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Powerful responses to use when your child whines or complains

It’s a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon in January and a bit of a slow day at the house. Your child is bored and complaining to you, which, unfortunately, is not something new. Stir-crazy and frustrated, he can’t help but whine about his boredom: "There is nothing good on TV;" "Why can't I go to the movies?" "I can’t go outside, and Sam is away, so I have no one to play with and nowhere to go." You buy an Amazon movie to occupy him, but after it ends, he starts grumbling again to no avail.

If this sounds familiar, you are in good company. Complaining is a mental habit that is seemingly ingrained in our culture. Whether we are lamenting our favorite team’s loss on our Facebook wall, bemoaning our wait in the checkout line, or whining about the weather to our waitress in Chili’s, complaining is a widely-accepted communication style that sometimes elicits empathy from those we are groaning to!

But even if we find a sympathetic ear, the act of complaining itself creates more dissatisfaction. As Mason Cooley suggests, complaints cease when the issue is resolved, but if the mental habit remains unaddressed, the complaints will arise again and again.

To be clear, we are not referring to situations when kids are voicing legitimate concerns—telling you they are hungry (when they really are), for example. Rather, the issue we want to address is the incessant whining for no good reason. One way to alleviate this habitual needless complaining is to teach our children mindfulness skills.

Mindfulness practice cultivates an awareness of our present mental and emotional state. With mindfulness, we (and our kids) can more accurately evaluate our current situation, determine whether the present concern is a legitimate one, and break the habit of mindless complaining about inconsequential inconveniences.

So, the next time you find yourself exasperated by your kids’ needless whining, try these three mindfulness techniques to help them kick the complaining habit:

1. Calm yourself to avoid the quick fix

When our kids aggravate us, we often mindlessly adopt the "fix it" mentality, which is the very approach that encourages the mental habit of complaining. To start, be mindful of what is happening.

Realize that, while a quick fix to "do" something to remedy the "problem" is always available (like buying an Amazon movie or providing a new video game), it is not the best long-term solution for the dissatisfied child. In fact, doing this may further ingrain the complaining habit by teaching the child that this negative behavior actually works.

When your children are relentlessly bellyaching, reorient your own perspective by taking a few deep breaths. Follow your breath and pay attention to it. Start noticing how the air moves in through your nostrils and follow it all the way down to your abdomen and all the way back out. Breathe deeply.

No matter what is happening, you can find a minute to perform this exercise. It will have a calming effect on your system and allow you to respond thoughtfully to your child’s whining so that you don’t default to the quick fix.

2. Reorient children to the reality of the situation

Gently reorienting our kids to what is actually happening will help them drop the complaining habit. Rather than placating them (which won’t stop the complaints from reoccurring), help them see the possibilities available in the present moment. Our belief that there is something deficient or lacking about our present situation often does not comport with reality.

A gratitude practice is helpful here. Take out a sheet of paper and have your children list things that they are grateful for, along with a brief reason why they are grateful for them. Help them list 10 things.

These can be anything: Siblings, their home, their dog, or whatever comes to mind. Try to turn the focus away from electronics (i.e. the latest video game machine of choice) and more towards their relationships, experiences and necessities that we often take for granted.

3. Focus on present moment experiences and intentions

Real change occurs when we can help our children focus on the present moment and realize that happiness does not come from obtaining new toys or novel experiences. One way we can help them obtain this perspective is to reduce or limit their screen time. Giving them a break from constant stimulation so they can actually focus on the present moment will (in time!) reduce their complaining.

A few activities that help kids develop mindfulness include:

If we really think about it, and encourage our children to think about it, there are countless activities that are readily available to our kids that help them focus on the present moment. And there are countless others that bring us parents into the moment with them, as well.

We can help them ride a bike, join them on the play structure at the park, or read to them. Or you and your children may enjoy doing nothing together. Simply sitting quietly in each other’s restful, loving presence and relishing the moment can be a transformative practice for your family’s overall well-being.

By using these mindfulness techniques, we can let go of the complaining habit and refocus our attention—and our children's attention—to the simple and readily-available things that make us happy and content.

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