"I want brownies for breakfast ... I waaaaaant, I waaaaaaaaant, I waaaaaant, Mumma!"
Does that sound familiar? Whining can drive any parent up the wall. Children know how to whine in their best nails-on-a-blackboard voice. (According to research, whining, which peaks between 2 and 5 years of age, is one of the most annoying sounds on the planet!) You have said "No," asked your child to stop whining, given time-outs and even yelled at your child. But the whining won't stop.
Take heart, dear parent. You're not alone.
It's normal to feel frustrated or helpless in response to your child's begging, pleading, and asking repeatedly. You can practice effective ways to stop it.
But first, let's understand why children whine.
The first reason is simple: Whining gets their parent to give them attention and connection. Your child doesn't whine intentionally to irritate you. Securing a big chunk of your attention, even if it's negative, satisfies their basic psychological needs-belonging and significance. To your child, whining is a surefire way to get your attention and have their needs met.
Second, whining happens because it works! Children whine because it annoys their parent into submission. When your child whines and you give in, your child realizes that whining gets him what he wants-the attention he craves and maybe even that chocolate in the grocery checkout line or extra time in the playground.
Third, children whine when they're overwhelmed. It's tempting to tell your young child you won't listen until they use a more grown-up voice. But children are not grown-ups. Their whining can be a plea for help-they may be stressed hungry, thirsty, tired or overwhelmed. And brain behavior research demonstrates that young children don't yet have the neural connections to soothe and calm themselves.
Fourth, children whine because they need to express their feelings. Sometimes whining may simply be a way for a young child to express sadness or disappointment. Early childhood educator Janet Lansbury, author of No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, suggests that parents "accept, acknowledge, and support" children and their feelings instead of "correcting, scolding, or controlling" them. She writes in No Bad Kids, "The more we welcome our children's displeasure, the happier everyone in our household will be."
So when you think "Why is he whining?" you can tell yourself, "My child is requesting for a resource (could be a snack or a nap) or comfort," and not "He's doing this deliberately to annoy me."
Reframing your child's whining as a bid for connection and comfort will help you respond to him with compassion than irritation.
How can you make the whining stop?
To curb whining, here's what you can start doing:
Stop the whining before it starts by giving positive attention before your child begins to demand your attention. Connect with your child on a regular basis, being fully present with her and paying 100% of your attention to her in that moment. Make it work: Give your child "special time." Spend at least 10 minutes with her, twice every day, letting your child lead the play, with you doing what she wants you to do. During this time, give your full attention to your child (without any phones, chores or bathroom breaks) and be emotionally available to her.
Look at your own stress levels and the overall family environment. Research suggests that children whine more when the family environment is conflictual or otherwise negative. When negativity characterizes your family interactions, your children are likely to display negativity in their own behaviors and emotions. Make it work: You can improve bonding by increasing positive family interactions. Set daily or weekly rituals to help you bond as a family. It could be a Friday board game night or a Sunday dosa breakfast, where the entire family pitches in. Consciously use more respectful language when speaking to your child. Work to build a better relationship with your partner (or co-parent), or if you're a single parent, work on your own stress levels.
Calm yourself first. Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself when your child's whining starts to get on your nerves. Then, extend a gesture of love to 'show up' for your child and soothe him. Showing up means giving your child your full attention and love in the moment. This enables him to build trust in you. It also helps him develop, over time, a capacity to self-soothe. Make it work: Hug your child with intention. "When your child whines, take a deep breath. Then reach out your arms and say, 'Are you out of hugs again? I think maybe you need a hug. I need one too!'" suggests Dr Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of multiple bestsellers on parenting. Spend this time soothing your child and do it for as long as it takes to settle the storm and help your child reset.
Be your child's safe space. Your young child is not capable of soothing herself yet. When she's overwhelmed, you being her anchor can help her regulate her emotions. Acknowledge and accept her feelings. Make it work: Identify and label your child's feelings and respond with empathy. You could say something like, "I notice you're feeling upset, sweetie. I know you really want a brownie. You're so disappointed you can't have that brownie right now!" -
Meet your child's basic needs-food, rest, run-around time and play. When your child whines, ask yourself if your child is hungry, tired or overstimulated. Ask yourself if you're packing too much in his day. Ask yourself if your child is getting enough downtime and rest. Ask yourself if he's getting enough play. Make it work: Set a daily routine for your child, which includes fixed time for meals, bath, rest and play. And then when your child whines, check if he requires any immediate resources-a drink, a snack, a rest, a diaper change or anything else.
Be playful. If you're up to it, add some fun and humor. In his book Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence, psychologist Lawrence J Cohen writes, "When children whine, they are feeling powerless. If we scold them for whining or refuse to listen to them, we increase their feelings of powerlessness. But if we relaxedly, playfully, invite them to use a strong voice, we increase their sense of confidence and competence." Make it work: The next time your child whines, playfully keep your hand on your ear as if to listen, and say, "What's that I'm hearing? Where did your strong voice go? Oh no! You lost it? It was here a minute ago. Come... let's search for it. Is it under the table?" and then look around your house. Make it into a game.
Model how to ask appropriately. Help your child learn how to ask nicely and to negotiate with you. Give your child the tools she needs to ask for something without whining and help her learn how to create win-win situations. Make it work: If your objection is to the whining and not to the request, you can help your child make a plan and cooperate with you by saying something like, "You can have screen time after lunch, and I have a meeting to attend. How about we help each other? You finish lunch quickly so that you're on time for the TV show, and I can clear up and be on time for my meeting." This helps empower your child to find solutions that work for both of you and learn that this is a respectful way of getting what he wants in life.
What not to do when it comes to whining
Should I ignore my child's whining?
This is a common misperception among parents, mostly shaped by the belief that since children whine to get attention, not giving attention is an effective way to get them to stop. However, ignoring the whining or pretending you can't hear your child further serves to widen the disconnect between you two.
Remember that whining may be your child's bid for connection. Or it may be his way of expressing his feelings. So whining is best met with empathy and support. Remember the last time you needed a good cry? What helped you-getting ignored or feeling supported?
"Do I give in to the whining?"
You don't want to reward whining by giving in. You especially don't want to reinforce whining by giving in "once in a while"-caving in might stop whining for a brief moment, but will end up reinforcing it in the long run. If you do decide to give your child that toy he's been wanting or extra screen time, it should be given as a pre-decided or out-of-the-blue treat, rather than one following whining.
This means you can continue to remind your child of the limits you've set but with kindness. Responding to your child's desire with empathy helps him feel less alone when he's upset and ultimately helps him develop the capacity to tolerate difficult feelings-an invaluable life skill!
With these strategies in place, you'll be able to tackle the whining and be able to build a stronger connection with your child.
In a nutshell
Whining can emerge out of needs for attention, connection and power. It can also be a way for the child to express himself.
You can pre-empt whining by giving your child positive attention and responding to her bid for connection before she has to start demanding it from you.
Responding to your child's whining with empathy and kindness doesn't reinforce whining. Instead, it helps him learn self-regulation.
What you can do right away
The next time your child whines, tell yourself, "My child is not whining to annoy me, he's whining out of some unfulfilled need."
Let your child cry if he wants to. Whining can be a result of pent-up emotions that your child is feeling. Instead of saying "Stop crying," try saying, "It's okay to cry. Mumma is right here for you. Do you want a hug?"
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD. on January 29, 2021.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and Parenting Coach at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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