When you look at the big picture, whining isn’t the worst thing in the world – but it certainly can feel that way when your child’s mid-screech in the middle of crowded restaurant or wailing away in the backseat as you drive home after a long day at the zoo. Whining presses on that one particular nerve in a way that has many a parent desperately seeking answers to questions like:
Why do kids whine – and why does it drive me so crazy?
Is whining really just a way for my kid to manipulate me?
Which strategies work to stop whining in the moment?
In HelloJoey’s “Whining and Complaining” kit, we explore whining from a scientific standpoint, looking at brain development, and from a behavioral one to help parents understand the whats and whys of that painful pitch. Then, we provide actionable suggestions from the experts on how to handle whining without damaging your eardrums – or your relationship with your child.
Why do kids whine?
To deal with whining, it helps to understand why it happens in the first place. As the experts share, whining is just a kid form of communication. “It's really a child expressing their emotional state or even their thought,” explains Dr. Neha Navsaria. “They're trying to say they might be feeling upset, bored, anxious, or whatever.”
Peak whining typically happens between age two-and-a-half and four, though it is normal and common for it to continue beyond that. At this stage, the emotional part of the brain is more developed than the rational part, so whining isn’t necessarily something a kid wants to do; they just don’t have the emotional control to stop it or find another way to communicate. According to Dr Navsaria:
Kids ages two to six don’t have the developmental skills or brain structure to put together a logical argument, so whining is the way they express anything from hunger to exhaustion to frustration.
At seven or eight, kids are better at recognizing and expressing their feelings, but they still don’t have the language skills adults do. They might go back to whining or complaining when they have trouble communicating – or when their parents don’t understand or instantly dismissal them.
Why does whining make me so crazy?
There are a couple of reasons that whining drives parents up the proverbial wall. Firstly, it’s distracting, and in fact, one study found whining was more distracting than a high-pitched engine noise or an infant’s cries. It’s designed to get our attention, and researchers have found whining shares acoustical properties with motherese – or that high-pitched sing-song tone a mother uses to engage her baby – as well as crying and other expressions of sadness.
There’s also that niggling fear in the back of many parents’ minds that whining is really just a kid being manipulative, but the experts say that really isn’t the case. In reality, our kids’ brains just aren’t developed enough to say what they want without sounding bratty. “Parents think, ‘My goodness, the kid is so smart to be able to pull this stuff,’” says child psychologist and author of the influential parenting book “1-2-3 Magic,” Dr. Thomas Phelan. “I don't think so – I think it's just there. ‘Evil genius’ it is not.”
How can I get my kid to stop whining?
Since whining is a stopping point on the way to clearer communication, we may be able to manage it by teaching our children how to tell us when they want or need something. According to Neha, “Whining and complaining are the precursor skills that lead to the healthy skill of how you articulate your need in a productive way or have problem-solving conversations with somebody.” So, if you connect with your kid and help them identify what’s going on – they’re sad, hungry, tired – you can meet the underlying need to stop the whining now and teach your child to express and meet that need themselves to stop the whining in the future.
Until that happens, these strategies may be useful next time your kid starts whining like it’s a competitive sport.
First and foremost, identify and address that need. Something as simple as a granola bar or even a hug could help “reset” your child and make the whining stop.
Consider compromise. This might seems like “giving in,” but research shows an acceptable compromise can help a child express their newfound independence and will likely resolve the situation.
Schedule some quality time. Neha says, “When you do that, some kids start to pull back with the clinginess, whining, or complaining because they know there's some structure.”
Use behavioral consequences like warnings and then a timeout. Dr. Phelan says to give your kid the chance to stop whining and then give them a timeout, which gives both of you a chance to calm down. Then, let the episode drop and move on.
Take a break – even if you have to hide in the bathroom. This can stop you from embarrassing or shaming your kids when you lose your cool, and it also teaches them how to calm down or handle big feelings by removing themselves from drama.
It’s tempting to implement a blanket “ignore it” policy when it comes to whining, but Neha cautions that response could backfire. “A kid tries to tell the parent about what's going on, but it comes out as whining or complaining, and they're dismissed and invalidated. Then, the child is going to possibly regress or think, ‘If my message is not clear, I'm going to elevate what I'm doing to make it clear clearer. I might scream, stomp louder, or yell harder.’” To stop that from happening, acknowledge why your child is whining, getting down on their level and making eye contact. “Connect with them about it and problem solve around it.”
As your child’s brain develops, they’ll learn to manage and express their emotions, so hang in there. Whining doesn’t last forever, and this will get better. In the meantime, use it as an opportunity to make sure your relationship with your child does, too.
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