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It’s science: Kids whine for a (very good) reason

Remind yourself, “This whine is an urgent request for a resource or comfort.”

It’s science: Kids whine for a (very good) reason

Whining gets parents’ attention, and (because we are human) we often react with frustration or anger. Research suggests that people tend to experience whining, which peaks when kids are between 2 and 4 years old, as “one of the most distracting sounds on the planet,” and view it as more annoying than a screeching sound on wood, crying, heavy drilling or other uncomfortable nails-on-a-chalkboard type sounds.


Exasperated parents may respond with “Stop whining!” or “I can’t hear you when you talk in that voice!” Alternatively, we may simmer in silent frustration, closing the fridge with a little added vigor or edgily slamming a red cup down in exchange for the coveted blue one.

To react to whining with compassion (instead of annoyance), parents can remind themselves of the science-based reasons why kids whine, and what they are trying to accomplish with it.

Here are 5 reasons kids whine, and how parents can respond with compassion:

1. Kids may whine because they need your help or resources

Dr. Jessica Michaelson suggests that one of the main reasons kids whine is because they are exhausted and need your help. She suggests that sometimes, through a whine, they are telling you, “I can’t act big anymore, please take care of me like I was a baby.”

When kids get stressed, hungry, thirsty, tired or overwhelmed (often by a change in routine), their sweet natural voices get replaced by high-pitched, need-it-now tones. They may require immediate resources—a nap, some water or milk, a snack, a rest, a diaper change—and, whether they are aware of it or not, they are falling in line with the science-tested truth that when you whine, you tend to get people’s attention (and resources) faster than when you don’t.

It's just more effective. Researchers have found that people tune in more to whining than to neutral speech or crying. It makes their skin crawl (higher skin reactivity) and distracts them from whatever else they are doing.

Try this:

When your child whines, ask yourself, “Is my child tired, hungry, thirsty, stressed or overwhelmed?” "Are we packing too much in our day?" "Did they go to bed late last night?" "Is an emotional issue (e.g. new baby or trouble with a preschool friend) weighing on them?" "Is a physical issue (e.g. sick, new tooth, or pain) bothering them?"

Remind yourself, "This whine is an urgent request for a resource or comfort."

2. Kids may whine because they need more connection or positivity.

Psychologist Becky Bailey argues that sometimes whining is a signal that a child needs more connection. She suggests that if kids are especially whiny, they may need some focused one-on-one time with their parents, such as reading, cooking a meal or playing together.

John Gottman's research indicates that kids may also need parents to "turn toward" them more often when they express a “bid" for emotional connection. When a child says, “Will you play with me,” a parent can “turn toward” the child by saying, “Yes, let’s play! I love playing with you!” and make time for it. When a toddler holds his arm up to be held, a parent can "turn toward" her by scooping her up for a snuggle.

Research also suggests that kids whine more when the family environment is negative or conflictual. In one study, when mothers showed more negativity, kids argued and fought more; and when fathers showed more negativity, kids whined and cried more. Negative displays of emotion in both mothers and fathers were “robust predictors” of how much children used “negative emotion words” in everyday life.

Try this:

When kids whine, take a step back and look at your stress level, emotionality, time spent connecting with your kids, and overall family environment.

3. Kids may whine because they need to express feelings

Research suggests that whining, not just crying, is simply a way for young children to express sadness or disappointment. Early childhood educator Janet Lansbury suggests that parents "accept, acknowledge and support" kids and their feelings instead of "correcting, scolding, or controlling" them. She writes, “the more we welcome our children’s displeasure, the happier everyone in our household will be.”

Try this:

Remind yourself that whining can be an expression of human, developmental feelings, which are best met with kindness. If it's uncomfortable for you to hear kids whine, breathe in slowly for five seconds and out for five seconds and repeat Janet Lansbury's mantra "Let feelings be."

Remind yourself of the last time you needed a good cry or complaint session to release your feelings and be able move forward.

4. Kids may whine because they have a sensitive or feisty temperament.

All children differ by temperament, the qualities they are born with. Researchers often discuss three types of temperament (though no child fits perfectly into one of these categories) as:

  1. Easy or flexible
  2. Active or feisty
  3. Slow to warm or cautious

Try this:

Remember that some children are born with a tendency to have more intense reactions, a stronger will, more anxiety, or a harder time coping with new or changing experiences (thus resulting in more whining).

5. Kids may whine in response to variable reinforcers.

Behaviorist Skinner found that people will repeat a behavior for the longest time with variable-ratio reinforcement (e.g. giving in once in a while, but not all the time). For example, if you give into your child whining once in a while for ice cream after dinner, he or she will likely continue whining for ice cream for a very long period of time afterward (to get the same reward).

Try this:

Avoid reinforcing whining by being consistent and not giving in “once in a while” to things like extra time on a video game, an extra toy in the supermarket, or an extra late bedtime, which stops whining in the moment, but reinforces it for the long-term. We all want to relieve our discomfort about being seen as "the mean one" or we may crave a "boost" from being seen as a benevolent fairy granting a wish (often resulting in kids saying something like, “You’re the best mom ever for buying me this toy!”).

If you decide it's worth it to give in, expect that a few weeks of whining may naturally follow. Lastly, to disrupt the reinforcement pattern, try to provide treats only as "out-of-nowhere surprises," rather than immediately following whining.

Although bringing acceptance, understanding and gentleness to whining is no easy task, it’s a great way to build an even stronger bond with your kid(s). Researcher John Gottman suggests that by giving a positive, loving response when a child is whining, you are filling his or her “emotional bank account” and strengthening the connection between you. The stronger your connection, the less likely your child is to whine in the future.

Create a school-ready capsule wardrobe for your kids

Dress for success whether virtual learning or in the classroom!

Tina Meeks

Going "back to school" this year may be less of a literal statement than in years past—but there is just as much reason for your kids to celebrate moving on to new grades. Just like in every new school year, a big part of the fun is refreshing your kids' wardrobe with clothes that allow them to express themselves.

Even if finding back to school clothes this year doesn't include a trip to the mall, you can still make an event of it by shopping H&M's kids collection from your computer. Pull up another chair for your shopping buddy and get the cart started with these fave capsule wardrobe options we've already scouted.

Here are our favorite picks:

A t-shirt made for play

H&M t-shirt

Call them essentials, not basics. A graphic t-shirt aces the test when it comes to being perfect for school. And because your little student will probably want to wear something that expresses their personal style as often as possible, it's great to know the shirts can stand up to school time, playtime, downtime and everything in between!

$4.99

Dressed-up casual shorts for total comfort

H&M boy shorts

Whether pulling up a chair for a virtual meeting with the class or heading back to the school for in-person learning, some comfortable, yet stylish, shorts will help your kid focus on the real tasks at hand: learning—and having fun while doing it!

$19.99

Layers for when seasons change

H&M sweatshirt

When it comes to feeling comfortable at school, layers are the MVPs. Whether the AC is blasting or the day started off cool and is warming up quickly, having a unique sweatshirt to shed or add will help your kid look cool while staying warm.

$9.99

A bit of flair with distressed denim

H&M distressed jeans

A school staple for generations, denim is both classic and continually fashionable with updates like distressing and new wash colors. If you're shopping online for jeans this year, take note of H&M's generous return policy—your kids can try on the orders at home and return anything that doesn't fit without a trip to the store.

$24.99

A fashion statement piece

H&M girls skirt

What's better than expressing yourself through a stylish outfit when school is back in session? Still feeling perfectly comfortable and ready to tackle anything the day holds while looking so good. With so many fashion-forward looks available at budget-friendly prices, H&M's children's collection means every kid can find an outfit that speaks to them.

$14.99

Some comfy kicks

H&M boys shoes

A sure way to put a little pep in your child's step this year, cool and cozy shoes are a staple on all back-to-school shopping lists for good reason. (Plus, it's fun to compare them to last year's shoes to see how much your kid has grown!)

$19.99

Anything-but-basic blouses

H&M girls blouse

Whether in the classroom or showing up for a video call with the class, a styling blouse or button-down shirt is a great way for your student to comfortably dress up the day. Better yet? Style doesn't have to come at the expense of comfort with so many made-to-move tops designed just for kids.

$14.99

A shirt ready to go whatever the day holds

H&M boys shirt

With "going to school" meaning anything from showing up in the classroom to doing a virtual session, it's important to have clothes that are perfect for anything the day holds. A classic, cotton shirt with a fashion-forward design is a great way to keep your student feeling ready to start the year with an A+ attitude.

$9.99

This article was sponsored by H&M. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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14 sweet 'just thinking of you' gifts for every mama

A sweet surprise that tells her you've been thinking of her might be the pick-me-up she needs.

Who says you have to wait for birthdays or holidays to give your bestie a great gift? A sweet surprise that tells her you've been thinking of her might be the pick-me-up she needs in these more-than-trying times. We've rounded up some of our favorite go-to gifts that are certain to be a bright spot in her week. But be warned, you may want to snag a few for yourself. (You deserve it, mama.)

Here are some our favorite "just because" gifts to give our hardworking mama friends.

New Mother face + body care duo

volition face + body care duo

This correcting oil and stretch mark minimizer is perfect for the pregnant mama looking to keep her pregnancy glow. The correcting oil brightens the skin while reducing dark spots, and the stretch mark minimizer works to smooth her ever-growing belly.

$70

Allover roller

esker allover roller

This jade roller goes beyond your typical face roller and can be used anywhere on the body. It works to increase stimulation and reduce puffiness and is perfect for applying any oils to the face or body. Plus, it feels like a mini spa treatment.

$65

Kombucha making kit

farmsteady kombucha making kit

What could be a more perfect gift for the health-obsessed friend? This kombucha making kit comes with everything you need to brew your own homemade green tea kombucha. They'll think this is the tastiest gift ever.

$45

Laetitia lipstick

cupid & psyche laetitia

This red lipstick is perfect for your makeup enthusiast bestie who is looking to spruce up her life in quarantine. Crafted in the United States, these bee and vegan-friendly and cruelty-free lipsticks are created to flatter all complexions. Cupid and Psyche Beauty makes finding the perfect red lip way too easy!

$23

Jigsaw puzzle

inner piecec jigsaw puzzle

Mamas need to destress now more than ever during quarantine. This adorable jigsaw puzzle is perfect for the mama who needs a brain break! The 500-piece puzzle designed by artist Ray Oranges features an abstract gradient design that fits a standard frame when completed. Bonus: It's printed on recycled paper and the company donates $1 from every puzzle sold to youth mindfulness programs.

$30

Matilda's Bloombox

matilda's bloombox

If we have to be stuck inside, we might as well have some gorgeous florals to brighten up the space. Matilda's Bloombox locally sources blooms, delivers them to her door and provides simple tips on how to arrange it into a beautiful bouquet.

$39

'I Am Enough' bracelet

I Am Enough bracelet

Let this dainty bracelet serve as a constant reminder to your bestie that she is enough. She'll wear this on her wrist and read this daily oath to herself, "I Am Enough."

$35

Glow assorted teas

vahdam low assorted teas

This tea gift box set covers the entire spectrum of flavors from sweet to spicy. Individually packaged in beautiful tins, your gal pal will feel like a queen sipping her morning tea. Originally $40, this set is currently on sale for just $24. We'll take two, please.

$24

Find your voice journal

find your voice journal

Journaling is a great way to ease anxiety and will slow your bestie's racing mind before bed. This gift is perfect for first time journalists and includes prompts, daily quotes and coloring pages to help her unlock her potential and find her voice.

$22

Premium frother

shore magic premium frother

This gift is fitting for your latte-sipping bestie who can't go a day without her coffee. All she has to do is add two scoops of collagen to her favorite drink, and she'll have a perfectly foamy drink ready in seconds. Skipping the drive-thru line has never been so easy!

$25

Bath soak infusion kit

maude bath soak infusion kit

Say hello to hydration! She'll be feeling smooth and relaxed as ever after a long bath soaking in these salts. This vegan + cruelty-free set incorporates dead sea salt and dehydrated coconut milk powder for an ultra hydrating experience.

$32

Tiny Tags 'mama' necklace

Tiny Tags 'mama' necklace

It's a hard-earned title she answers to a hundred times per day. Whether she's new to the club or a seasoned professional, this delicate script 'mama' necklace is guaranteed to be a perfect fit.

$105

Superfood honey

Beekeeper's Naturals B.Powered honey

With a lack of sleep and jam-packed days, getting through the afternoon can be a real challenge. Send her a powerful pick-me-up in the form of a therapeutic blend of royal jelly, bee pollen, propolis and raw honey. It makes the ideal companion for tea, smoothies, yogurt or even on its on.

$17

Calming midnight mask with melatonin

Who doesn't deserve a reminder to pamper themself every once in awhile? Even better, this mask does all its work at night while you're sleeping with no extra effort needed. It's an amazing plant-powered antioxidant-packed mask that has melatonin, wild dandelion leaf and hyaluronic acid to rehydrate, repair and reset facial skin. It's so good, you might want to gift it to yourself. We won't tell, mama.

$68

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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