When children whine, their inner weather is cloudy, with a storm on the horizon. When a child is whining, filling his request probably won’t change his emotional climate for long. Filling his request might gain a parent a few moments of peace, but the child’s overall mood sinks back into a tone of “I am unhappy” soon again.
Sending a child off to his room or punishing him for whining won’t improve the situation either. He might come back from punishment or time out a quieter person, but he won’t feel good inside. He will probably find ways to balk, stir up difficulties with others, or zone out. This persistent unhappiness is hard on parents.
Whining children are communicating important information
Parents might wish the message would come in some other form, but whining is news from your child, hot off the press, “I feel alone! I feel powerless!”
Usually whining happens shortly after a child’s sense of connection to their parent or caregiver has broken. The ordinary things parents do, like feeding little brother, cooking dinner, or talking to a friend on the phone, can eat away at a child’s sense that he’s connected and cared about.
For small children in a big world, feeling disconnected gnaws at their spirits.
Once children feel disconnected, any small task can bring up jumbo-size feelings of powerlessness. Having to get dressed when they want to stay in their pajamas, having to brush their teeth when they’d rather play with the cat, and having to say goodbye and go to school or daycare can bring on whining.
Whining children have real needs
A whining child probably won’t be satisfied by the attempt you make to help, but she does have a real need. She needs you. Not just the things you do. She needs to feel connected to you. Only a sense of connection can mend that awful out-of-sorts feeling that’s bothering her.
Children are built to feel close to the people they’re with—close to their parents, their caregivers, their grandparents, cousins and friends. When they can feel close and cherished, they behave with confidence. When they don’t feel close to anyone, their behavior goes haywire immediately.
Whining children have feelings that won’t be rational
Comings and goings, moving from one activity to another, seeing you busy or preoccupied with other things, or having several siblings who compete for your attention all eat away at a child’s sense that all is sweet between you and him.
Sometimes even when parents are available, full of warm attention at the moment, children can feel disconnected; children can’t feel their love or caring because the feeling, “I’m alone,” has already taken over. Human feelings often paint an emotional picture that’s far from the reality of the situation.
For instance, whining often happens toward the end of a sweet, close playtime during which you’ve done the things your child loves to do. You’ve done your utmost to make things good, but suddenly, you have a dissatisfied child, who moans, “You never do anything I want!” It’s enough to make a parent feel: “I’m never taking you to the park again if this is the way you behave!”
This happens because, at the prospect of the end of a good time, feelings of helplessness or loneliness stored up from earlier experiences crop up and take over. The feelings may come from yesterday or from as far afield as infancy—they lurk in the child’s mind and are brought into play by simple, everyday moments.
Whining children aren’t trying to manipulate you
When your child is whining, he isn’t out to get you. He doesn’t really want you to give in to irrational requests. He’s trying to signal that he needs your help.
He has chosen something irrational to want so that you will say a gentle, firm “No.” Then he can open up bad feelings. While he is crying, he will actually shed these feelings. If you listen, he will eventually notice your presence, notice your love, and feel much better about himself and his world. He’ll stop needing what he was crying for because he has you.
Try to picture him saying, “I wannnaaa cookkkiiee,” but meaning, “Please say ‘No.’ I need a good cry with your arms around me!”
Help your child connect again
Whining indicates that your child needs an emotional outlet before he’ll be able to regain his sense that you are on his side. Laughter, crying, and tantrums are typical ways children release bad feelings.
A good laugh (but don’t force laughter by tickling), a good cry (without upset or punishment from you), or a good tantrum (without hurrying the child to finish) will cure that gnawing sense of helplessness or loneliness that causes whining.
Once your child regains a sense of connection with you or any other member of the family, he’ll be able to take charge again. He’ll ask for what he wants, without the “poor me” tone. And he’ll be easier to live with. So your energy will be well spent if you focus on rebuilding a connection with your child.
Try filling your child’s request once
A whining child does indeed need your attention for at least a moment or two.
At first, you won’t really know whether getting the thing he asks for will help him feel connected and capable again, or not. His request may seem reasonable to you—a drink of water, help with his shoes, one more turn listening to his favorite music.
If giving him the thing he wants makes sense to you, go ahead and try it once. But if more whining follows, you can be sure that the real problem is his emotional “weather.” A storm is coming.
If he’s not satisfied, offer closeness and a clear limit
The cold tone that most of us use when we say, “No,” serves to make a child feel even more alone and adrift in an uncaring world. It deepens the rut your child is whining in.
If you can say, “Nope, no more cookies! Maybe tomorrow!” with a big grin and a kiss on the cheek, your child receives contact from you in place of cookies. If he whines some more, you can come back and say, “Nah, nah, nah, nah!” and nuzzle into his neck, ending with a little kiss. If he persists, bring him still more affection, “I’m your chocolate chip cookie! I’m all yours!” with a big grin. Then throw your arms around him and scoop him up. At some point, the affection you’re offering will tip him toward either laughter or a tantrum.
Both results, as odd as it may seem, are great for him. Laughter, tears, and tantrums help dissolve that shell of separateness that can enclose a child, as long as you listen and care.
After a good cry (you listen, and keep sweetly saying, “No, James, no more cookies,” until he’s finished crying), or a good tantrum (“Yes, you really want one, I know, son”), or a good laugh (“I’m coming to give you big cookie kisses!”), he will feel your love for him again.
If you can’t be playful, be attentive
Playful moments don’t come easily to us when our children whine. So if you can’t find a way to nuzzle your child or respond with humor to his whiny requests, it will work well to come close and keep saying, with as little irritation as you can manage, “No,” “You need to wait,” “I can’t let you do that,” “He’s playing with it now,” or, “You’ll get a turn, but not yet.”
Being very clear about the limit, and offering eye contact, a hand on his shoulder or knee, and whatever warmth you can muster, will help your child work himself into the cry or the tantrum or laughter he needs to do. Children know how to release feelings of upset. To get started, they just need us to pay attention to them long enough to communicate that we’ll stay with them through this rough patch.
Allow for laughter, tantrums, or tears for as long as you have time and patience
Children whine when lots of feelings have backed up inside them. When they finally break into a good wail or thrash, they may be working through more than the frustration of not getting the cookie or the red truck. They may be draining the tension from issues like having a younger brother or sister, having to say goodbye to you every morning, or having just gotten over an illness.
In any case, children need to shed bad feelings until they don’t feel bad any longer.
If the pile of feelings is high, this can take some time. Parents don’t always have the time a child needs to finish the emotional task at hand. You may manage to listen to fifteen or twenty minutes of crying, and then feel the need to stop your child.
If your child’s mood doesn’t improve, he wasn’t finished. It’s as hard for a child to have an unfinished cry as it is to be awakened in the middle of a nap. He’ll try to find a way to cry again soon. Something inside him knows that it will be good to finish the job. So listen again when you can. Your child will eventually finish his emotional episode, and make gains in confidence that both of you can enjoy.
Listening time can help you keep perspective when whining begins
The hard part about trying these experiments is that whining triggers all kinds of irrational feelings inside of us. Whining kicks up feelings of resentment, exhaustion and anger in parents.
We feel like we’re being manipulated. We feel helpless.
When our feelings surge, we don’t think logically either. We react, usually behaving the way our parents reacted to our whining. The reactions we have to whining have been passed down through the generations in our families, each generation usually having a milder reaction than the generation before it.
So it takes some mental preparation to decide to move toward a whining child and offer connection, rather than moving away from him, placating him or punishing him.
Every parent deserves someone to listen to how hard it can be to care for a child or children. So finding ways to be heard by another adult who won’t get worried or try to “fix” us is an important part of our job as parents.
Even ten minutes of “venting” with a friend, out of earshot of your child, will give you a better chance of moving toward your whining child and connecting.