3 Ways to See Whining Differently
“Mommy, I don’t want to.”
“Mommy, there’s nothing for me to do”
“Mommy, I don’t like this”
“Mommy, I’m bored”
“But I want it”
“It’s not fair”
“Why does he get it”
“Mommy!” “Mommy” “Mommy”
You said no to getting a new puppy. Or that Lego set. Or maybe it’s a later bedtime or a brownie for dinner.
His brother has the toy he wanted or he lost his new pokemon card.
Like nails on a chalkboard, the whining.
That voice designed to get our attention. And oh boy does it. Just not usually in a good way.
We ignore. We demand a child use their “strong” voice. We mock. We belittle. We yell.
What we rarely do in this moment is listen. Connect. Empathize.
Not focused on anything but ending. the. whining.
Here’s the thing with whining that I’d wish I’d known when my kids were younger…
It’s developmentally appropriate.
It’s designed to get a reaction.
It’s used as a strategy when a child feels not heard or powerless to have their needs met or don’t feel that their needs will be met.
Needs like connection. Attention. Independence. Empathy. Respect.
A child will whine…
when they’re bored. Or feel they have no choice. Or they’re aren’t getting attention.
when things don’t feel fair. Or they’re hungry. Or they don’t want to do what you’re asking but feel powerless to have a choice.
when they can’t meet your expectations and the frustration builds.
when they’re overstimulated and stressed and overwhelmed.
when they don’t have consistent limits to relax into.
when they have a lot of unhappy feelings packed into their “backpack” and don’t feel safe to do so.
Traditional parenting focuses on behavior.
The strategy a child is using. And as such it focuses on control. Fixing behavior. Demanding expectations be met. Forcing compliance.
If a smoke detector played lullabies, it wouldn’t get you to run out of the house. That loud (annoying when you just burned the popcorn) beeping is designed to get you moving.
Whining is that alert system to say that something isn’t right in your child’s world. Maybe they simply need to be heard. Maybe it’s something more.
It is designed to get your attention. It’s a plea for help. And a cry for connection.
Whining is a strategy. A tool designed to get a reaction. But likely not the reaction you’ve been using.
Ignoring. Walking away. Demanding a child use their big kid voice so you can hear them only further invalidates them.
As Lawrence Cohen, of the amazing book Playful Parenting writes:
"When children whine they are feeling powerless. If we scold them for whining or refuse to listen to them we increase their feelings of powerlessness. If we give in so they will stop whining, we reward that powerlessness. But if we relaxedly, playfully, invite them to use a strong voice, we increase their sense of confidence and competence. And we find a bridge back to close connection."
As parents, we never learned that the reaction it is designed to get is for us to stop. To listen. To connect.
It is developmentally appropriate as a child moves out of the meltdown stage as they learn to communicate more with words. It’s a more mature form of crying.
Here’s where it feels messy.
Humans are designed to react to distress and whining creates the same anxiety to fix and end it as crying does. Your body is flooded with chemicals telling you to make this stop.
This is where your awareness of your feelings and what’s happening is key! Don’t fall into your fight or flight response that engages that intense desire to make it go away. Instead, relax. Restore calm.
Reminding yourself you don’t have to fix or end it. You don’t have to solve the problem or give in. You only have to be present with your child. There’s no actual emergency.
If your only focus is to end the whining, you’re going to attempt this by any means available to you
Maybe you start with a no. Then a sterner no. Then a louder no. Followed by a stop this right now.
Maybe this cued a meltdown. Tears. That scene in the check-out line.
The warning lights in your head are so loud you can’t think.
You need to end this. NOW.
Maybe you give in to that candy bar at the store. To let them watch one more show.
Maybe you punish them with a time-out far away from you. Maybe you threaten and yell. Maybe you grab them roughly and storm out of the store loudly placing all the blame for your discomfort on their little shoulders.
When you give in, you’re teaching them that “hey you want something, this strategy works.” You’re training them that your no actually doesn’t mean no.
When you punish, you’re teaching them to pack away those feelings. That you only want to be around them when they can be calm and cooperative.
Escalating the need to whine louder and more often.
You’re reacting to the sirens in your head and you're reacting to the judgment and perspective through which your seeing the whining.
You’ve likely been told this means a child is manipulating you (hey if they’re using whining to get what they want it’s only because at some point they learned it worked!)
They’re whining to get attention (which is a basic human need of a child).
Believing if you connect with them in this moment, you’re giving in.
When you feel least like connecting, this is when your child is actually needing it the most.
Support and empower your child by teaching new strategies for navigating their feelings AND focus on filling their bucket with connection. Strategies that help them feel powerful vs powerless. Strategies that give space for those feelings of disappointment and sadness. All while feeling heard and connected to you.
It begins with you.
Don’t wait until you’re at your breaking point to respond to the whining. Being proactive creates the possibility of responding to your child when you still have access to your calm. Address it when it first shows up.
Notice the desire to end the whining. Notice the desire to give in.
Notice and acknowledge your feelings as they come up.
Notice if your tired or stressed or in a time crunch as all of these will diminish your capacity for calm.
Remind yourself it’s not an emergency. You’re child’s not testing you.
Remind yourself that behind the whining they’re asking for support. Accept this even if when you don’t accept the strategy they’re using.
Do what you need to do to find your calm before responding.
Respond to the whining without actually giving in
Listen to your child. Respond. Connect.
When it first begins. Validate. Empathize.
Don’t give them what they want. Hear what they want. Acknowledge what they want.
Give them what they really need not what they think they want.
Using play can help a child move through the whining as laughter can dispense uncomfortable feelings the same as tears can. Be mindful when your child seems open to responding NOT when they’ve descended into their emotions that they’re unable to engage. I love this variation on a technique offered in Playful Parenting:
Oh gosh, I know it’s here somewhere. Did it get lost again? Pretend to look all around. Behind their ears. Under their chin. When they giggle, and ask what? Say that strong voice of yours that is so easy for me to understand. I love your strong voice.
If giving in has been your m.o. up until this point, you’re likely going to get some major meltdowns as you transition. It will feel like they’re simply upping the ante to get what they want. Testing you.
Without your own awareness of your feelings, this can feel really messy.
Your awareness and emotional regulation allow your child to work through their disappointment. Working through their feelings. Which isn’t something you have to fix. Or end. Simply accept and acknowledge. Create a safe space for these feelings.
It might get worse before a child can relax and trust.
Be patient with yourself and your child. Be consistent.
Focus on the connection with your child.
Get down on their level. Give physical touch if they will allow it.
I really want to hear you. This voice is hard for me to understand. I’m ready to listen to you.
Connect with your child. Throughout the day. At every opportunity. To keep their bucket full.
Don’t use maybes. As this creates stress in a child.
Address the desire. If it’s not going to happen be honest. Don’t try to avoid or put off the conflict until later.
If it’s the whining you're objecting to, consider what your child might need to know to relax. Then you can work towards a solution together.
If you’re doing what you want to do, don’t always just expect your child to like it. Again validate and listen. Don’t try to justify or argue with the feeling. Know that you might be pushing them beyond their capacity to get to one more store.
Get curious to the moments when whining seems to show up over and over. Proactively offer a solution to help a child feel heard and powerful.
A big one for us was when I’m talking to another adult. I offered my child the choice to hold my hand to remind me that he has something to tell me when I’m finished so he can relax and doesn’t need to keep interrupting and “reminding” me.
Be their grounding force.
Let them know you love them unconditionally. Offer a hug. Spend a few moments cuddling. Give a smile.
Give your child what they need. Love. Connection. Stability.
Not what they think they want. A new puppy. Their brother to be punished. An extra cartoon.
Let a child feel the feelings behind the whining. The disappointment. The sadness. The fear.
With consistency and patience, you will transform how your child communicates and how you respond in those moments when they are needing you the most.
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Hi! I’m Irene, the owner and founder of Irene McKenna Coaching. I’m a parenting coach passionate about supporting moms to experience relief from the stress, overwhelm, and frustration of parenting (and their child’s behavior) to create a more empowered reality filled with peace, joy, and connection. I’m a mama to two amazing little boys and partner to a beautifully supportive man. I loves dancing it out to Bon Jovi, reading all the parenting and self-development books I can get my hands on (seriously!), and drinking kombucha out of a wine glass.