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5 Great Ways to Respond to Kids' Whining

Research offers insight into why kids whine and the best ways to respond.

Talita Nicolielo/Shutterstock
Source: Talita Nicolielo/Shutterstock

Research suggests that people tend to experience whining, which peaks when kids are between 2 and 4 years old, as more annoying than a screeching sound on wood, crying, heavy drilling, or other uncomfortable, nails-on-a-chalkboard-type sounds.

Whining gets parents’ attention, and — because we are human — we often react with frustration or anger. Parents may respond with “Stop whining!” or simmer in silent frustration, closing the fridge with added vigor or edgily slamming a red cup down in exchange for the coveted blue one.

To react to whining with compassion instead of annoyance, parents can remind themselves of the science-based reasons why kids whine, and what they are trying to accomplish with it.

1. Kids may whine because they need your help or resources.

Dr. Jessica Michaelson suggests that one of the main reasons kids whine is because they are exhausted and need your help. She suggests that sometimes, through a whine, they are telling you, “I can’t act big anymore, please take care of me like I was a baby.”

When kids get stressed, hungry, thirsty, tired, or overwhelmed — often by a change in routine — their sweet natural voices get replaced by high-pitched, need-it-now tones. They may require immediate resources — a nap, some water or milk, a snack, a rest, a diaper change — and whether they are aware of it or not, they are falling in line with the science-tested truth that when you whine, you tend to get people’s attention and resources faster than when you don’t. It's just more effective. Researchers have found that people tune in more to whining than to neutral speech or crying. It makes their skin crawl (higher skin reactivity) and distracts them from whatever else they are doing.

Try: When a child whines, ask, “Is this child tired, hungry, thirsty, stressed, or overwhelmed?” "Are we packing too much in our day?" "Did they go to bed late last night?" "Is an emotional issue (such as a new baby or trouble with a friend) weighing on them?" "Is a physical issue bothering them?" Then, calmly model a gentler way to ask for things like, "May I please have some water?" while reminding yourself that a whine is "an urgent request for a resource or comfort."

2. Kids may whine because they need more connection or positivity.

Psychologist Becky Bailey argues that sometimes whining is a signal that a child needs more connection. She argues that if kids are especially whiny, they may need some focused one-on-one time with parents, such as reading, cooking a meal, or playing together. John Gottman's research indicates that kids may also need parents to "turn toward" them more often when they express a "bid" for emotional connection. When a child says, “Will you play with me?” a parent can “turn toward” the child by saying, “Yes, let’s play! I love playing with you!” and make time for it. When a toddler holds her arm up to be held, a parent can "turn toward" her by scooping her up for a snuggle.

Research also suggests that kids whine more when the family environment is negative or conflictual. In one study, when mothers showed more negativity, kids argued and fought more, and when fathers showed more negativity, kids whined and cried more. Negative displays of emotion, in both mothers and fathers, were “robust predictors” of how much children used negative emotion words in everyday life.

Try: When kids whine, look at your stress level, emotionality, amount of quality time with them, and overall family environment. Build in a bit more time for connection.

3. Kids may whine because they need to express feelings.

Sometimes, research suggests, whining — not just crying — is simply a way for young children to express sadness or disappointment. Early childhood educator Janet Lansbury suggests that parents "accept, acknowledge, and support" kids and their feelings instead of "correcting, scolding, or controlling" them. She writes, "The more we welcome our children’s displeasure, the happier everyone in our household will be.”

Try: Remind yourself that whining can be a normal expression of human feelings, which are always best met with kindness. If it's uncomfortable for you to hear kids whine, breathe in slowly for 5 seconds and then breathe out for 5 seconds to calm yourself. Remember the last time you needed a good cry or complaint session to release feelings and be able to move forward.

4. Kids may whine because they have a sensitive or feisty temperament.

All children differ by temperament. Researchers often discuss three types of temperament (though no child fits perfectly into one of these) — easy or flexible; active or feisty; and slow to warm or cautious.

Try: Remind yourself that some children are born with a tendency to have more intense reactions, a stronger will, more anxiety, or a harder time coping with new or changing experiences. While you can teach them better ways to ask for or cope with things, it will be a process.

5. Kids may whine in response to variable reinforcement.

Skinner found that people will repeat a behavior for the longest time with variable-ratio reinforcement (e.g., giving in once in a while, but not all the time). For example, if you give in to a child whining once in a while for ice cream after dinner, he or she will likely continue whining for ice cream for a very long period of time afterward, to get the same reward.

Try: Avoid reinforcing whining by being consistent and not giving in “once in a while” when kids plead for things like extra time on a video game, an extra toy in the store, or a late bedtime. Caving stops whining in the moment but reinforces it for the long term. We all want to relieve our discomfort about being seen as "the mean one," or crave a "boost" from being seen as a benevolent fairy granting a wish so we can hear, “You’re the best mom ever!” If you decide it's worth it to give in, expect that a few weeks of whining may naturally follow. To disrupt this reinforcement pattern, provide treats as "out-of-nowhere" surprises, rather than immediately following whining.

Bringing acceptance, understanding, and gentleness to whining is no easy task, but it’s a great way to build an even stronger bond with kids. Gottman suggests that by giving a positive, loving response when a child is whining, you are filling his or her “Emotional Bank Account” and strengthening your connection — and the stronger your connection, the less likely the child is to whine in the future.

See my book, Joy Fixes for Weary Parents: 101 Ideas for Overcoming Fatigue, Stress, and Guilt — and Building a Life You Love.

More from Erin Leyba LCSW, Ph.D.
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