Whining. It makes you want to cringe. Or scream. Or put your hands over your ears. Like a high-pitched, constant drilling or a broken fire alarm that just won’t quit, a child’s whine makes you want to run for the hills. Children whine for a variety of reasons; they could be hungry, tired, too hot, too cold, lacking attention, or most commonly, they want something. Whining, from a child’s point of view, is actually very effective. Why? Because it usually works. Take this scenario:
Lucas (child): “Mommy, mommy! Can I have a cookie?”
Mom: “Wait just a little bit honey, can you do that please? Dinner is almost ready.”
Lucas: “BUT MOM, I’m hungry now! I want to eat it now. Can I have it now, can I?”
Mom: “Lucas, I asked you to wait. Wait just a little bit until we’re done here and then you can have a cookie.”
Lucas: “But MOM! Please Mom, Please Mom, Pleeeeeaaaaassssse….”
Mom: “Fine. But if I give you a cookie, you have to go play and let me make dinner, ok?”
Lucas: “Ok, mom.”
In this scenario, Mom gave in. She gave in because she had to get dinner on the table. She just wanted Lucas’s whining to stop, and the quickest way to do that was to give in. However, now she has positively reinforced her child’s whining behavior, meaning Lucas has learned all he must do when he wants something is whine, especially when Mom is busy. Mom has increased the likelihood that Lucas will whine again in order to get his needs met. Lucas thus learns that whining is an effective way to get what he wants.
So how do you stop the whining? Especially when you’re busy, tired, trying to do a million things at once, or in the middle of an important phone conversation? Here are a few tips to cure whining, once and for all:
Make a commitment to yourself as a parent that you will not give into whining. Ever. Not even for a second. Now we all know there’s a difference between your child whining to get something and crying because he is hurt or distressed. Responding with love and validation when your child is hurt or distressed is, of course, very important. But responding to whining is not. The problem with whining is that most parents do a fantastic job of not giving in to whining when they aren’t busy and are fully committed to attending to their child’s request. But how often does this happen? It’s sporadic at best. Sporadic attention to whining actually increases the likelihood that a child will whine. Why? Think of a slot machine. You keep playing because you never know when you’ll win, but the mere chance of winning keeps you going. Slot machines use an invariable reinforcement reschedule, which is very effective. You cannot act as a slot machine with your child’s whining. You must make a commitment not to give into your child’s whining. Ever.
Assess the situation. Why is your child whining? Is he hungry? Does he need attention? Does he want something? Try to figure out what the goal of your child’ whining is, rather than assuming he’s trying to “manipulate” you. That way, when your child does present his request without whining, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re willing to bargain or present as an alternative. Regardless of the whining’s intent, we suggest you respond to your child with something like, “Lucas, I can’t understand you when you whine. Please use your six-year-old voice.” Then you turn back to what you were doing and do not respond until your child speaks in an appropriate tone.
When your child responds appropriately, you must deliver praise for using an age-appropriate tone of voice. Why? Because this is the behavior you want to reinforce. Say something like, “Lucas! I love your six-year-old voice. It’s so much easier to understand you.” Then you deliver your response to your child’s request. Now that he’s corrected his whiny tone, you may be willing to give your child what he’s asked for. If that’s not the case, present your alternative solution. Using the cookie scenario from above, here’s an example:
1. Stop what you are doing and give your child your full attention. Make sure you and your child are at eye level (scoop your child up so he/she is at the same height as you or squat down to the child’s level).
2. Look your child in the eye and touch your child’s shoulders gently.
3. Tell your child what you want. Be specific in your request and present your child with choices. For example, “Ok, honey. I know you really want the cookie now but we can’t have cookies until after dinner. Would you like a cheese stick now or do you want to wait until dinner is ready in 10 minutes? Which do you choose, cheese stick or wait for dinner?”(Giving your child a choice is important, as it will give him a sense of having some control over the situation).
If your child refuses the choices or begins to whine, calmly and matter-of-factly present the choices again. Tell your child there are only two options: cheese stick or wait until dinner. Tell your child you’ll give him a minute to make a choice and turn back to what you were previously doing. Ignore your child if he continues to ask you for the cookie or starts having a tantrum; if you give into this behavior you are positively reinforcing both whining and tantruming. If your child chooses one of the options you presented, immediately praise him for making a choice. Later, after dinner is over and you allow your child a cookie, praise him again for being grown-up and waiting for a treat.
So remember, next time you feel exasperated by your child’s whining, think about these steps. If you consistently do not give into whining, your child will quickly learn it’s not effective.
Have a tip for trumping whining in its tracks? Share it with Harmony At Home today!
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
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