How to get your child to stop whining
I recently asked my Facebook followers which of their children’s behaviours drove them the MOST crazy. Can you guess what they said? Yep. You got it. Everyone wanted to know how to get their kids to stop whining. Whining is high on every parents list of irritating behaviours. And I get it. It’s high on mine too!
We’ve all been there, right? We’re trying to cook dinner, or clean the bathroom, or write an email, or do the dishes, or maybe drink a cup of coffee in peace. And then we hear it. The grating, high pitched, nasal, singsong, enough to make your ears bleed, whining. “Muuuuuuuum!”. It’s like nails down a chalkboard isn’t it?
So lets talk a bit more about what whining is, why it happens, and more importantly, what you can do to make. it. stop.
What is whining?
Believe it or not, whining is not your child’s way of trying to manipulate or irritate you. They are not out to get you. They are not being intentionally annoying. What they are doing, is communicating a need to you.
Most people will do anything to get their kids to stop whining. I never met a parent who told me they enjoyed the sound. Which actually makes it a pretty effective communication strategy. We may wish that the message was being delivered differently, but whining is a message, nonetheless. A very clear message.
Why do children whine?
Whining is, quite simply, a more sophisticated form of crying. Much like crying, it is designed to get a caregivers attention, and elicit a response quickly. It triggers a stress response in adults, just as crying does. And because our child’s whining makes us feel so uncomfortable, we will do just about anything in our power to make it stop.
Because of this, whining is actually a good thing. Yes. Really! Whining is a sign that your child is becoming more mature, and better able to manage their emotions. Where before they would cry, now, they are attempting to self regulate (but they’re not quite there yet), and so we get whining. It is often the final thing they try before they collapse into a full blown meltdown.
What does whining tell us?
Your whining child is asking you for help. It’s as simple, and as difficult as that. They are letting you know that they are having trouble regulating themselves and need you to step in. Children whine for many different reasons. Often, they are feeling powerless. Disconnected. Scared. Anxious. Tired. Unheard. Unseen. They need our attention. They need us.
What can I do about whining?
If whining is an indication that our child needs help, then the usual advice you hear – ignore it, leave the room when they whine, ask them to use their “normal voice” – isn’t going to cut it.
These strategies will leave your child feeling even more powerless and disconnected. Their message is going unheard. And so often, when we use these strategies, either they’ll stop whining momentarily and then continue .with even more force, or it will descend into a full blown meltdown. And no-one wants that. Right? So how do we get them to stop whining then?
7 Strategies that will help your child stop whining
1. Accept it
No, you don’t have to enjoy it. But you can accept that whining is normal. And, our kids are giving us helpful information about their internal state when they do it. So let’s use it! If we can understand where the whining is coming from, it’s less likely to annoy us (at least a little) and we can respond from a place of empathy instead. And of course, once we solve the problem, they’ll stop whining.
2. Intercept it
Pay attention to patterns in your child’s whining. Does it always occur at a certain time of day? When they’re tired? Hungry? While you’re on your phone? Cooking dinner? See if there are things you can do to prevent the whining from happening in the first place.
3. Give them what they want
If the whining does start, give them what they want. And no, I don’t mean the cookie they’re demanding that you already said no to. No matter how unfair they tell you it is, if you’ve set a limit, you should certainly stick to it!
But what they’re really asking for when they whine, is your attention. And no, that’s not a bad thing either! They’re telling you that they feel disappointed, or frustrated, or lonely, and they’re having trouble communicating it to you. But they need you to hear it. So acknowledge how they’re feeling. Get down to their level, make eye contact, speak in a calm tone, and let them know you hear them. And then listen.
4. Allow them to feel how they feel
Sometimes just listening will be enough to prevent a meltdown. Sometimes it won’t. And that’s ok too. Because often, it’s not really about the cookie they’re not allowed to have. Sometimes the whining is about something bigger. Something deeper that’s been building for a while.
We all feel better after a good cry, so if your child needs to get those emotions out, bring them close and let them know it’s ok. Stay with them until they’re done and they feel better. Often they just need to know that it’s safe to let their emotions out. Crying is a great way to release pent up emotions and move forward.
5. Adjust your expectations
Sometimes children whine because they are lacking skills. The demands placed on them are greater than their ability to complete them. They feel overwhelmed and stressed by this. And so they whine, because they need our help.
So again, pay attention to when your child is most likely to whine. Do they whine when you ask them to clean their room? Maybe the task feels too big and they don’t know where to start. Do they whine when their sibling snatches a toy from them? Maybe they don’t know how to get it back.
Check your expectations. Are they able to do what you are expecting of them? If not, is there a skill they need that you can teach them? Or does the task need to be adjusted so it’s more age appropriate, or broken down into smaller steps?
6. Use play
Play and laughter are great strategies for diffusing a difficult situation that is teetering on the edge of meltdown-ville. Turn it into a game. Use a silly voice. Use some playful touch. Either your child will laugh, or they will cry. Either way, they’ll stop whining, and they’ll release some pent up emotion, so they should feel better. Plus, it’s a great way to reconnect with your child during a difficult time.
7. Pre-empt the need for connection
A child who whines generally feels disconnected. They don’t feel they are being heard. You can cut whining off at the pass by scheduling in time for connection. For giving your child your undivided attention.
Ultimately, when a child feels heard, their need to whine diminishes. Contrary to popular belief, giving our children attention will not make the behaviour worse. In fact, when we feed our children the attention and connection they require, they stop whining sooner, because they feel heard and understood. And that’s almost as important as no longer hearing, “Muuuuuummmmm!” Right?!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.