Whining is an almost inevitable part of childhood. “ Mommeeeee, Daddeeeee . . . pleeeeease . . .” or “But why? I don’t want to. I want you to do it” are almost guaranteed to be heard in your home at some point— more likely than not in a high- pitched, whiny voice that gets to you in the same way as nails being dragged on a chalkboard.
Why Do Children Whine?
Children whine for many different reasons; however, there are some that are fairly universal. Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons for whining and how to reduce them, using a mindful and gentle approach to discipline.
Lack of Control
Perhaps the top reason why a child whines is because they struggle for control over their daily lives and environments, and these are often expressions of their feelings of powerlessness. When children of any age feel powerless to control situations, whining is prevalent. They know that there is nothing they can do to control the situation, and so regular communication is pointless. Whining is almost an admission from the child that they have “lost,” even before negotiations begin, and are not happy with the outcome.
Lack of Communication Skills
For younger children, particularly toddlers and preschoolers, language acquisition is often not on a level with the emotions that they experience. If a child cannot vocalize how they are feeling, particularly if they are feeling bad, the chances are they will whine. Can you imagine how frustrating it must be to feel sad, angry, anxious, or tired and not be able to vocalize your needs to the people caring for you?
Lack of Emotion Regulation
The frontal cortex of the brain— responsible for helping children to form rational conversations— is not yet fully developed, which results in whining or dramatic displays of feelings, such as tantrums. The immature brain development also means that once they are behaving in this manner, they are almost incapable of stopping.
Children can feel overwhelmed for all sorts of reasons: at home they can feel overwhelmed by the requests you make of them; at school they can feel overwhelmed with the work they are expected to do and the organization required of them; in organized groups they can feel overwhelmed because of all the people around them; and in new environments they can feel overwhelmed by the sensory input. Feeling this way, particularly when they cannot control the situations they find themselves in, can leave children very prone to whining.
When a child of any age is overtired— whether from a lack of sleep the previous night because of focusing on exams, from running around a lot, or from spending full days at day care— behavior almost always regresses. When this happens they tend to resort to whining in particular. As adults, we struggle to control our emotions when we are exhausted, so it’s not surprising that the same is true of children.
Not Feeling Heard
As with most undesirable behavior, when a child feels a disconnect with their caregivers, whether they are parents, teachers, or day care workers, their behavior regresses. So if children don’t feel listened to, they can quickly resort to whining. Conventional wisdom says to ignore them and pay no attention to them when they whine. This is outdated advice, however, and is the worst thing you can do. Ignoring a child who is whining because they feel disconnected highlights the fact that you are not listening to them and increases their perceived lack of control over their life. Another common response to whining, namely, “I don’t understand what you’re saying, talk properly,” makes children feel chastised and that their feelings are being ignored. Once again, this only increases the problem and is likely to result in even more whining and sulking in the future.
How Do You Stop Whining?
Ultimately, time has the biggest impact. Whining tends to be outgrown as the child approaches adulthood, although I’m sure everyone knows an adult who still whines! In the meantime, there are several interventions that can ease the intensity and occurrences of whining – usually a combination is required.
Connection almost always comes at the top of my list of recommendations for helping with undesirable behaviors. If your connection with your child is fractured for some reason, this should usually be your starting point. Take time to really listen to what your child is saying. Make eye contact when they speak, communicate with them at their level physically, and, whenever possible, make them the focus of your attention. When they speak to you, repeat back what they are saying: “OK, so you’re feeling really grumpy that we have to stay home and clean today, when you would like to go out.” Listening intently to what your child is saying or asking of you really helps to make them feel validated. Even if you cannot agree to their request, it can lessen the degree of whining hugely. Remember that even if what they are whining about may seem trivial to you, it is still really important in their world, so don’t be tempted to belittle their wishes or concerns. They may be whining about the colour of their cup, while you are worrying about paying the rent or the mortgage, but it matters to them just as much as your concerns matter to you. If your child has a habit of whining when they want your attention, but you are busy— especially when you are speaking to somebody in person or on the telephone— it is very important that you make them feel heard. Rather than ignoring them or saying, “Wait a minute, I’m busy,” excuse yourself from your conversation temporarily and say: “I hear you. You are getting bored waiting; I will do my best to finish up quickly.” You may have to repeat this a couple of times, but just showing that you understand that your child is bored can really help to give them a little more patience to wait.
For younger children who struggle with communicating their feelings verbally, using nonverbal methods can make a huge difference. For toddlers, learning some basic sign language can be a big breakthrough. Using emotion flashcards (laminated cards with pictures of different emotions and the words underneath) can prove insightful. The child can sort through the cards and show you how they are feeling, even when they are unable to communicate this to you verbally. Encouraging children to draw pictures of how they feel can be enlightening too. You can also make up a secret language between you, for your child to let you know when they are feeling overwhelmed. For instance, squeezing your hand could mean “I’m scared,” touching the top of your leg could mean “I’m bored,” and putting their head on your leg could mean “I’m sad.” These nonverbal forms of communication can be really helpful when you are out in public, especially if your child is expected to keep quiet— and the connection and security of being “heard” is well worth the trouble of establishing this special language.
Helping children to feel that they have more power over their lives is one of the best ways to reduce whining and sulking. More autonomy doesn’t mean that you have to always let them do what they want— far from it. You do, however, need to allow them to have as much control as possible, adapting as they grow older. When giving them more control, it is important to understand that it is not given through forced choices. Asking, “This or this?” does not give the child control.
When children are tired or overwhelmed, scheduling some downtime into their day can have a wonderful impact. Create a space in your house that can be used as a “ chill- out area” (under the stairs works really well). Put a couple of bean bags there, some squishy cushions, some fairy lights, blankets, books, and a CD or MP3 player (relaxation or mindfulness CDs are very effective). When your child seems tired or overwhelmed, but not ready to sleep, suggest that they go to the chill-out area, either with or without you (their choice). Scheduling in fifteen minutes every day for downtime can have a really positive effect on whining.
More Physical Connection
Touch is a great regulator for children. A hug can help at any age, even if your older child initially shrugs you off. Roughhousing, play fighting, and general “goofing around” can help to draw you closer, as can play. For younger children, getting down on the floor with them, building bricks or train tracks, playing with dolls or painting and drawing, are great ways to connect in proximity to each other. For older children, a shared game on a console, going out to see their favourite band in concert, or a trip to see the latest blockbuster movie with dinner beforehand can be a good icebreaker.
Encourage Emotion Release
Whining can often be caused by storing up emotions. Just like us adults, if children become too “full up” with uncomfortable feelings, they may explode or become grumpy, irritable, and whiny. If your child is particularly whiny and the previous tips don’t help, it’s likely that they need an emotional release. In this case “having a good cry” is very much applicable. Encouraging children to communicate their feelings and release them safely in your supportive company can be really cathartic for you both. Parents can unwittingly cause children to store up emotions. If your child does tend to retain difficult feelings, a quick analysis of your communication is probably in order. Instead of telling them, “Come on, don’t cry,” or, “Don’t be silly, stop crying,” or, “You’re a big boy/ girl now,” use phrases such as, “It’s OK, you can cry all you need,” “Sometimes it feels good to cry and let it all out,” or, “You’re never too old to cry— I’m here for you.”
For more on the causes of whining, and other common concerns– and how to gently change your child’s behaviour, whatever their age, check out my ‘Gentle Discipline ‘ book – out NOW in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Rest of the World.