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.

Having a newborn is challenging at the best of times, but during forced isolation and in a climate of fear and uncertainty, it can become overwhelming.

The coronavirus pandemic is setting up our communities for genuine mental health concerns. This may be especially true for new parents. When will 'normal' life return? How will I pay for diapers and baby food? Will my mom be able to help us now? What if my baby or my family get COVID-19? Unfortunately, no one knows the long-term impact or answers just yet.

Most families have built a network of social support by the time they have their first child—if they don't already have a support system, they develop one through various baby classes and groups set up for parents. The creation of the village can be instrumental to the mental health of new parents. Social distancing, the lockdown of cities, and isolation will inadvertently affect the type of support available.

Keep reading Show less
Our Partners