Dealing With A Child Who Complains A Lot

It’s not easy to deal with a child who is a chronic complainer. Here are some easy tips to cope with a child who complains a lot.

By Mina Dilip  • 10 min read

Dealing With A Child Who Complains A Lot

When Mrs Mehta* (*name changed) walked into my clinic looking exasperated, I knew she was going to rant about her son. “I have had it with Piyush*!” she exploded. She went on to elaborate how he keeps complaining about every little thing, from breakfast to school timings.

If this sounds familiar, you are probably dealing with a complainer too. Children can become complainers at any age. And, at every stage of a child’s life, complaining serves an important purpose. Let’s take a quick look at why children complain and how you can deal with the habit.

Toddlers and preschoolers

Other than whining every time you say ‘no’, most young children complain about simple everyday things like food, clothes and other basic necessities. While this can get you really riled up (considering how much you do for them), the real reason behind such complaints is to get your attention. So, when you feel frustrated and react by retorting or admonishing your child, you actually end up giving him the attention he is so badly seeking.

Older children

Middle-school children and pre-teens mostly crib about homework, school or classmates. Their real agenda is usually to feel reassured. By listening to them and validating their concerns you can make them feel that you are on their side. However, if you happen to get irritated and snap at your child, she may feel invalidated and unloved.

Adolescents / teenagers

Teenagers can come up with really creative excuses to complain about, and do not really need a reason to grumble. Most teens complaints are an attempt to establish an independent identity. However, in their bid to set themselves apart by resorting to complaints, teens often end up alienating the individuals who truly care about them – their parents.

What you can do

Handling a complainer can be exhausting and emotionally draining. Constant whining, complaining and cribbing can drain you of your valuable inner resources, and end up making you crabby and unpleasant. However, if you choose not to react adversely, and work on responding to the real reasons behind your child’s behaviour, you can come away feeling fulfilled and effective. Below are some tips on how to manage a child who complains a lot. The beginning letters of each tip combine to form the acronym 'RESPOND'.

Respect your child by listening without judgment: Even if your child has complained several times about the same thing before, spare a moment — not to hear what he has to say, but ‘listen’ — to understand the feeling behind his words. And, most importantly, listen without interrupting or offering solutions. Sometimes a simple, “Oh, I see,” can be very powerful in communicating that you are listening in a nonjudgmental way. Moreover, listening communicates acceptance, which every child craves for.

Empathise and validate: It is essential that you understand what your child is feeling in that moment when she is complaining breathlessly. Work on developing your sense of empathy to see the world through your child’s eyes. For, empathising with your child will make it easier for you to understand and validate her feelings. For example, if she is cribbing about how much homework she has to do, empathise with her by saying something like, “It is really hard to spend a whole day at school, and come back home for more work. I understand how tough this must be for you.” You can also add a note of encouragement by saying you have noticed how hard she has been working lately, and asking her if there is anything you can do to help ease her pressure.

Stay calm and be supportive: This can be really hard, especially when your child has a habit of complaining. Practice mindfulness and remind yourself that responding appropriately to your child’s emotional difficulty can stop this endless cycle of negativity. While listening to your child’s complaints, if you sense that you are about to lose your cool, take a time out. Tell your child that you need a break and that you will come back to talk about it later.

If your child is younger, you can consider employing the ‘complaint card’ technique, where you offer him a set number of cards (say four) that he can use each time he has something to complain about. When he is through with his four cards, he holds on to the remaining complaints till the following day when he gets four more cards. With an older child, you may consider designating a specific time of the day and a time limit to voice his grouse.

These are techniques to ensure that the complaining is contained and not pervasive and endless. Moreover, it communicates your support and understanding by being willing to listen and validate.

Perspective is critical: Sometimes, it’s all too easy to get carried away by a complainer. I have seen parents taking their child’s complaints too seriously and picking fights with others. As much as it is necessary to listen, empathise and validate your child’s feelings and concerns, it is also critical to bear in mind two things – one, that you must let your child fight her own battles, and two, that there may or may not be any truth in these complaints.

Observe your own thoughts and actions: Each time your child complains, try to consciously observe what you are thinking and feeling. Is your child’s whining making you irritated and angry? If yes, then, why so? Does she make you feel inadequate in some way by complaining? But, if her complaint make you feel like going out to bat for her, stop, think and check out the facts before you react. Another important aspect of observing yourself is to notice whether you tend to complain a lot, too. Children pick up most of their habits and behaviours from significant adults around them. If you discover that you are a complainer – then work on shunning the habit.

Never personalise: When children complain about us, we feel hurt. This is perfectly natural. However, when complaining is a way of life for your little one, your self-esteem can suffer immense damage if you keep personalising every little thing he says. Tell yourself that this is not about you. This is the child’s way of coping with anxiety, fear, disappointment and other negative feelings. Your child feels safe enough to take out his feelings on you. Although this is not the healthiest way of coping, it is serving some need. Keep this fact in mind, and shield yourself from pain and hurt when your child hurls criticism and complaints your way. It is not your fault. Believe it.

Divert and distract, if possible: In case of very young children, you can use the classic divert and distract technique as soon as she begins to whine. This takes the focus away from whining and provides something more acceptable to do as a substitute. Over time, this can lead to fading of the undesirable habit of complaining.

However, if you are unable to reform her behaviour and feel that complaining has become a habit, it may be worth having your child evaluated by a professional to check for any underlying psychological or emotional problems or disturbances.

Mina Dilip, Child Psychologist, Trainee Practitioner in Therapeutic Play Skills (PTUK)

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