It is normal for young children to whine on occasion.
On a good day, you can find your compassion, be gracious, and let it go.
However, when the frequency, intensity, or duration of whining starts to rise irritation can build up and – unless there’s some safety valve – it can boil into anger. Those moments are not suitable for you or your kiddos.
Before you become your own worst critic and wonder if you are ruining your child or raising him to hate you, consider this: reacting and over-reacting to a whining child is NORMAL, and for a good reason. Your reactivity is hard-wired into your DNA. It has less to do with how you were socialized and more to do with what you inherited at birth. For example, experiments with apes have shown that there is a vocal pitch to which ape parents react immediately; and the same is true with us humans. When your kiddo starts to whine or fuss, your brain codes that familiar tone as the “alarm pitch” so you will take action. That’s why fire alarms and police sirens work so well—the alarm pitch motivates you to take immediate action.
When kids whine, the brain’s limbic system is triggered by the alarm pitch, and it can scramble your reasoning powers. Maintaining any sense of emotional balance becomes difficult or even impossible. When triggered, your only goal is to either avoid the alarming stimulus or shut it down immediately.
At some point, “shutting it down” can involve yelling, screaming, and threatening your kiddo with consequences—even physical punishment. Thankfully, there is a better way.
When whining grates on your nerves, it’s time to slow down and take time to calm yourself so you can stop, think, and reflect on how you want to respond. Remember, whining is the language of a stressed child. It’s his way of saying that he feels powerless. He reached out for connection but didn’t get the response he needed from you, and that’s why he started whining.
Although it may not seem like it, whining can be a terrific teaching moment. For both of you.
When whining erupts, ask yourself: What would I like my child to learn at this moment?
If you are an active parent, you want your child to learn far more than good behavior. You want him to learn life skills like:
- How to ask for things in a nicer way
- How to use his “Pleasant Voice”
- How to use his tone of voice properly
- How to cooperate with others
- How to self-regulate
When your kiddo starts to moan and fuss, the real question becomes, “How can I best teach my child to whine less, regulate himself more, and use his words properly.” Here are a handful of tips to help you answer that big question.
Step #1: Listen … don’t ignore, distract, or punish your child
Listening is the language of acceptance. As adults, when we’re upset, we feel calmer when someone finds their empathy and compassion and listens to us. Children respond in the same way – it takes tons of empathy, understanding, acceptance, during a time when your brain feels like it is on fire, but the payoff is a calmer child who feels understood, accepted, and WANTS to cooperate. Listening involves echoing, mirroring, or repeating what he said, as a validation: “You really want to play with Mr. Bear for longer, but Becky wants him back now, and you’re disappointed – is that right?” Listening to your kiddo this way helps him feel understood, calms his nervous system, and helps him put language to his feeling states.
The key is with listening is to stay neutral and respond in a warm and thoughtful way to the whining instead of reacting to it.
Step #2: Model what “asking nicely” looks like
In my last post, I explained the children might not even understand that they are whining. It’s just another means of communication in their limited toolbox. So make sure to model how you want children to speak. Say something like, “Your voice doesn’t sound nice when you whine. If you want a drink, say it like this…” Then model the exact words and tone your kiddo can use. Or you can show him: “Why don’t you try saying ‘Becky, I’d like to play with Mr. Bear for a bit longer. Can I do that, please?’ And show Becky your Pleasant Voice.”
Step #3: Encourage another path
When children are whining, they need options. For example, “Can you say that in your Pleasant Voice? I really miss your Pleasant Voice when you don’t use it; I LOVE Mr. Pleasant Voice! Go ahead and tell me what you need, again, but this time I want to hear from Mr. Pleasant Voice.” Or, you could try saying “How about you play with Mr. Bear for the next two minutes and then I want you to be my helper and give him back to your sister? Can you do that for me? I’ll tell you when your two minutes are going to be up.”
Step #4: Praise them when they get it right
This is SO important! It’s easy to notice children doing things wrong, but we struggle to catch them doing things right, because “Hey, what’s the big deal? Children are supposed to behave, right?”
So keep an eye and an ear open for those moments when your kiddo is doing things right. Make sure to praise those moments. Remember, positive reinforcement strengthens behavior and makes that same action more likely. For your convenience, here are some examples of recognizing and honoring good behavior:
- “Thank you for using your Pleasant Voice. My ears love to hear that.”
- “You did that so well! Thank you for giving Mr. Bear back to Becky just like you promised!”
- “Thank you for trying to hang up your towel! The bathroom looks so nice now.”
Step #5: Memorize simple lines
Every parent has those times when your brain goes to mush, and you just don’t have the energy, patience or time to think of the right things to say. Do yourself a favor and get prepared in advance: memorize the following examples so you can repeat them when inspiration leaves you.
- I’m sorry, I don’t understand whining.
- It sounds like you want something, but I don’t know what it is when you talk that way.
- Hmmm … someone’s not using their pleasant voice.
Parenting can be a real challenge.
But you will always deal with challenging moments more successfully if you remember to take care of yourself first.
In the end, self-care will provide the energy you need to teach appropriate behavior when your kiddos whine and every other critical moment of their lives.
Author: Steve Cuffari For many, Steve Cuffari is the mentor that parents call on to make their parenting style warmer, easier and more affective. He is the founder of inTouch Parenting, a company devoted to helping today's parents calm the chaos, raise emotionally intelligent kids, and nurture families that thrive. read more about Steve Cuffari here...