Whining is a “fingernails on a chalkboard” experience for most adults. We often give in to a whining child, just to avoid hearing that noise. Or we explode and scare them (and ourselves) with the anger that whining can trigger. What can you do?
What would you say if I told you that I use a technique that works more than 50% of the time, and it can work in mere seconds to halt a child in mid-whine? Well, read on and let me tell you the secrets that I learned from Dr. Harvey Karp and his Happiest Toddler on the Block book!
I spend more than 75% of my treatment day as an occupational therapist with children under the age of 6. That can add up to a lot of whining! Why? Not because I am inexperienced, or because I am a pushover. Anyone that knows me knows that neither statement is true. It’s because young children may be able to talk, but they aren’t very good communicators. Being able to express their feelings effectively and negotiate their desires is just beyond their pay grade at this age. Their default is whining.
Dr. Karp’s Fast Food Rule has made my job so much easier. It makes young children see me as a friend, not just another adult telling them what to do. This one simple strategy lets kids know that I care about how they feel, but doesn’t suggest that they will get their way with me every time. In fact, they often find themselves following my directions without fully knowing why they have stopped crying, begging, or pleading with me.
Here is what the FFR entails:
Part 1: Repeating what you believe is your child’s complaint or desire, using simple words, short phrases and more emotional tone and gestures/facial expression than usual. You may not know for sure what a very young child wants, but take your best guess. If you are wrong, you can always give it another try. The more upset or younger the child, the simpler the wording and the more expressive the tone and gestures. Why? Because emotional people don’t hear you well, but they will pick up on your non-verbal cues effectively. You are trying to convey a simple message: I understand you.
Part 2: Only after you see that your child has calmed a bit with the knowledge that they are understood can you then begin to comfort, negotiate, or solve their problem. Not before. We jump in very early in the interaction to tell them “It’s OK, honey” or “I can’t hear you when you speak to me like that”. It’s only when they know you have heard THEM that they can listen to YOU.
The importance of being understood by another when you are upset cannot be overstated. Children need this from us more than we know. Even young toddlers are aware that they won’t always get what they want, but they need to know that we understand their point of view. If you do not convey this message, a child will whine, wail or scream to make it clearer to you that they are upset. That is why telling them that things are fine seems to throw oil on the fire. They think you don’t get it.
So, help them pull it together by stating their situation (as you perceive it) out loud and using some non-verbal messaging: I got it. You want more cookies. You don’t want to leave the park. You want Logan’s truck. Whatever it is, tell them that you understand before you offer a solution, an alternative, or explain why they aren’t getting what they want. I promise you, it will work more often than it does not, and sometimes it will work so well that you almost cannot believe how simple it was to calm things down.
There is a secret benefit from using the FFR: your child will gradually become less likely to break out in a whine even when things have gone badly. After repeated experiences of being understood and treated with respect and firmness, a child will expect that you are the source of solutions instead of a dumping ground for agitation and anger.