Research-backed

Why Do Kids Whine And How To Stop It?

Image: Shutterstock

IN THIS ARTICLE

Children often resort to whining to get what they want. Whining can become a bad habit that they exhibit not just with you but with others too. As a parent, it is necessary for you to put a full stop to their whiny behavior at the earliest and teach them to express their feelings appropriately.

But how can you achieve it? If your child switches to the nails-on-a-chalkboard voice as soon as you say ‘No’ to any out-of-the-world request, all you may want is for them to stop. Giving in to their demands would only cement the notion that whining works.

The good news is there are effective ways to stop whiny behavior, and we tell you all about them in this post. The first step is to understand the reason behind this frustrating behavior.

Why Do Kids Whine?

You may feel that your child whines for no reason. However, if you observe closely, you will notice they are trying, although inefficiently, to fulfill a need that may not be apparent to you.

Identifying the root cause of the whining helps you address it. Here is what the child may be doing when they are whining or throwing a temper tantrum.

  1. Trying to express feelings: When your child’s tone of voice changes to a whine, it could indicate how they are trying but failing to convey strong emotion. Studies show that whining is typically associated with a feeling of sadness (1).

The little ones are still learning how to understand and handle their own emotions. Expressing emotions represents one of the biggest challenges for them (2). Before your child learns to modulate the expression of their emotions, they may resort to whining, especially when the emotions overwhelm them.

  1. Seeking help from you: Often, children whine when they cannot do things themselves. A young child who is hungry, thirsty, exhausted, sick, or in pain does not know how to make things right. When things are no longer in their control, they want you, their support system, to take over. The urgency of the need may manifest in their high-pitched voice. They are overwhelmed, and they need your help to restore normalcy as quickly as possible.
  1. Looking for connection: Whining works fabulously to grab your attention. Research indicates that children’s whining is more distracting thing infant cries and motherese (child-directed speech parents use) (3). Children whine when they crave your attention and have been missing it. An activity that involves focused one-on-one time, such as a story you tell them or a movie you watch together, will satisfy the child quickly.
  1. Trying their luck with variable reinforcement: When you react pleasingly to a specific action that the child does, the child is likely to continue the behavior in the hope of getting the same reaction over and over again (4). This concept works against you in the case of whining behavior.
    • For instance, if you tend to give in to their whining behavior ocassionally and offer them candy, the child is likely to repeat the behavior, as they associate the behavior with a reward.
  1. Manifesting a sensitive temperament: In general, highly sensitive children tend to react to the smallest of changes around them. While these changes may go unnoticed by you, they could be affected to an excessive level. They may whine to bring it to your notice.

Here is one important thing to remember through all of this. Children generally do not whine to irritate us intentionally. In most cases, it results from the child not knowing how to express their emotions. The child may experiment with various strategies to get your attention, and whining is one of them.

Should You Ignore Your Kids’ Whining?

Children often use whining as a tool to get your attention. This is why, even if you turn to them with an exasperated expression or a curt “Stop that,” the whining escalates instead of petering out. You could exacerbate their whiny behavior by doing the following:

  • Expressing your anger by using phrases such as “Stop doing that,” “Don’t whine,” “Now I’m getting angry.”
  • Expressing your frustration or dislike through expression or body language, such as frowning at the child, sighing in frustration, putting your hands on your head.
  • Doing the task you set for them yourself. For example, you pick up the toys that they are supposed to put away, or you start cleaning up the water they spilled on the floor.
  • Letting the situation spiral into a debate with the child. For example, you tell the child they were supposed to pick up the toys half an hour ago, while the child argues they need ten more minutes, and this continues.

Ignoring the child’s whining is a good strategy. If you stop giving them attention of the negative kind, the child would no longer get the desired goal. The most important thing to keep in mind is to ignore attention-seeking behavior every time you encounter it.

No matter what the provocation or reason, if the child puts forth their view or seeks attention in their whiny voice, ignore it. This sends a clear message that they have to speak in a normal voice if they want to be heard.

Ways To Stop Kids’ Whining

While ignoring your child’s whining is a good strategy, it may not always be the best option for curbing the behavior. It takes time to change a behavior, and you have to be patient. Here are some handy tips you can use to keep a check on this attention-seeking behavior.

1. Predetermine ground rules about whining

Having preset rules tells your child beforehand that whining is not acceptable. When you set up a house rule, it also tells the child what the right way to get things done is. For instance, you could say, “If you need something, ask in your normal voice, and if it is okay with everyone, we can do it.”

2. Respond to the child’s need for attention

Sometimes, your child may resort to whining if they have been trying to get your attention for a while and have failed. Maybe you have been busy working or talking to someone and couldn’t attend to the child. In such a situation, acknowledging the child’s need with a quick “I’ll wrap this up in 15 minutes, and then I’ll get back to my little darling” nips the whiny behavior in the bud. Make sure you follow through on your promise so that the child waits patiently the next time a similar situation arises.

3. Encourage them to speak in a normal voice

Calmly tell the child to repeat themselves in their normal voice whenever they whine. Pretend you cannot hear their whiny voice and make a game out of it without making fun of the child. When the child speaks in their normal voice, make sure you respond to it in a perfectly normal manner.

4. Avoid situations that provoke bad behavior

Sometimes, the child may act up and display bad behavior because they are hungry or tired. Avoid taking them out when they are exhausted and during their nap time. Similarly, do not expect them to wait for hours in a queue while you wait your turn at a popular shop. Children do have their limits. Keep these in mind when scheduling chores too.

5. Arrive at a reasonable compromise

The child does not necessarily have unreasonable demands every time they are whining. Be flexible enough to evaluate if you can involve the child in arriving at a compromise. For example, if the child wants to get ice cream in the middle of your shopping, tell them that you can go after the shopping is done. As a reward for being so accommodating during the shopping, you could make them choose the place they wish to go to.

6. Defuse the whining behavior

Children whine because it’s the easiest way to get under your skin and force you to react. A simple way to handle whining is to not react to it as expected. Stay calm in the face of it, and do not let the whining provoke you into reacting. If you want to talk to your child through a whining tantrum, do it softly, quietly, and unemotionally. A strong reaction to the whining reinforces the child’s belief that it ‘works.’

7. Use a calm warning as your first response

Sometimes, the child may not realize when they switch into their whiny voice. Give them a chance to self-correct by giving a calm but clear warning that they are stepping into undesirable territory. Say something such as “Use your happy voice” or “No using that voice, remember?”

8. Set clear expectations beforehand

Tell your child what you expect from them well in advance when you head into a situation that you know could end up in a whiny tantrum. For example, if you need to make a quick detour to the grocer’s on your way to the ice cream parlor, let the child know in advance that you will be making a ten-minute stop there. Tell them you expect good behavior so that you can get the job done quickly and go on to the ice cream parlor.

9. Ensure your response is always consistent

It will not work if you ignore the whining behavior one time and then give in the next. The child may think that whining harder or longer will do the trick. Be consistent with your response. Every time the child begins whining, leave the room or ignore them and do your work or pretend your ears don’t pick up that particular tone. Whatever your strategy, follow it consistently.

10. Avoid reacting to it

Any reaction from you may be construed as ‘attention’ by the child, and it could encourage them to continue the whining behavior. Avoid all reactions, even non-verbal ones, that tell your child you are affected by the behavior.

11. Teach the child how to deal with the triggers

Teach the child how to deal with boredom, frustration, exhaustion, hunger, or any trigger that can spark a whining attack. Talk to them about how they can get some coloring books or comics when they wait for you to finish your chores. Help them find new activities that they can switch to whenever they feel like whining about something. Explain that doing so will let you focus on your task better and give them attention sooner.

12. Communicate how you will deal with whiny behavior

Ensure the child knows you will ignore the whining and not give them the attention they need or fulfill the need until they stop their bad behavior. Explain to them how you will respond and what it means. For example, you could say, “I will not say yes until you use your normal voice to ask me for something.”

13. Stay firm on your stance

Ensure that you stick to whatever stance you have taken to deal with whining. If you ignore the child’s constant whining to go out in pouring rain, maintain the stance until they quit and ask in a normal voice. Once they do, you can respond to them normally and explain why they can’t go out right away.

14. Give them clear indicators of time

Young children need clear instructions, so if you tell them that you will be with them in ‘some time,’ they will not understand what to expect. Be specific about the time. Say “I’ll take you to the park at six o’clock” or “We can play for half an hour now and then I have to get back to work.”

15. Be generous with deserved positive attention

When the child stops whining, offer praise as a reward for the positive behavior. This will help them associate good attention with appropriate behavior and lack of attention with  inappropriate behavior. If you have asked the child to stop whining and the child attempts to talk in a normal voice, respond positively.

16. Have realistic expectations

Your child can’t overcome whining behavior overnight, so have a realistic expectation about the change you should see in the child. However, by giving positive attention to the child’s genuine efforts, you can speed up the process.Acknowledge the smallest of steps so they stay motivated.

17. Discuss your strategy with your spouse and caregivers

Consistent response to the whining behavior is critical. Discuss your strategy with your spouse or caregivers so that you can all respond similarly whenever the child starts whining. If all the adults react to this behavior in the same way, the child will quickly learn that their behavior is inappropriate.

18. Encourage problem-solving

A whining tantrum can become an excellent opportunity for teaching the child how to solve problems. Talk to the child about how they can fulfill their need by approaching it differently. For example, if the child wants to buy a storybook that is out of stock, ask them to check if they can borrow it from friends or if the local library has a copy. That gives them something to do apart from whining and helps them work towards what they need.

You can deploy these strategies to keep whining in check. Remember that, sometimes, there may be some reasonable causes for whining that should be addressed without delay. Keep your calm and avoid letting the whiny voice get under your skin. Consistency is key. Use these strategies until the child understands that whining will not get them what they want.

References:

MomJunction's health articles are written after analyzing various scientific reports and assertions from expert authors and institutions. Our references (citations) consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. James A. Green, Pamela G. Whitney, and Michael Potegal; Screaming, Yelling, Whining and Crying: Categorical and intensity differences in Vocal Expressions of Anger and Sadness in Children’s Tantrums; HHS Author Manuscripts (2011).
2. Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains; Centre on the Developing Child – Harvard University
3. Rosemarie Sokol Chang and Nicholas S. Thompson; Whines, Cries, and motherese: Their Relative Power to Distract; Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology (2011).
4. Annabelle G.Y. Lim; Schedules of Reinforcement; Simply Psychology (2020).

Recommended Articles