The cure for whining

by | Jun 25, 2019

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A whiny child can drive a parent insane. Dr Laura Markham looks at why children whine, and what to do about it.

Whining is common in toddlers and preschoolers. Parents are usually advised to tell their kids to ask in a ‘nice‘ voice, because they can’t hear the whiny voice, but whining is a symptom of a deeper issue. So if you want to eliminate whining, you have to address what’s underneath.

If your child’s whining is driving you crazy, here are six parent-proven secrets to stop the whining. Which secret you use depends on why he’s whining.

1. Because he doesn’t have the internal resources to cope with what’s being asked of him

When humans feel overwhelmed, they get whiny. (As a toddler, he would have thrown himself howling to the ground, but by three or four he can often whine instead.) Meet his basic needs for food, rest, down time, run-around time, and connection with you, or you can count on whining.
He may not tantrum as much as he used to, but he will certainly whine if you force him to endure that shopping trip while he’s hungry and tired. Why create a negative situation that stresses both of you and contributes to the habit of whining?

2. Whining because he needs more connection

Be pre-emptive. Make sure that your child gets enough of your positive attention, unprovoked. Try to pre-empt whining by giving attention before he gets demanding. Anyone who’s had to ask a romantic partner “Do you love me?” knows that attention given after you ask can never really fill the need.

The secret is to take the initiative and give attention the child hasn’t asked for, often, so he feels your support and connection.

And of course it’s particularly important to connect when he shows the first sign of needing your emotional support, before that quick downhill slide. And no, you’re not rewarding “bad” behaviour by giving him attention when he’s whining. If he were whining from hunger, would you think you were rewarding that by feeding him?

It’s our job to meet kids’ needs so they have the internal resources to cope. Connection is a basic human need, and children can’t function well without it.

3. Whining because he doesn’t like what’s happening but feels powerless to get his way

Lawrence Cohen, author of the wonderful book Playful Parenting, says: “When children whine they are feeling powerless. If we scold them for whining or refuse to listen to them we increase their feelings of powerlessness. If we give in so they will stop whining, we reward that powerlessness. However, if we relaxedly, playfully, invite them to use a strong voice, we increase their sense of confidence and competence. And we find a bridge back to close connection.”

Remember, you’re not out to manipulate him, but to connect. Start by letting him know that you hear what he wants, and you see his point of view: “You really want to go to the playground, and you keep telling me that, and here I keep stopping at all these stores that you aren’t expecting, and you’re disappointed, right?”

Sometimes just feeling heard is enough to stop whining in its tracks. Then, if he keeps whining, you can say playfully, ”You don’t sound like yourself. I wonder where your usual strong voice went?”

Express confidence that your child can use his ‘strong’ voice and offer your assistance to help him find it, by making it into a game: “Hey, where did your strong voice go? It was here a minute ago. I LOVE your strong voice! I’ll help you find it. Help me look. Is it under the chair? No … behind the door? No … HEY! You found it! That was your strong voice! Yay! I love your strong voice! Now, tell me again what you need, in your strong voice.”

Finally, give him an alternate set of tools by teaching him how to ask appropriately for something and negotiate with you. Since whining is so often a function of powerlessness, helping your child to feel that he can get what he wants through reasonable measures will carry over into the rest of his life.

In other words, you don’t want him to learn that he gets his way in life by whining or tantrumming, but you do want him to learn that he can get what he wants through managing his emotions, seeing things from the other person’s point of view and setting up win/win situations. (And of course, that’s what you always try to model.)

So if you simply don’t have time to go to the playground today, then don’t. Be empathetic about his desire, and nurture him through the meltdown. However, if your objection is to his constant whining, rather than his request, and he manages to pull himself together and ask in a reasonable way for what he wants, then you’ll be able to engage in the kind of conflict resolution that finds a win/win solution: “Okay, you want to go to the playground, and I need to stop at the hardware store. Let’s do this: If we’re really quick at the hardware store, we’ll have time to stop at the playground on the way home. Think you can help me be quick? And if you are really fast about getting in and out of your car seat, we can stay a bit longer at the playground.”

Are you ‘rewarding’ whining? No, you’re empowering him by demonstrating that finding solutions that work for both of you is the way to get what he wants in life.
I often hear from parents that this empowering with the strong voice game strategy works like a charm the first time or two, but that after that the child refuses to play. If that’s the case, it’s because he actually needs something else – to cry. Which brings us to …

4. Whining because he needs to cry

He has a lot of pent-up emotions about things that are stressing him – the new babysitter you left him with on Friday night, that kid who grabbed the truck away in the sandbox, potty training – there’s no end to the stressful developmental challenges in your child’s life!

Toddlers let off stress by simply having a meltdown, but as they get older they gain more self-control, and begin to whine instead. Be kind in response to his whining until you get home and have a few minutes to spend with him. Then draw him onto your lap, look him in the eye and say: “I notice you were feeling so whiny and sad, Sweetie. Do you just need to cuddle and maybe cry a bit? Everybody needs to cry sometimes. I’m right here to
hold you.”

5. Whining because it works

Don’t reward whining, meaning don’t give in and buy the candy. But there is never a reason to be less than kind about it. Responding to his desire with empathy (“You are so disappointed that I said no; you really wish you could have that candy…”) helps him feel less alone with his disappointment.

And there’s nothing wrong with finding something else that will make him happy, like a shiny red apple or a trip to the playground. That teaches him to look for and propose win/win solutions. If, by contrast, he feels like he only gets what he wants by whining, he’ll become an expert whiner.

6. Whining because you’ll do anything to stop it

Why do parents hate whining so much? Because whining is your little one’s more mature form of crying. He’s letting you know he needs your attention. And human grownups are programmed to react to whining much as we do to crying, so the needs of tiny humans get met. So the minute you hear that whine, you react with anxiety. You’ll do anything to stop it.

But if you can take a deep breath and remind yourself that there’s no emergency, you’ll feel a lot better, and you’ll parent better. Don’t let your automatic crisis mode of fight or flight kick in. Don’t feel like you have to solve the problem, or do anything at all except love your child. Just smile at your child and give him a big hug. Most of the time, the whining will stop.