Ask A Scientist
Why do kids react to getting hurt by crying? If there could be another action to take the place of crying, what would it be?
Asked by: Mary Cook
School: Maine-Endwell Middle School
Teacher: Kevin Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests: Interests/hobbies: Dance, basketball and field hockey
Career Interest: Pediatrician
Answer from Celia Grace Murnock
Graduate Student in Biomedical Anthropology, Binghamton University
Research area: Lyme disease ecology
Interests/hobbies: Reading, baking and traveling
Thank you for asking such an interesting question, Mary! Crying, in some form or another, is something humans and many other animals do to signal to others when we are in pain and in need of help. Babies cry from the moment they are born for several very basic reasons - they are hungry, they are uncomfortable, they are tired, or they are in physical pain, though they do not actually produce tears until they are a few months old. Because they cannot communicate yet using language, their caretakers must be very well attuned to the sound of their cries in order to interpret what they need. As we grow older and develop language, we can ask for what we need more often than not and do not have to resort to crying. However, sometimes when children are hurt they become overwhelmed and feel helpless. Crying is an easy and automatic way for them to express that to get the attention, help, and comfort of others, such as their parents. Adults have developed other ways of coping with physical pain and are less likely to cry actual tears, but they may still yell or scream if something hurts badly.
In addition to this, there are physiological reasons for crying as well. When something stressful happens, like an injury, our bodies produce chemicals that prepare us to react to a harmful event. Sometimes crying is a part of the activation of that system. Interestingly, studies have shown that hearing a baby or child crying also activates the stress response system in people who hear it, which is a good way to ensure that someone responds quickly to the person in distress. If something were to "take the place" of crying, it would have to be something that could easily get the attention of others.
While I was researching this, I came across a cool fact that I thought might interest you. Did you know that the tears you cry when you are sad or in pain are chemically different from the tears that form when you chop onions or get something in your eye? The tears that form when you are crying contain hormones related to our brains’ emotional responses.