Got a Whining Child Under 5? Here Is Why They Whine, And What To Do About It

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A lot of my youngest clients have started to whine.  That cute toddler has turned into a whiny young preschooler.  The pandemic isn’t helping them avoid it, or help their stressed parents handle it.

But I can help both parties.  I cannot make these kids grow up any faster, but understanding many of the reasons why kids under 5  whine and having strategies to manage it (notice I didn’t say “eliminate it”) can help.  Here is why they whine (most of the time) and what parents can do to get this behavior under control:

The Whys:

  1. They got smarter.  Not exactly more manipulative, but smarter about what gets your attention and what sustains it.  They can wear you down, and they can see that they are wearing you down.  Infants can wear you out, but they are oblivious to the effects of their screaming.  Not these guys.  They are taking notes, and taking names.  They know who is the best target for a whine, and who is impervious.
  2. They have more endurance.  You can’t divert their attention as easily as you once could.  No “look at the doggie!” and certainly no “It’s OK sweetie” will work any longer.  They know what they want, realistic or not, and they are gonna hold out for it.  Or make you pay.
  3. They have bigger ideas.  They can imagine more, and see that their productions don’t measure up to yours or their big brother’s results.  That scribble isn’t looking like the firetruck they wanted to draw.  Not nearly.  And they don’t know how to ask for targeted help or even any help sometimes.  This is a source of constant frustration for the most perfectionistic child, and even the most even-tempered.
  4. They still don’t understand physics.  Buildings that collapse, paper that tears, crayons that break.  They haven’t reached the cognitive level where they can anticipate these things, so they have “disasters” all the time.  I imagine if all your laundry turned pink, all your cooking burned, and all your pens broke.  You’s be annoyed too.
  5. They care deeply about what they are making, but their baby sibling doesn’t.  But they can’t anticipate and ensure the safety of their production line.  Babies are always up in their grills, ruining things.  Not because they are trying to; they are exploring, and destruction is a way to explore.  Let the frustration and the whining begin….

What can you do to decrease the whining so you don’t lose your ever-loving mind?

  • Telling them “I don’t understand you when you whine” isn’t likely to work.  You could tell them what you DO want them to do, which is to speak to you calmly.  It could be called an “inside” voice, or a “kind voice”, or any other name for it that your kid understands.  Telling someone what you want them to do works better than telling them you have become deaf.
  • Be amazingly consistent.  Don’t let circumstances rule.  Bake space into your events, so that you can wait out a whiner, and the essential things that need to get done happen with or without their participation.  You can leave the store without buying anything if you have something in the freezer you can serve for dinner, diapers for the baby, and “emergency milk” in the fridge.  Once a child sees that you mean business, they remember it.
  • Come up with something more fun for them to do than whine.  Since they now have bigger ideas but are unable to anticipate every disaster, you can give them methods to stop their LEGO from falling apart, or at least explain why it fell.  Be the solution to their problem in a way that makes problems normal and not a reason to fall apart.
  • Praise them for anything they do that is helpful, kind, or cooperative.  Yes, they should be cleaning up anyway.  But they will still be happy to hear that you liked their efforts.  Praise them to your partner or another sibling when they can hear you but aren’t in front of you.  This is Dr. Karp’s “gossiping” strategy, and it works!
  • Don’t let the baby destroy things, and then tell them they should be more tolerant of it.  Tell the baby not to touch, and tell your older child that they have to move their toy to avoid the baby breaking it, or they have to play with it when the baby naps.  Explain that babies just cannot understand what they are doing is a problem.  They aren’t trying to break things but they do. Make it clear that their toys are a priority for you, and that hitting and whining won’t work, but planning will.  This is my secret weapon.  When a child sees that I am on their side, they are my best buddy.  I won’t put up with aggression, but I will limit the rights of anyone else to attack their precious toy.

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