Understanding why kids might be whining can help you deal with it more sensitively and respond in a way that helps you both to achieve a better outcome for the whole family, says Tiffany Brown.
Remember the newborn baby phase, when crying was the only way your precious bundle could communicate his needs? Whining and whinging when he gets older is effectively an extension of this behaviour. And as a parent, you are hard-wired to respond to it as readily as you did when he was an infant.
Whining takes over from crying when your child’s communication skills start to develop, and can persist right through to his teenage years. And as you probably know already, parents can find the sound of their child whining and whinging extremely difficult to listen to, sparking feelings of anger, frustration, and resentment.
Why do toddlers/preschoolers whine? Once kids develop language, it can be hard for parents to remember they still have a huge amount of psychological development in front of them. We may have unrealistic expectations of little ones for whom the world is growing daily into a bigger and more intimidating place.
When small children whine, they are indicating a need to release pent-up emotions and feelings. Comings and goings, you being preoccupied with other things, having to compete for attention with siblings – these are all things that build up emotions in a preschooler. What they actually whine about may seem illogical or disproportionate to us, but a logical reason is driving the behaviour. Your child is saying, “I feel alone! I’m powerless!” He needs your help to deal with these emotions, even if this means a crying session or tantrum.
What’s the best way for parents to deal with it?
A busy, distracted parent is likely to feel a sense of hopelessness when the whining starts. You’ll wonder what to do, thinking to yourself, “Should I just give in for the sake of peace?”
The problems with giving in are several. While your child will feel temporarily “listened to”, the underlying issue is not resolved, and the emotional release has not been achieved. There will be times when giving in is not possible. And, of course, the more you employ a “giving in” strategy, the more likely your child is to learn this behaviour can be used to manipulate you in the future.
Standing your ground and saying no very firmly is another strategy. However, any flustered parent can tell you that this old-school approach is often a recipe for disaster. Because your cold tone makes them feel even more isolated, the child simply responds with more whining.
In toddlers, whining may escalate to a full-scale tantrum. Because the whining is an indication your child needs you to help him work through his tension and feel in control again, tantrums are not actually a bad thing as a means to an end. But if that conclusion is reached with anger, frustration, shouting, and tears, no one in the family gains from the experience.
A more successful strategy involves a good helping of resilience and positive intention on the part of the parent. If you find this a struggle, keep in mind a good outcome is excellent reward for your patience. Keep your tone light and playful, and try to inject humour into the responses to your toddler’s whining. Directing her emotions towards laughter greatly increases her feeling of connection to you, and in some cases will completely dissolve her tensions in the most positive way. If this sort of distraction doesn’t work, and she continues to whine and be upset, she may work herself up into having a good cry or tantrum. Either way, maintaining a calm, loving approach and reassuring her that you’re there to give her all the cuddles and closeness she needs will see the storm pass quickly.
And what about school-age kids (six to 12 years)?
The underlying reasons for your school-age child’s whining are much the same as for younger children. There may be tensions or stresses in his daily life he is finding hard to cope with. This may combine with some unmet physical need; for example, he is hungry or tired after a long school day, and the whining begins.
Recognise that your child needs to feel connected to you in order to work through whatever is bothering him. Managing the situation involves helping him find more effective ways to communicate. Encourage your child to use a “strong voice” when communicating what he wants, not a whine. This can kick-start a reasonable conversation about his feelings, as well as being a great lesson to stand him in better stead at school and as he matures.
How about whinging teenagers?
Your teenager might whinge or complain in place of being honest about her feelings with you because it’s just “not cool” to open up to you like she may have done when she was younger.
Being negative is a way for adolescents to deal with their anxieties. Stay relaxed and non-judgmental, react calmly and non-critically, and try not to take things personally when your teen is whinging.
The complaints may be irritating, but remember, a non-reactive response from you will actually help her to express herself and. ultimately, feel better.