl say the article breaks down and doesn’t cover enough of every situation ever…
          In public, you don’t have to say anything to carry your child elsewhere, somewhere that is a little more private, or perhaps just outside . You stay present and mostly quiet with the child, still comforting them while moving, not much difference
          Tantrums tend to be about anger over not getting what you want, as opposed to anger resulting from fear. Tantrums come from a child who has been conditioned to believe that their loud, irresponsible fits of rage will result in their caretaker’s response of trying to soothe them. That is an example of getting them to be quiet because it’s what you want. It progresses the problem rather than the emotional maturity of the child. Fits go from fear responses to rewardable currency.
          Tantrums are a messenger that let you know you need to examine your methods and change some behaviors that are counter-productive to your child-rearing goals.
          The key to this article is the source material instruction, a clear goal is to “Dance them to their tears”. If you find the advice falling short of a specific situation, just remember the general principle is to subtly move them in the desired direction, not out, but through

      • When my twins were small and gearing up for a tantrum in a public place, I would simply leave and get them to the car. I’d mention to an employee in the store that I wasn’t able to check out right now and would be back later in the day to make my purchases (if a grocery store, where they could put a cart in the walk-in fridge), or that I simply wasn’t going to complete my shopping that day. My kids are special needs and sometimes their frustration levels spike easily. For me, it’s best to make a hasty exit and let them have it out in the car. Once calm, I’d explain that we’d go to the store another time, but it wasn’t the right time just now.

      • That is where her blog does not hold. When in public you just simply have to tell tour kids this is not the right time. Talk it out later. Scream in private what have you. But Sometimes you can’t always just leave if you also need to get food missing at home or supplies too. It is a process. But to teach them that it is a time to wait and a time they can like at home is always a good thing. As an adult is this blogger saying you scream and throw a fit in front of people? Think about it. What would we think of those adults?

      • This is one of those moments when I feel like as a society we have sort of failed. If a child is having a tantrum in public the reason people want it to stop is 90% because it makes them uncomfortable and not because they are sad for the child’s experience.

        I will tell you right now that other people are responsible for their own emotional well being. You are responsible for guiding your child through for their well being where you can. You are not under an obligation to put the comfort of grown adults above your child’s in every situation. The people who should have the maturity to handle emotional outbursts are the adults in said situation, not the children. Actually even if its another adult falling apart in the middle of a target it is still the same: people are responsible for their own actions. There is nothing wrong with showing emotion except we as a culture have no idea how to process most of our own emotions let alone some one else’s.

        Want to know why we as a society do not handle our own emotions or the emotions of others well? Because we learn to stuff them till it is the right time. Shame is the tool of choice for this. For some there is no right time so a quick emotional episode that could take 10 minutes becomes a drawn out day long depression as we repress our emotions until “the right time.”

        But I realize that is unrealistic. It is just my personal rant. But if you know it will just be a temporary thing, and you have the will to face the shame that comes along, it will be better all around if you just let them process it then.

        I realize this is going to be unpopular but I sort of don’t care. Emotion is not something to shame people over and people (big or small) having a strong emotional reaction are doing nothing wrong.

        Unless they are deliberately manipulating you or the situation. Then you have a whole other issue.

    • Two things. Firstly: you actually can sit and let him have a fit in the middle of Target.

      It’s not pleasant. You’ll get disapproving looks, maybe verbal judgement. If you’re unlucky you’ll get an unsympathetic store employee. I get that while you’re babywearing you can’t exactly pick him up to relocate him to somewhere he can have his tantrum without bothering so many people. But society needs to learn that parents are allowed to be in public places with their kids, and that that involves kid behaviour in public. It shouldn’t be that shocking.

      And if anyone complains – you’re not pampering or spoiling your child. You can be there with him while setting limits – not letting him damage property or hit you or make a mess, and of course you’re not giving in to every 2-year-old demand. But you don’t HAVE to shush him or otherwise push him to be more socially acceptable. You can let him cry, be there with him, and let him move on. You’re not hurting anyone. And by doing this, he can learn to regulate his own emotions and the tantrums will get smaller. They do eventually, I promise!

      Secondly: You are allowed to shush him.

      Parenting doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be there with his feelings 100% of the time. Apart from the fact that it’s impossible, you’re a human being and you get to have your own emotions, be angry, frustrated, have bad days. As long as you’re there for him SOME of the time (I’ve heard a 30% figure?) he’ll learn that 1) he’s safe to express his emotions to you and 2) he doesn’t always get everything he needs emotionally, because nobody does. Think about it: as adults, we don’t get all of our emotions catered for. But SOME Is better than nothing, and being there with him is something you can do when you’re able.

      Hope this helps.

        • I have let my child deal with his tantrum in the middle of a mall. I was not baby wearing at the time, so I was able to move him to a safe place. Then I stood there waiting for him to calm down. I noticed an older woman nearby who was watching us, and I simply smiled a friendly smile. I have found that most gawkers in public will continue about their business if you acknowledge them in a friendly way. Not everyone will agree with your parenting methods, but you get to choose the best practice, not them! So, as uncomfortable as it can be to have a bunch of strangers staring at you, if this is your method to deal with it, then put your own discomfort aside, openly look around, casually, and smile and nod at all of the gawkers.

          One more thing, if you feel you need to take your child out of wherever you are, let’s say it happens at the library, take them outside as best you can, then let them calm down while outside. Once calm, let your child know, you are going back inside to finish your business and you expect their best behavior. Of course everything depends on context, but this sort of idea enforces that while you are there for them, there are things that have to get done and that’s that.

  4. I like this concept, but I’m curious- with this in mind, where is the line? Between allowing them to have temper tantrums vs. dealing with their emotions and riding it out? Or do we always allow them to throw temper tantrums? I’m serious here- not trying to come across wrong. I have 3 babies and am trying to find the best approach to their own individual characters and emotions.

    • I think if it’s a “I can’t handle emotions” breakdown, offer support. If it’s a “I’m trying to get my way” tantrum, consider other strategies- ignoring/discipline/picking your battles/etc.

    • I don’t think it’s a case of “allowing them to have a tantrum” because you can’t forbid temper tantrums in the first place. You can discourage them, by not letting children learn that they lead to them getting their own way. Like, if she had driven to get Glenn, the little boy would have learned that temper tantrum = getting what I want, regardless of the impact on others.

  5. I teach parent eduction classes and this beautifully describes what we were talking about in class yesterday – from the standpoint of someone in the trenches. I plan on forwarding it to them. Thanks!

    • I always allowed my small kids to be in their bedroom with the door closed to cry or scream, not as punishment but a place to let all the emotions out, and I would check on them to see if they were ok and hug and hold them if they wanted me too.

  6. Great ideas, but what about when you try to keep your calm all day long and act nice to your whining 3 year old and think “i will support her big emotions” and yet she whines for anything small continuously and cries and in constant bad mood (you know those days happen, they are not juat little innocent angels all the time).. How do you still manage to keep your calm, never loose it? Because personally i can say i am quite good in it, yet every now and then i loose my shit and scream like “stop crying noooooow, thats enough”. THats it.. She cries “i cant stooooop”.. Seriously? oh my.. oh my..

  7. I have bookmarked this page! I will also be sure to check the rest of your blog; you write very well, and it resonates with me deeply.

    • For Ogrenen anne,
      I simply do not respond to whining. When the whining is controlled and a normal voice is used, then I respond. I just say. “I’m sorry, I don’t answer whining.” They learn and quickly stop it. I find kids whine because it quickly gets the what they want.

      • My eldest (5) daughter has never gotten what she wants from whining from either parent or grandparent, yet that is still her first go-to when she is told “no”. I think that is just part of growing up. You’d think that after a couple years of having her whines ignored and not being addressed until a calm and normal voice was used, she’d learn to ditch the whining, but nope.
        Also, to address other posters, there is a difference between a breakdown due to emotional loss, such as was displayed in the OP, and a tantrum in Target because they can’t have a new toy. One you let them work through and comfort them, the other you discourage and discipline.

    • men tend to be better at not responding to whining, and ignore whining or acting up, and that is why kids typically act better with their dads, and act whiny with moms, because mom’s typically respond with, What’s the matter? and dad’s are like, I’m not engaging in that whiny conversation.” haha!

    • For the record, I DO lose it from time to time! Truthfully, it’s important for us parents to allow ourselves to feel our emotions too. That doesn’t mean we have parental temper tantrums, of course. But it does mean we don’t stuff away our own frustrations.

      • Actually, one of the most effective ways I ever stopped one of my son’s temper tantrums (at home) was to get right beside him, and throw (a fake) one of my own. Overly-exaggerated, kicking feet, banging fists on the floor, loud wailing, the entire thing. He immediately stopped screaming to look at me, at which point I stopped on a dime, and asked ‘doesn’t that look silly; shouldn’t we act like a big boy and use our words now?’, at which point he laughed himself out of his snit, and told me what his problem was.

    • For Ogrenen Anne: I’ve been following the comments, and as a person that leads a group in self expression what I notice is that through your actions of trying to stay calm and act nice when inside you feel something different, you may be teaching your child to “play nice on the outside, while a torrent rages on inside”, hence her behavior of whining, which in my belief is a softer way of expressing the larger feelings going on under the surface.

    • Fabulous post and beautifully written. I work as an Instuctor with Hand in Hand Parenting and what you have described here is a tool we call Staylistening.’ I would also recommend a Listening Partnership so that as a parent you get a place to be listened to and have your emotions heard too and also Setting Limits, a tool which helps us to dance our way to our child’s tears and also set loving, healthy boundaries. Special time to help fill our child’s cup of connection and play listening so that the child can also release pent up feelings through laughter.

    • Anne, I wonder if your 3-year-old is getting enough sleep & good enough sleep if she is so often out of sorts. I marvel at parents who can keep their kids up until 10:30 PM one night and put them to be at 8:00 the next with no visible fallout. My kids aren’t like that. Toddlers need 10-12 hours/day of sleep. My twins napped until they went to Kindergarten. Even then, they napped frequently on weekends if we wanted to stay up past 8:00 for something special. They are the type of kids who would just never sleep in past 6:00. At age 11, they still really need a solid 10 hours/night. And I make sure that they get it because we’ll all suffer the unpleasant consequences if they don’t. This means not a lot of sports teams or clubs that practice/meet in the evening on school nights. Some kids can handle that. Mine can’t.

      It takes a bit of effort to establishing maintain a very regular sleep routine (and we did have a routine with a bedtime story and a soothing song), but for me it was well worth it with twins.

      Also, if your child is getting plenty of sleep but still having a lot of problems, consider the quality of her sleep. I didn’t even know that one of my twins was having serious sleep apnea until her sister had to see an ENT doctor for profuse nosebleeds. He was amazed/appalled at the size of their tonsils and explained that they left very little room for swelling if they ever got mono or tonsillitis. He also asked if my smaller twin chewed her food for a very long time. She did chew anything that wasn’t soft for so long that she’d forget to finish chewing and swallow. The doctor also asked about sleep apnea and explained what I would hear if they had it. That very night, I realized that one twin, who had always snored loudly, was actually not breathing for several seconds between “sets” of higher and higher-pitched snores. My other daughter had the same thing to a much lesser extent. They did need their tonsils out both because of the danger of swelling closing off their trachea, and also because sleep apnea can be dangerous at worst, and makes for lower quality sleep at best. Note that our pediatrician had remarked that the girls had large tonsils, but had not shown me (it never occurred to me to look since they were healthy), and had not mentioned that this could be dangerous.

      Just a thought in case it might be something your pediatrician had missed. I hope your little one is doing well!

    • I’d also like to point out that kids need to see their parent’s riding through their emotions. I have a VERY high energy little boy and there are some days that his constant going/questions/wants/etc are WAY too much for me to the point that (especially when he is whiny) I also struggle with not occaisionally losing my temper. I think it’s not only ok, but good to tell him that I need a ‘time out’ (we use this as a phrase for taking a break from what we are doing, not punishment) or that I need some quiet time because I’m dealing with ‘big’ emotions. I think this helps him know that these big emotions don’t go away and that little ones aren’t all that different from adults when it comes to big emotions

  8. Sweet Jesus this is so well written and easy to understand u read it on the counter cooking dinner with my newborn in my shoulder and felt a level of relief. A tool that I can actually use. Thanks for letting me know it’s ok to let them cry. ;@)

  9. I am an adult and this has given me a new perspective on even dealing with adults that are hurting. I never thought for one moment you were talking about misbehavior, and I am not sure just how this will work because we don’t want to neglect the training part of parenthood, but even in times of a child’s failing to follow through with house rules we still need to help them see that the misbehavior is what has disrupted the tranquility, but that the relationship is still strong.

    I love the advice, and wish I had heard it years ago. I am a grandmother, and I will try to see my grands time of disappointment as times to further bond with the child and help them learn how to cope with difficulties, and that there is life worth living ahead. Thanks!

  10. I like the wisdom in this, it’s a great way to explain why, even though you KNOW it’s going to be OK, you’re not OK yet, and you can’t just SNAP make yourself be better. I like that. It’s a great way to explain the emotional ride.

    But I don’t think it applies to all situations, particularly to those who are prone to getting stuck in the tunnel, or have some kind of disorder that makes the tunnel stretch longer and longer and longer until you’re in it for hours and days — there are those who are prone to going back IN the tunnel at the brink of letting go, fixating on the tunnel instead of going through it. I say this as one who’s done that many times myself. I needed time to feel the emotions, and I know there came a point where I had to be reminded externally, sometimes very firmly, that I had to get up and function, even if I couldn’t let go yet, and then come back and process later. Even after finding medicine for my disorder, there were days where I would get stuck out of habit – it takes time to learn new habits, and I needed help doing that. Sometimes the process of literally just HAVING to do whatever needs done is what finally got my head out of the tunnel so I COULD finish letting go. And some of my kids are the same way. I know that as their mom.

    I’m only chiming in here because I see a lot of articles like this, that have wisdom in it for working with emotions, but they leave the other side of the coin out. I wanted to speak for the other side of the coin. Yes, we shouldn’t rush our children’s emotions and grief. But I don’t think people are being terrible parents if, after giving time, they try to help their kids move on with the day — because that’s something you have to do as an adult. Sometimes you eat ice cream or watch Netflix because you can’t donate the proper amount of time to the tunnel, so you take a detour until you can. That’s OK. I believe our kids have to learn how to go through the tunnel and when to recognize they’re stalling in it and when to know to come back to it later.

    And for all the parents who said, “What do you do when you lose your cool?” As soon as you can, you apologize. You hug. You eat ice cream together. Those are the times you teach by example what to do when you mess up, because that’s a life skill our children need too.

    I think it’s great so many children have parents intentionally trying to learn how to guide their children through childhood with skills to deal with real life and the emotions that come with it, as evidence by the presence of this article, the comments, and everyone reading it. Whatever your thoughts are on this subject, I’m glad your child has you reading this for a parent. May God bless you with the wisdom you seek, the best wisdom for teaching your child they way she or he should go. <3

  11. A thing that helps me is realizing that when a person is crying with a lot of sound, they are not feeling the pain as much as they would if they were silent.

  12. I’m so glad I saw this… and I too thought about its’ relevance to my grief journey. Wonderful advice – sometimes I do need a good cry and feel better. And having someone sit with me and just “be” is so comforting. When we are greiving we don’t need platitudes, we need someone beside us. Thanks for the beautiful article.

  13. when my kids are sad and having a hard time, they ask me to hug them. and I do. then my little one (2) calms down immediately, and my older one (4) needs some more time to cry, talk, negotiate etc.
    my question is, should I hug them as soon as they ask or is that too much dependability on my hugs to calm down.

    • I personally see nothing wrong with hugging your children when they ask. I don’t think you have to worry that when they’re 18 years old they still won’t be able to calm down without a hug from mama…but when they’re 18 years old they WILL know that they can come to you for support whenever they need it. I’ll take that.

  14. Great article. I think there are times we should use the “train” analogy and other times we need to insert logic into our children’s emotions (as that part of their brain hasn’t developed yet and they cannot see the bigger picture 🙂

    I know, for myself, I would enjoy hearing my parents statements about different outcomes while emotional as I couldn’t grasp them myself. Sometimes crying begets crying so inserting a litter “pause and think” tactic could prove beneficial. Just my one and a half cents.


  15. I’ve been trying this with my son, but he will not accept comfort in these situations. Touching him, looking at him, and moving closer to him are all unacceptable. This is true even when he has gotten past the anger portion of the breakdown and has moved on to the sadness portion. Any recommendations or resources for how to offer support?

  16. Loved this article! I think the Train analogy is fantastic, it has inspired me to allow my child even more time to go through their pain and validate their emotions. My only addition is that I believe after the emotions have passed often the child lacks the wisdom and experience to know how to develop the solutions themselves, by asking questions and encouraging the child they can then develop both resilience as well as calm problem solving skills. I say that because in many instances my child’s solution after they calm down is to do what most adults do, numb with tv and food rather than learn problem solving skills when in the right frame of mind that then builds their confidence in their abilities.

    • I am not an expert on sensory issues, but I do know there are lots of children who don’t respond well to physical comfort. Maybe check out my friend Dayna at the blog Lemon Lime Adventures. She is my go-to gal for all things sensory, and I’m certain you’ll find some good advice there.

  17. I am not a parent yet, but this article really made me think on the way we approach struggles and how we treat our selves and respectively others. Love the article! Thank you for your story!

  18. While I agree that parents need to allow their children to scream, cry, and express their emotions instead of trying to “fix” situations, it’s perfectly okay to use words to comfort a child. By doing this you are modeling how to empathize with others. Children need this life skill. Children need adults to use words to help them process events such as this one. So yes, let them express their emotions even if it is hard to watch, but don’t forget that you are also their guide because they lack life experience and perspective.

    I’m not questioning what you did as a mother. Obviously that is your business because all children are different and all parent-child relationships are different. It’s awesome that this works for your family. But to generalize that this is what more parents need to do with their children is dangerous as most children need help processing events such as this.

    • I completely agree with you that it is important to use words for comfort. For me, it’s all about the timing of those words. When used at the opportune moment, they are powerful and soothing. When used at the wrong moment, they make the situation worse (I think).

  19. This is so confusing to me. I’m a mom to nearly a dozen and 1. We don’t have tantrums in this house (my kids just aren’t that type) and 2. Why do the only two options seem to be to talk away the issue and grab another stuffed animal OR be silent and wait for the child to cry and work it out?

    Where is the idea to work WITH the problem?

    Oh – You can believe that with all my children many have lost their loveys over time. Do they melt down? Maybe a bit. But I’m not right there telling them it doesn’t matter or being silent about it while they melt down, but I AM there offering some perspective and comfort because it DOES matter…. So kiddo: Let’s look at this in a different way. I would’ve said something like, “I know you miss Glenn, but I bet Gigi is snuggling him close tonight and thinking of you and they’re probably telling each other stories all about you and how much they love you. I wonder if he’s eating ice cream with her. I bet his whiskers will freeze!”

    “And when you get Glenn back, you can whisper to him how much you missed him and ask him what he thought about spending his first night at Gigi’s house.”

    Then I’d probably tell a silly story about Glenn and his crazy sleepover with Gigi. And my child would laugh.

    So I just don’t get the whole “Let them cry it out” advice because there are less stressful ways to make things work out that don’t involve meltdowns and frantic tears.

    When kids go through the tunnel, why not show them how to bring light into it rather than just wait out the dark?

    • For me it all comes back to the timing. I think your reassuring phrases are awesome, and I did say many of those things, but only when I felt I had given my son the space and support to feel his feelings.

      • Please be mindful when posting that Katie’s son was not chucking a tantrum, he was deeply upset & distressed at not having his favourite toy that comforts him every night…a totally appropriate response at this age. If you don’t have kids that get this distressed then you can’t possibly know the depth of distress many kids can be in, and that there is no point talking to them at the height of their stress as they are not going to take in the information and can’t process what’s being said. Silence provides the space they need to calm down, or get through the tunnel. While still being supported by your physical presence beside them. I think your advice is fabulous Katie.

  20. Looking for advice here – trying to make that mental shift so I don’t automatically attempt to distract my son out of processing his big emotions when he has them – but struggling to know what to do because at a certain point the crying turns into gagging and/or throwing up (not because he’s doing it ‘for attention’ but just because that’s what his body does after screaming long enough). It feels wrong to let him get to this point, but the only way of preventing it is to try and distract him out of feeling his feelings. Am I missing something?

    • I’m wondering about the age of your son. If he’s toddler-age, perhaps distraction is an appropriate response until he’s matured enough for his big emotions to settle before he gags, throws up, or otherwise makes himself extremely uncomfortable.

  21. I love that advice. My sons are 23 and 27. The oldest died from SUDEP in 2011. That is similar advice to what my mother gave me. In my shoes, I can say that you can not spend too much time holding on to your children at any age. I would go back and do it all over again.

  22. Oh parenting. It’s the best and the worst. I wish I would have read this yesterday, as my almost 4 year old threw a massive tantrum at my sister’s house, naked on the floor because the swim suit she was borrowing wasn’t the right one. I read things like this and I think “Oh that’s not so hard, that’s something I can do” and then the tantrum comes (most of the time after a long day when I’m just ready to be done) and I lose it. I don’t have nearly enough patients to speak calmly. Things I’m working on!

  23. I love and subscribe to every idea in this article. The issue with this in my family is that my 4 year old son will not let himself be sad or cry. I have no idea where he got this “tough guy” mentality, because we have encouraged him to let himself feel sadness. And he doesn’t watch much TV, cartoons, etc. So instead of getting sad, he gets angry and does things that he knows are not allowed in our house (hitting, damaging things, etc.). So then we set limits to his behaviors and it becomes about discipline instead of sitting in the emotion. If we try to stick with the emotion and suggest that he’s sad, he screams at us that he’s not. Any ideas or suggestions are welcome! Thank you!

  24. Tears are not sign of parental success or failure. Tears are tests of successful or failed parenting.

  25. Giving your small kids power to have one thing like a “beloved blanket ”
    Give the kids power to play that game of I want it now… he was testing you….
    But it’s ok to letting them know they not going to have every thing they want….
    Even if it’s “beloved blanket “……let them cray much as they need it’s realy good for they
    Lungs and soul…. and in the same time you can test your paitoins ….

  26. I really struggled getting through this article. I agree it’s well written and I can see why it got so many approvals but I am not convinced that if it were me I I’d have handled things this way. For starters, screaming and PUNCHING the air and yelling defiantly, “I WILL NOT GO TO BED WITHOUT HIM!” is entirely unacceptable in my opinion. Yes, you can be upset. Yes, you can be sad and cry and be disappointed. But this crosses the line to disrespect and teaches a huge lack of self control. The bible says a fool vents his anger. (Proverbs 29:11) So telling a kind it’s ok to have “big emotions” and allow him to “go off the rails” (hehe, pardon the pun) when it comes to those big emotions is teaching them that venting in the moment is totally ok which is not biblical. I want to teach my kids how to be disappointed and upset WIHOUT crossing a boundary of disrespect and disobedience and whether a lot of the previous commenters want to admit it, spanking IS biblical and mentioned often in scripture. So I think if it were me, I’d have looked in his eyes, given him a huge hug, reassured him that we would get his stuffy back and that Jesus would look after Glenn and allow my boy to cry. But the moment it turned into punching, yelling and defiance I would have given a warning of, “I know you are upset, but it is never ok to yell at mommy, no matter how angry you are” and if it continued it would have been a spanking. That is how I would have handled it personally. I think people have such wrong ideas about spanking, it can be done in a loving, calm way and be even MORE effective than allowing a child to go on a tirade of anger. When my daughter was 4 she would go off on tirades of anger and I thought that allowing her to “get through the tunnel” was helpful but then I started notice the same behaviour repeat more and more and then God lead me to Provers 29:11 and I realized I hadn’t helped her whatsoever by allowing her to vent all it did was foster an angry, selfish and disobedient heart in her.

    • aleefriedel, I respect your opinion and I must make sure you are aware that decades of research have shown spanking to be harmful to children, leading to an increase in violent and or suicidal behavior, if not when they are children, then later in life.

      I appreciate the bible verse you shared. I agree with the message. But, in my experience, violence only leads to more violence. Spanking is a violent disrespect of a child’s body and right to be free from harm. It leads the child to obey out of fear and only fear. Fear makes it hard to feel love.

      “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” ~ Romans 13:10

      Spankings are harmful. I speak from experience.

      Also kids don’t yell out of defiance. They just haven’t yet gained the skills necessary to process their emotions in a healthy way. Haven’t you ever wanted to yell when feeling overwhelmed? Have you ever raised your voice a little when venting to a friend.

      I feel very strongly about this and will someday find a way to express my point more clearly!

  27. This can easily become pampering and spoiling. A child deserves reasonable sympathy, but you do them no favors by allowing them to over-react like this. A child has to learn limits and self-discipline, to realize that they can’t have everything they want, that other beings exist in the world, and to appreciate the positives in their lives. A child whose greatest problem in life is being temporarily separated from a blanket is a lucky child indeed.

  28. I love this and have found a lot of success in reminding myself similarly not to wrap my emotions in with those of the person I am giving care to. What I struggle with is not being a parent and instead having to face this as a babysitter, counselor, and gymnastics instructor. It is very difficult for others to comprehend that my letting a student cry is well intentioned, especially when it comes from frustration of learning.

  29. Very insightful Katie. I especially liked your point about one of the reasons we want our kids to stop crying is to stop the pain ‘we’ are feeling. That is not the sole reason we want it to stop but it is a factor. Part of every parent’s responsibility is letting go. This is not something you do as they leave high school and go off to college (which is how some parents seem to handle it). It’s a process that should evolve over the years. Your allowing your child to feel the pain, to process it and to figure out a way to deal with it….is very mature. Great job Mom! It’s part of letting go and letting them experience life.

    Much of the work I’ve done over the years is focused on helping organizations to improve the way they improve…to become more effective in their improvement activities. Letting go of control and seeing reality as it truly exist (vs. what you assume is happening) are two of the biggest challenges. You faced both of those pressures in dealing with your child and handle them in an admirable way.

    Best wishes

  30. What is the earliest age to start implementing this? I have a super tantrum-y 14 month old who won’t try to stand, holding my legs, some of the time. Other times he is fine but when he gets into his feelings he won’t even accept an answer other than me bending down for him. Melts down, legs buckle, just screams. I want him to build some resilience rather than always coddling him- I also want him to stand/walk!

  31. I also did to struggle with this analogy. All i could think of is this article should be titled how to raise a “Snowflake”.
    The only thing from this article that makes i agree with is that. The harder they cry the harder they sleep. If you want to throw a tantrum then you will loose other privileges. This is one reason why i never let my kids use pacifiers. I didn’t want to ween them off of the darn thing. I had friends with kids up to 5 still using pacifiers.
    Every child is different as is every parent. Every kids learns and retains differently as every parent teaches differently. This Technique might for some but from my years of knowledge now i can see how kids become brats.

  32. I absolutely love this article. I have 3 children and my middle daughter is the type of child that doesn’t like to be touched when she is having a melt down. I am a mum blogger and would really like to use this article ( some how, not really sure how it all works yet) in one of my blog post if possible. If you would like to check out my blog first before agreeing it’s

  33. Hi! I love this article! So often we don’t allow children to experience their emotions for a number of reasons. I work with children, and a children’s book author and the focus of most of my work is emotional wellness, in order to introduce what that means to children and what the emotional experience is. I have a rhyming book, 2 so far in the series, The Tanglelows, which looks into the complexity of competing emotions and how to work through through them. I would be happy to send you copies if you would like as well.

  34. As an adult the biggest gift I ever ever ever received was my Sweetheart Niels staying with me while I rode through a huge emotional tunnel, which was more like diving into a hole and reviewing my life and the decisions I had made along the way. There were tears. Life changing and life affirming. By the end of it-and it took 5 hours-I was basically healed from the seminal traumatic issue of my life which was waiting for me near the bottom of the hole under which was a golden net connecting me to a loving and supportive universe.

  35. What do you do when your child gets “stuck” in the tunnel? My 7-year old recently cried for about 1.5 hours because she thought she was old enough to be included in her 6th grade sister’s sleepover, but I said no to give her sister and her friend some space? She truly didn’t understand why middle-schoolers wouldn’t want to hang out with her. I gave her time to process, and tried to explain to her and give examples (like she wouldn’t want to hang out with her 3-year old cousin, etc) but she wouldn’t let it go. She has been like this her whole life – not letting things go easily.

  36. Hi
    Can I apply the same ideas to my 17 year old daughter when her anger is with me? To quote her reply when someone said I should be firm with her: “My mum’s been a liberal parent for so many years it’ll take a 5-year-plan (reference to Russian history!) to turn it around”. I don’t want to drive 120 miles per week to drop her off late and collect her early from school when she has free periods. I’m home educating two other children, managing a large household and I also work part time.
    Her response to me staying firm was first to acknowledge my feelings and wait for me to capitulate kindly to her demands. When that didn’t work, she said “I might as well tell you what I really think of you then” and unleashed swearing and a 20 minute tirade about what a terrible, negligent parent I am. She went to her sisters and told them all their problems are because of my terrible parenting. She got so stirred up in the kitchen that our dog bit her. Then she punched the wall and hurt her fist. She’s also tried appealing to her dad (who will usually capitulate faster than me but he can’t do anything about this one as he is at work every day an hour in the opposite direction).
    This isn’t her usual level of behaviour because I usually will try to find a way to make it work but on this occasion I can’t make it work for her. I have driving lessons planned for her. But she is repeatedly demonstrating a complete disregard for other people (she’ll demand I make a 4 hour round journey to save her getting a public bus home if I’m far away for a day … my husband will then arrange his work around her if he can! I don’t get a lot of opportunities to give her the message it is not ALL about her needs). She’s 17. She needs to learn to deal with not getting her own way but she’s always been an intense person and it was previously best to deal with finding a ‘third way’.
    How do I support her through the tunnel when she thinks I’ve pushed her into the tunnel?

  37. I would play a “remembering” game with my upset child when he was 2. Unable to leave happily from a fun place, I would have no choice but to
    carry him out screaming and kicking. But I would tell a little real story about
    the place we were at, saying, remember when “Glen” went up, up, up the slide? And then he came down whoosh! and it was so funny he was laughing? then he ran and ran and climbed up to the very tippy top of the whole place! It was a remembering game, and he would think about the happy things he just did instead of the sad thing of leaving. That “tunnel of sadness” only lasted till we got to the car, then we started the “happy river of memories”.

    I have enjoyed all these parent’s experiences, and most especially “K” who
    was very creative!!

  38. I love it. And I think I started crying before your son did. I have searched the driveway and yard for hours in the snow with a flashlight, so I know all about this one, and you handled it so beautifully.

  39. What a light bulb moment for me at 55 years old today! I truly wish I had know this at a young single moma.I have learned quite a few techniques for emotional regulation as a ACOA, AA & Al-anon, but had never heard this analogy of emotions-train before. Thank you. More awake today than 30 minutes ago.

  40. I’ve re-read this article and wonder how it could apply to children with Boderline Personality Disorder which is so challenging. Not easy. I believe there is a big nugget of truth here and how to apply this with children that have bipolar, schizophoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, etc, is worth consideration.

  41. absolutely loved the post. i had a query… i understand letting kids cry out their emotions. is there a different way to handle the situation if they are upset with you for not giving something or saying no. in this case you or ‘I’ am the cause of anger n my toddler just reaches out to my spouse for consolation. when its just me around, his anger and crying is out of control. just today morning we went through a bad outburst coz i told him he cant eat the toothpaste n tried to make him spit it out. i have been telling not to for a week now n today he just stared menacingly into my eyes n sucked it off. when i got angry about it he started crying n calling my spouse. i was still angry n fumimg coz i realize how dangerous his action cud be so wasnt in a state to be emotionslly present to him while he cried. how do we handle situations like this when as a parent you are rightfully angry n not in a state to be comforting. other eg would be wasting water n after repeatedly telling n explaining you take him off the tap n then he starts crying… or throwing things in anger n you take it away…. etc

  42. It’s a wonderful analogy…. but it can’t be universally applied. There’s a certain point when our children have to experience discomfort and still maintain the ability to function.

    The world cannot stop until the train exits the tunnel…. and some times the train isn’t even progressing towards a tunnel… in many instances, children become fixated on something and the train is just stuck, and will never get out of the tunnel. In these cases, intervention is needed.

    A simple example, a child who is hysterical out of fear of a medical injection or procedure can literally go on for HOURS of screaming and crying in an attempt to avoid what he sees as a traumatizing event. As a parent, there really isn’t any point in waiting till the train exits the tunnel… because it wont. The parent needs to be supportive, but still very firm about the fact that it will happen one way or the other. That’s an invaluable life lesson all children need to learn, which is acceptance of things we dislike or things we feel are uncomforable.

  43. This post was so on point for me. As a sensitive person, I often have difficultly handling my children’s anger and sad outbursts calmly and constructively. Your post showed me that I don’t have to DO anything to have the most impact, but rather just BE with them. Thank you so much for this.

  44. Wow! This is such a powerful article. I’ve shared it a few time already. I am a Mamma to an autistic son. He’s incredibly academic and intelligent but boy do his emotions get the better of him every single day. I think it’s so important to teach emotional intelligence. I’m working on a stop motion series to accomplish this. Would you have any suggestions on taking this further?

  45. I wish I had read this SO many years ago. I am sharing this with my 2 teenage boys now, as i believe it’s always better late than never & this can be applied anytime in life. Thank you for this wonderful article 🙂

  46. This seems a bit ironic to say, as I am not a parent. Just a struggling wife. I wanted to thank you so much for this well written and thought out post. I am married to an incredibly sensitive, absolutely precious husband. As you said above, we want to stop their emotions and pain because it really is hurting US, not them. As ironic and misplaced as it seems, I replaced the word parent with spouse, and child with husband and read it all the way through. This was one of the most impactful pieces of marriage advice I’d ever gotten, and it wasn’t even meant for that. You, my friend, make a difference. Thank you for this awesome post

  47. Love this! Thank you for this beautifully written post. I work with children for a living and these are skills I try to instill in myself as a provider and with the parents of the children I serve.

  48. This is so smart. Providing love and support to your children during their emotional experience is all you can really do. And OMG people, no. You don’t do it in a Target store. Geez.

  49. This is great insight! Thank you. We just had an accident with a meltdown tonight and I let him cry. So glad that that’s more healing.

  50. […] Meltdowns will happen and it’s going to be OK. With my firstborn, I used to dread public tantrums. Then one day, while on a weekend getaway, I came across a blogger who wrote about the train analogy in relation to meltdowns. Curious and intrigued, I read the whole article. Little did I know the next day I would be putting it to the test. It was breakfast time and we were seated on the restaurant’s patio. For some reason, my son did not want to sit down to eat. The chair was lava to him. Well, no better time than the present to put this train analogy method into practice. So I sent my husband off to grab his food and I sat there drinking my coffee, while my son had a category 5 meltdown in front of everyone. To my surprise (and relief) it only lasted about 10 minutes. After he finally calmed down, I picked him up and we were able to regroup and join the breakfast festivities while seated peacefully in the high chair. The analogy says that emotions are tunnels and we are trains going through them. We NEED to keep moving all the way through to the other side. However, as parents, we often want to stop the meltdown train before it has reached the other side of the tunnel.  We want our kids to calm down as quickly as possible. But they can’t until they reach the other side. So, order a glass of your favorite wine and enjoy the train rides. […]

  51. Oh my gosh, I so love this! Yesterday my 3 year old screamed out, “I’m FRUSTRATED!!” because he couldn’t get his feet all the way down in his rocket ship sleeping bag. He didn’t want me to help him. All I could do was let him cry and get through it and be there for him when he calmed down and got through that tunnel. Then he did let me help him. Such big emotions in a little body. I love the train analogy. ❤️

  52. What would you recommend when a child may say hurtful things at you (name calling etc) or try to physically hit you during a tantrum?

  53. I honestly did not read all of the replies, so someone may have already mentioned this, but there is a book called ‘The Rabbit Listened’ by Cori Doerrfeld That beautifully depicts this process. I want to buy a copy for everyone I know!!

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