Tag Archives: whinging

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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Wait Out Your Whiner Before Reacting And Everybody Wins!

Whining/whinging can drive a calm parent to the edge. Like nails on a chalkboard, the effect of a small person squealing their demand may unhinge you. Add refusal to comply with a reasonable request, and you have a recipe for disaster. OK, maybe not disaster, but how your react can inflict damage on the warm and happy relationship that you really want with your child.

So what do you do with a small child who whines/whinges? You could come down on them, all threats and authority. Good luck. Your child already knows that you have the power to deny them. They are choosing whining as an alternative to outright defiance, probably as a way to avoid a showdown. Insist on taking it there, and you may get immediate compliance but risk later explosions, or risk teaching your child that threats are the way to get what he wants. Oops.

Giving in to whining/whinging isn’t much better. You may have stopped the noise for now, but you have taught them a powerful lesson: this works! If you think that your child won’t try it again, or won’t try even harder the next time he wants something, you are experiencing wishful thinking.

This is how giving in will doom your plan. Every psychologist knows that the way to get a behavior solidly stuck in a child’s mind is to reward it intermittently. If it works some of the time, it will be tried again and again. Don’t believe me? Visit your local casino to see intermittent reward theory in it’s adult form. Every time that slot machine pays out, the customer is “taught” that it could do so again, if only they will keep playing. And playing. Folks, adults know the house always wins. Your child does not. They will keep trying their strategy on you.

Looking for advice from teachers or other “experts”? You will come away with some plausible strategies that often ultimately fail to bring the whine/whinge to and end. They sound so supportive, so understandable. “I can’t understand you when you speak to Mommy that way” is a common recommendation. An alternate strategy is “Use your big-boy/girl voice please.” I am going to tell you that neither of these strategies work very well with the chronic and committed whiner, especially if the perpetrator is under 5.

Why? Because you are using words to negotiate with children that respond better to actions. I am not referring to very young children or special needs kids with language skills under 18 months of age. But wait: those children generally do not whine/whinge. They don’t have the social and language skills to do so. They can be dealt with differently. This is why peak whine/whinge time is 2-5 years old. At this age, children can create strategies and observe their success or failure. But they are still little. They don’t infer from discussion, and they watch your reactions and the tone of your voice to support their limited language and social skills. Ask Dr. Harvey Karp. Happiest Toddler on the Block transformed my understanding of toddlers, and gave me happier days as well.

If your child clearly understands your request and your response to their request, and you consistently react in the same manner, you can wait out a whiner and teach them how to approach you. If you sometimes give them cookies right before dinner so that you can concentrate, or if you inconsistently administer natural consequences (taking toys that are thrown away from them, for example), then again, waiting them out isn’t going to work. But if you are reasonably consistent, this is the one strategy that will save your sanity and improve your child’s behavior in a lasting way.

By wait-it-out, I mean ignore the whine. Don’t react. You have ALREADY given them a response. Whether you are using Patience Stretching, my favorite move from Happiest Toddler on the Block, or simply a statement that if they want a snack, they need to sit on their chair, your response was already understood and rejected. Now you do nothing. You do not even make eye contact. Busy yourself, if possible, with some task in the room. This could be putting dishes away, folding clothes, etc. You want to be observed by your child to be non-reactive. You need to be able to observe them so that if they improve their behavior, you can respond right away.

The best way to respond to a formerly whining/whinging child who has come around is with warmth and humor. Nothing, absolutely nothing, sends home the message of success to them like an adult that welcomes them warmly. Don’t spend your time reviewing what went right. “You listened to Mommy so well. Nice sitting on your bottom in the chair” only works well with the youngest of the whiners. Most of them already understand that your warm response is in reaction to their compliance. Save the sing-song review for your infant; give your toddler or preschooler a hug, a kiss or some physical response instead.

Good luck, and see if waiting works for you!