Whining gets parents’ attention, and (because we are human) we often react with frustration or . 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 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
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 , some water or milk, a snack, a rest, a —and, whether they are aware of it or not, they are falling in line with the that when you whine, you tend to get people’s attention (and resources) faster than when you don’t.
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.”
Psychologist 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, or playing together.
John ‘s 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.
also suggests that kids whine more when the family environment is negative or conflictual. In one , 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.
3. Kids may whine because they need to express feelings
suggests that whining, not just crying, is simply a way for young children to express sadness or disappointment. Early childhood educator 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.”
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 “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.
- Easy or flexible
- Active or feisty
- Slow to warm or cautious
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 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).
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 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.