by Sarina Behar-Natkin, February 2015
Help! My 3 year old is constantly whining, and it’s driving me crazy. How can I help him learn to use a better tone when he’s asking for help, a snack, to play with a friend, etc.?
Is there any sound more annoying than endless hours of whining? Apparently not! A 2011 study published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology found that whining distracts people more than listening to a high-pitched chain saw. Performance on tasks and attention decreased more with whining than any other noise they played. Across the board, men, women, parents, and non-parents were equally irritated by the noise, even when the words were in a foreign language. It is a good thing our kiddos are cute!
Now that you know you are not alone in your whine-induced craze, let’s take a look at what to do about it.
Kids whine for many reasons. They may whine because they are tired, because they are hungry, or because they are not yet skilled at regulating their emotions. But there’s one big reason why they do it over and over: because it works!
Picture this: You are sitting at your computer answering an email. Your child says, “Can we go to the park?” You barely look up and shake your head, “not now, I need to finish this email.” They may ask again, we may give very little response again. Then the whine kicks in. Our hair stands on end and we stop the typing (because apparently the sound is so annoying that it affects our ability to perform tasks). Our lovely child now has our full, undivided attention, which is likely what they were after in the first place.
Here’s the thing about kids. Positive attention, negative attention, it does not matter. When our kids want us, they want us and they will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Of course, the negative attention doesn’t really scratch that itch for love, so they keep at it. And the cycle continues. The good news is we can help our kids learn ways to get their needs met without rattling our brains to the core.
Options For Weeding Out The Whining
Look for what’s behind the behavior. Are there times that whining happens more frequently? Is it close to dinner, naptime, or a transition? Even adults have been known to whine when they are tired or hungry. If you find there is a particular time of day, it may be that your child needs to eat or sleep earlier than your current routine allows. Try moving the meal or sleep time 15 to 30 minutes earlier and see what happens. If the behavior frequently occurs in a particular setting, it’s possible there is something about that place that is upsetting for your child and they are extra needy before, during or after you are there. If this is the case, see if your child can express what is bothering them about that situation. Put on your own detective hat and pay close attention to the situation to see if you can pinpoint the problem.
Decide what you will do and follow through. At a calm time when your child is not whining, let him know that you love him but whining hurts your ears. Let him know that when he whines, you will wait for him to say it differently. Let him know that if he continues to whine, you will go into the other room and he can get you when he is ready to use a clear voice. When he whines next, you can just look at him with a calm face and wait. If he continues, calmly walk in to the other room.
Make a plan together. Same as above, tell your kiddo that whining hurts your ears and makes it hard for you to focus on what he is saying. You can let him know his words are important, and you really want to hear what he has to say. You might check in and see if he understands what you are saying. Continue by saying, “I wondered if we might come up with a hand signal or sign I can give when something comes out as a whine. Do you have any ideas?” As long as it is not an obscene gesture, take whatever sign they give and run with it!
Have some fun together and practice a few times. Be sure and take on the role of whiner in some of your practice. Kids get a big kick out of that and it gets greater buy in. Next time the whine comes out, do the sign and wait patiently for him to try again.
We have used hand signals for many things over the years. The one we used for whining was hands over ears. Even with a ten year old, we still use the sign for thank you when a discreet reminder is needed in social situations.
Get Silly. Sometimes we forget that humor can really shift the mood. Next time a whine comes out, get down at their level and make a silly voice yourself saying, “here comes the whiny monster to tickle you.” You can insert whatever silly voice or silly comment you want, the point is to keep it light and break the mood. Distraction and humor are great parenting tools. No, we don’t want to ignore our child’s feelings, but all we are trying to do here is break the whine/frustration loop.
Tips for success
No matter what you try, the way we do it matters. Follow these tips for using these tools successfully:
Follow through in a kind and firm way. If you have already discussed this with your child, they do not need 10 warnings before you leave the room. You are likely to just rile yourself and your child up. When he comes to find you and uses his clear voice, no lecture is needed, just a kind thank you.
Avoid the urge to say “big boy voice.” Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Imagine you are tired and upset and maybe not using your strongest communication skills with your partner when you relay the disaster of your workday. Your partner says, “Use your grown woman voice.” I can only imagine how many grown woman words would come out of my mouth in the next sentence. Your child is a big boy or girl because they are growing and learning new skills. They know that “big boy/girl” is often code for “good.” If we add our judging of whether they are good or bad, they are likely to feel quite discouraged and have a hard time embracing your request for a whine free home.
Pay attention to where you focus your energy. Kids are smart and they know when something pushes our buttons. While the tools above will help your child learn to articulate their needs in a clear, respectful voice, we get even more when we focus on the positive. Whenever your child uses a clear voice, reinforce it with “Thank you for using your clear voice,” or “I notice you used your clear voice.” I’m not talking praise here, just acknowledgment.
Whether you try one of the ideas above or just decide to not let it get to you anymore, your child will likely grow in to an adult able to communicate effectively. Our own fears and worries about their behavior can cause us to “future trip” and start believing they will fail in life if we don’t fix this right now. That pressure and anxiety is readily apparent to our children and gets in the way of our best parenting and their self-confidence. Your belief in their ability to grow out of the whining will make all the difference.
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About the Author
Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW, is a parent educator and consultant, and the co-owner of Grow Parenting. Sarina was a PEPS Participant, has volunteered as a PEPS Group Leader and co-leads the PEPS Advanced Facilitation Workshop “Leading with Confidence.” Sarina is a Seattle native with two giggling girls of her own who love to point out when she’s not following her own parenting advice!