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Thursday, January 6, 2011

How to stop kids whining

Is there anything at all a parent can do to stop a child whining?

I have to admit that it's one of my pet hates, and one of the characteristics that I find hardest to deal with as a teacher and carer, because it's almost impossible to use my own strategy when I'm responsible for a large group in a classroom. Thank heavens my own child didn't have this problem! I might have gone completely mad.

There are certainly a few things we can do in the long term to discourage children from whining when they don't get what they want.

The first is to NEVER, EVER give in to stop the whining! Children are very canny little creatures; they will count that as a victory, and even the vaguest, dullest child will remember the strategy next time you say no. I shudder every time I see a parent who is so embarrassed and worn down by their child's constant moaning in public that they actually buy that toy, or lolly, or whatever, because I know it's going to be even worse for them next time.

And if you keep giving in and saying yes, what about the times when you really do HAVE to say no?

Many, MANY years ago when I was a teenager, I used to babysit a rather clever little 3-year-old (we'll call him Jonah) whose mother couldn't bear his whining. As a result Jonah had developed a brilliant line in manipulation, and was pretty good at getting anything he wanted.

It was close to Christmas, and we all went to the shops for some last minute gifts (I think I was the moral support in case Jonah let loose in public). Jonah spotted a particular (and very expensive) toy and decided he wanted it, and mummy was going to buy it for him NOW. Cue in the whine.

Normally it would have worked; did I mention that his mother couldn't STAND whining? But his mother had already bought him that exact toy for Christmas.


The whining got louder... and louder... and reached fever pitch. Jonah couldn't work out why it wasn't working. The whine reached screaming level, yet mummy was still saying no!

Eventually, of course, he cracked the biggest tantrum you've ever imagined, right in the middle of a rather posh department store crowded with even more posh middle-aged matrons. We had to physically remove him from the store screaming, lashing and thrashing, with everyone looking at us as though we must be the worst sort of child abusers. It was dire.

You have been warned. Deal with it before you get caught out.

The next long-term strategy is to nip that hideous tone of voice in the bud. Feeling strong? (You HAVE to be strong.) Every time you hear that tone of voice, stop what you're doing immediately. Take something off the stove if necessary, or call someone back, but DEAL WITH IT NOW. The very fact that you stopped what you were doing will probably momentarily startle your child into silence!

Get down on the child's eye level and get eye contact. This is the essence of what you need to say EVERY TIME that voice appears, AS SOON as it appears. Don't shout; be very calm and say what you really feel.

'Jonah? Look at me. LOOK at mummy. Every time you use that silly voice I feel very sad and very VERY cross. It does NOT make me feel like (getting you / doing) what you want. When you use that silly voice I will always say no. Do you understand?'

Wait for a response, and if it doesn't come, repeat what you just said, exactly the same.

If necessary, prompt a response that shows understanding. 'Jonah, what will mummy say if you use that silly voice?' Wait for a response. 'That's right. If you use that silly voice mummy will say NO.'

'So stop using the silly voice and find your proper voice. If I hear the silly voice again (we are going home right now and you will get NO special treats /you can go to your room till you find the happy voice again). Now, I know it's hard to stop, so if you can stop using that voice right now and it doesn't come back, we will (choose a small reward- NOT what the child asked for- for example...) stop at the swings on the way home / spend some time playing with your trains together when I finish this page of my work' (or whatever).

You've been honest. You haven't yelled. You've used simple language. You've given a boundary, and a consequence for crossing that boundary. You've given the child a choice of behaviours rather than backing him into a corner. You've empathised with his feelings- it IS hard to stop whining once you've got yourself into that mode. And you've offered an incentive for him to make the right choice. If he makes the wrong choice, DO WHAT YOU SAID YOU'D DO.

Even if you were intending to do what the child wants, DON'T DO IT if he whines at you. Leave it for another time. How many on-the-spot tantrums do you think you'll have to endure if you take the hard line on this? Hopefully not too many, because he won't be getting the payout and he'll want the little reward. You are teaching your child that WHINING DOESN'T WORK.

Maybe you're wondering why we're offering the whiner a reward for stopping. The point is not just to recognise his difficulty in regulating his behaviour, but also to make stopping attractive as an IMMEDIATE option, without giving in on the original issue. That way you don't have to feel like the big bad wolf, and he doesn't have to feel like he has NOTHING to gain.

If your child ends up in his room, make a time limit- a minute for every year of age is a good guide. If he comes out and starts again, back he goes. And when the time's up, have a quiet talk with him about why mummy was cross and what your child needs to do next time.

But why do kids whine in the first place?

Obviously it's often attention-seeking. It's actually a very effective method of attention-seeking, because it's SOOOOO irritating that it works! If a child wants your attention, then negative attention will come a very close second to positive attention, and if there's no hope of positive attention... he'll settle for the other thing.

There are plenty of valid reasons for not being able to give your child all the attention he or she wants- work, other siblings' needs, keeping a small amount of time to yourself for the sake of your sanity, daily chores- the list goes on. But there are no valid reasons for giving him or her no regular, one-to-one attention at all. Your time is the best thing you can give your child- way better than anything you can buy for them- and if you have no time for a child, well sorry, but you should have kept your legs crossed or your condom on.

Sometimes whining is a result of a child's perfectly reasonable request being ignored, over and over. Are you really listening? In the huge queue for your attention, does your child ever get to the front? You'll reap what you sow.

Sometimes parents model whining to their children, over and over. In adults it's called 'nagging'. If you ask your child to do something, make a 'three strikes and you're out' rule from an early age (it will also teach them to count to three!). Always get eye contact before you speak, especially the first time- don't call out instructions up the hallway and expect action; they'll assume you're too busy to really care whether they do it or not, or they may be so engrossed in what they're doing that they genuinely don't hear you.

The second time you ask them, remind them that it's strike two and on strike three there will be a consequence (which you need to decide on before you open your mouth), such as no TV tonight, or confiscation of a favourite toy. After you ask them the third time, wait five minutes and then DO what you said as a consequence (and do the chore yourself- no nagging on and on!). If they whine, you can use the whining procedure if you like, but feel free to go straight to 'go to your room until you can stop'.

Always follow up these sorts of confrontations! Explain honestly why you needed the task done, and point out that it's your job to teach them to pick up their mess, or help with chores, or wash their own clothes (or whatever you asked them to do) because you want them to be happy when they grow up- and doing those things will help.

Now go back and practise that little speech, so you've got it down pat the next time you hear 'but MUUUUUmmy, I WAAAAAAAAnt it!'


  1. good post!

    I tell my kids that I can't hear them when they use that whiney voice,... and usually they try again in their regular tone. I just hate the whine so much that sometimes I forget to be rational about it! thanks AA,.. I will try to remember how to address the whinge! :) pjxx

  2. Well done PJ- that's exactly the way to deal with it. And it IS hard to be rational... I think that tome of voice must be pitched at the same wavelength as fingernails on a blackboard, or rubbing styrofoam. That's why it's good to stop what you're doing the first time it happens, and deal with it before you get homicidal!

    Thanks for the feedback. Any more topics you want covered? Let me know!


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