How you communicate distress may be guided by your childhood. But it’s never too late to change.

Sometimes childhood trains us to cry loudly, or not at all.  In adulthood, we can learn a middle way.  Photo by Alasdair Elmes on Unsplash

One difference between adults, is the way they express themselves when they are distressed.  Some individuals are happy to shout their distress from the rooftops, and be very loud about it; some just stay silent and don’t like to talk about it; and some are somewhere in between.

Some of the roots of this can be found in our childhood, and in our interactions with our early carers.


When you were a baby, you cried in reaction to difficult situations.  This was a survival instinct.  If you did not cry, then your carer was less likely to come; and if your carer was less likely to come, you were less likely to survive.  The crying instinct is very useful.  It acts as a signal to others to come to your rescue.

When you are young, if you are lucky, you will have a carer who cares enough to come whenever you call.  You learn, through experience, that you are likely to be listened to.  This has a softening effect on your requests, and you eventually learn that only a soft expression of sadness brings a carer’s care quite effectively.  You no longer need to shriek as you did when you were a baby.


Some people seem to get stuck at an early stage of this crying game.  Trust has not developed, and so they continue to experiment with shrieking like a baby, in the hope that, eventually, someone will come to rescue them.

Unfortunately, there are other ways of getting stuck, too.  Some people, finding that their crying is never attended to, learn to give up and just keep quiet about everything.  These people don’t bother shrieking.  They are more likely to sit silently, perhaps mourning the lack of care they are receiving, but not doing anything about it.

Some of this depends on the relationship with an early carer.  For example, if your mother loved it when you cried loudly (perhaps it made her feel important), then you may have ended up being trained to shriek for help quite a lot.  People in your adulthood may find this strange, but it may be a difficult habit to get out of, once you have learned it.  You may be known as ‘the one who always moans about everything’.

Alternatively, if your mother ignored your crying, then you may have learned to keep quiet.  ‘What is the point,’ you may have felt, ‘in crying?  No one ever comes anyway.’


Perhaps there is something good in finding a balance between the two extremes.

As an adult, you may sometimes find yourself throwing your weight around when you are distressed.  You take it out on everyone you meet that day – everyone gets a piece of your mind – especially your nearest and dearest.

On other days, perhaps you give up trying, and you end up silently bottling it all up.  No one would guess how you are feeling, because you simply don’t want to talk about it.

The first option has the disadvantage of overburdening relationships.  The second option has the disadvantage of being a non-communication – even if those around you want to help, they can’t, because they don’t know what is happening.  A middle way is to learn to express, calmly and clearly, what you are feeling right now.


It is hard to trust others to receive your distress.  We all have our legacy of childhood.  Some of us shout too much, and some of us are too silent.  But we can all learn, somehow, to express what we have to say peacefully, first to ourselves, and then, in time, to others.

What is it that you wish you could express to others about how you are feeling?  Does it all come out in an overwhelming mess?  Or do you bottle it up?  How would it feel to simply express your feelings quietly and calmly?