How to win the whining wars with kids

Listening to a whiny child is not for the faint of heart. That sound! High-pitched, irritating, like nails on a chalkboard — it’s impossible to ignore. And that’s exactly the point. Children whine because it works. It may be a negative strategy, but it’s a highly effective one, getting your attention in a split-second.

Kids whine when they’re frustrated, when they’re bored, when something seems unfair (often involving a sibling who got something they didn’t!), when they’re experiencing change (transitioning to a big-kid’s bed or potty training) or simply when they feel disconnected from you and they want you back. And it often seems that children wait for the most inopportune moment to start whining: when you’re in the supermarket, when you’re cooking dinner or when you’re on the phone. That makes sense, if you think about it — you’ve got a distracted parent and a child asking for something they need or want. The parent doesn’t listen, the child asks again and pretty soon it escalates into a full-fledged whine.

The key is to nip whining in the bud the moment it happens — or better yet, ward it off in the first place — while giving your child the words to express what he’s really feeling. Think of it as a four-part strategy: prevention, detection, distraction, education.

1. Prevention

To ward off whining, start by modeling the desired behavior you expect from your child. Even adults “whine” from time to time; and if you do it, you can be sure your child is picking up on it. Does she hear you yelling at other drivers on the road? Does he see you getting impatient and cranky in the checkout line? Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you are your child’s role model; and if you can manage frustrations in a calm, good-humored, non-whiny manner, your child is better equipped to do the same.

Younger children who are whining are often feeling disconnected, so try to find times to focus on emotionally connecting with your child. Scoop them up for an impromptu “cuddle time,” or set a story time when you read a book together. And rather than focusing exclusively on bad behavior, “catch them” doing something good, and reward their good behavior. “I like the way you asked for a cookie with your polite voice!” Reinforcements and rewards are more effective than punishments.

2. Detection

You want to spot a potential whining situation before it escalates. If your child is asking you a question, be responsive: Give her eye contact, put your hand on his shoulder to show that you’re listening and that you care. If you’re on the phone, use a cute, eye-catching egg timer and tell your child, “I’ll be off in five minutes.” Then let them watch it count down so they can tell you when “Time’s up!” (But then you really have to do what you say: If you stay on the phone for another 20 minutes, that child will be on the ground wailing, guaranteed.)

3. Distraction

If the prevention methods have failed and you hear that whine cranking up like an air-raid siren… Squirrel! That’s right, distraction is the key to greatness. Preferably, make your child laugh; nothing offers a better distraction or throws the whining off track more effectively. Here are a few methods I like:

  • I used to make my kids laugh by saying in an overly dramatic fashion, “I have very funny ears — when they pick up whining, they can’t hear at all!”
  • Or, “I’m sorry, but I can’t understand you when you whine — it sounds like this,” followed by silly nonsense sounds.
  • Open the window wide, gather the (invisible) whiny feelings in your arms, and say, “We’re going to throw these bad feelings out the window,” which provides children with a strong visual image that makes the concept more tangible.
  • Start a new activity: play a board game or read a book.
  • Grab a mirror or a video camera, so that children can see what whining behavior looks like from the outside — often they have no idea, and they’re surprised when they see it. And surprise leads to laughter.
  • Keep a whining jar, and every time your child whines, have them put in a nickel or a quarter. When the jar gets full (and hopefully it never does!), take the money and donate it to a charity — teaching them two lessons: managing their emotions and helping others.

Granted, it requires patience, humor and energy to use these approaches — qualities that are often in short supply when your child is whining! You may need to take a deep breath and use self-talk (“I’m going to be okay,” “Everything’s under control”) to keep yourself grounded and calm.

4. Education

It may not feel like it in the shriek of the moment, but whining actually offers a good opportunity to teach your children some valuable skills. Little kids don’t even know they’re whining — it’s simply a form of communication for them. So we want to show them other alternatives for getting their needs met: “When you use your polite voice, I will listen to you. Here’s how to ask nicely.” Older children who should have the proper vocabulary can be asked to “please rephrase that.”

This is also an excellent time to teach your children emotional intelligence (EQ) skills. Preschoolers don’t understand the emotions that are rolling through them like waves, but even children as young as two can learn “feeling words.” Help them learn to identify happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, love, fear. Use a mirror to see what those emotions look like on your face, or have them pick out illustrations in children’s books. Then talk about strategies that can help them deal with those feelings in a more positive way (talking about them, taking deep breaths, counting to ten).

EQ skills are vital when children go to school and of course later in relationships and in their careers. Teaching your child the language of feelings and the positive strategies to manage their emotions will benefit them not just in the short term, but throughout their lifetimes.


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