As I get the kids into the car to run some errands, not only am I stressed because the bank is closing soon, I’m having panic attacks. The anticipation of that obnoxious whining, it’s about to erupt any time now. I can feel it and it’s driving me nuts already.
Will the whining stay confined to the car or will there be an outburst in the bank?
Will others look at me as if I’m the worst parent in the world? Then the inner voice answers, “probably!” Argh!
Now we’re way beyond the “this isn’t cute anymore” stage, right?
Twenty years ago I was faced with whiny children for the first time, in great numbers and it continues to this day. So I really know what parents experience on so many levels.
Why do children whine?
I’m going to assume we’re not talking about whining that comes from being physically hurt, having a potty accident, or from any danger of starving to death.
The super-short answer is because we taught them… kind of.
Think about this for a moment, what is the only strategy a baby knows of and uses to get its needs met? Whining and crying right? Perfectly normal.
Why do children continue to whine into their two’s three’s, four’s, and beyond? This is where things get a little complicated but I will list a few reasons.
Whining can turn into an affectionate catch ball game with the parents. The child whines, mommy smiles and says “What’s wrong my little buttercup?” The child gets a hit of control, love, significance, and mommy gets a hit of connection, significance, etc. I’ve seen many children playing this game with their parents and all I can think is “You have no idea what you two are getting yourselves into”.
Another reason children whine is that in their mind they’re the center of the universe. When this is threatened, the whining strategy is deployed. Perfectly normal stage of their evolution but it does make them very entitled.
Then we have the negative reinforcement of whining. “Here, just have it as long as you just stop that!”
The biggest reason that comes to mind is the child just hasn’t learned a new strategy for getting their needs met. These are the children that are the most frustrated because they know what they’re doing is causing more problems than the whining is worth, but they’re stuck. In most cases, they’re stuck in a gridlock with mommy and daddy – a power struggle.
Some parenting coaches suggest to just walk away when your child starts whining. Personally, I think this is terrible advice because in doing so the child is left feeling abandoned and even more stuck.
I also think it’s wrong to punish a child for doing something that was totally acceptable, even encouraged and reinforced in the past. Wrong in the sense that it confuses the child which is like having a car stuck in second gear.
If you know me, you know I believe our children’s deepest needs are to feel safe and secure. With this as a foundation, we can coach them out of any behavior that is no longer serving them.
The real issue with outdated whining is no one has taught the child that whining is no longer acceptable once you have the ability to speak. This is not something you say to a child because their prefrontal cortex can’t process such a nuanced message.
Up until now, you may have only been looking at your child’s whining as a pain in the butt. I get it and it’s always the first emotional response (Thank the lizard brain for this). What I’d like to suggest is to look at it as a cry for coaching. A sign that your little one needs effective but compassionate leadership. Showing up this way puts you in a position of power.
Coaching and leadership are needed but not when the child is already deep into a full-blown whining pattern. The training starts way before this.
The first step is to teach your child when they have something to say they need to get your attention first then demonstrate how it works by playing a little mental catch ball with them. Here, I will show you an example…
Excuse me Mommy is a good one but you can use whatever you want.
Then you play with it.
You say blah, blah, blah, and that is when your child says “Excuse me, Mommy.”
You pause, look at your child, smile, and slowly with a quiet voice say “Yes?” This trains them to be patient along with when they want your attention there is a rule to follow, a framework, a new strategy.
You can play reverse roles as well so they get to be the parent. This is super powerful.
later when the whining starts, you can ask “Do you want me to listen? What do you say to get me to listen?” This needs to be done as soon as the whining starts because if it escalates they tend to get locked into the pattern until it runs its course.
You will have to condition the new strategy in place so please do be patient and expect things to not be smooth sailing for a little while.
Now if you want to stop whining in its tracks, you have to highjack the child’s focus.
I have so many ways to do this but will share one, I use often.
You know it’s not a life-threatening situation or a physical emergency.
Parent: OMG! You must be bleeding! We have to call 911 right now! OMG! Your intensity must be stronger than their whining. You will also have to be 100% authentic or it’s not going to work.
Your child will stop whining and look very confused and they will say something like “No, no, I am not bleeding. I am okay.”
Now you say calmly, “oh, okay, what’s going on, do you want to tell me something?”
This interrupts their conditioned pattern, teaches them whining is for emergencies, and opens up a conversation about what’s really going on.
Feel free to drop me a line letting me know how it went or to ask questions.