I’m just going to say it: There are few sounds on Earth more annoying than the a young child whining. It doesn’t matter what actual words are involved; when they hit that high-pitched tone—the tone that makes skin crawl—it’s bad.
Psychologist and parenting coach Dr. Jessica Michaelson writes for the Huffington Post that little kids, particularly around ages 2-4, mostly whine for two reasons: either they legit can’t keep it together anymore, are melting down and need your help, or… it’s a power play.
For better or for worse, whining isn’t either a manipulation or a plea for tender loving care. It would be easier for us if it were just one of those—then we wouldn’t have to struggle so much to figure out the best response.
Instead, whining is sometimes a power play and sometimes a legitimate request for emotional support. It requires us to listen to each whine and think about the context.
This listening is hard. In order for our ears to hear the subtleties we have to be calm, emotionally resilient, have the time. We don’t always have these things.
Calm. Emotional resilience. Time. “We don’t always have these things.” She wrote that sentence in back in 2014—ahhh, simpler times—so chances are better that you are much lower on time and serenity right now. Still, if you can identify context clues to determine whether the latest whine is of the overloaded variety or the power trip variety, that can help guide your response (beyond snapping, “Stop whining!”).
If there is a clear catalyst for the whining—they are obviously hungry, tired or overstimulated, for example—help them put words to what they’re feeling. Michaelson writes:
When it seems like your child is expressing these emotions of being over-taxed, the best approach might be to reflect back the subtitles of the whining—“It’s so hard to wait. You’re exhausted. It feels too hard to talk like a big girl right now.” Just like you might want your partner to get you some ice cream without saying “Ask in your big girl voice,” your child would love it if sometimes you just helped without pushing for him or her to pull it together.
Empathizing with them when they truly are struggling isn’t encouraging them to whine more; it’s acknowledging that sometimes it’s just hard to pull yourself together. We’ve all been there.
Give them a chance to try again
If we’re dealing with a “hey, whining worked last time, let’s see if it gets me what I want this time, too” gambit, you can ditch the empathy in favor of the “try that again” strategy. That is, you ask them to repeat their request in a more polite, sans-whiny way. You can even prompt them with how to rephrase their question so that, “I waaaannnnnt juuuuuuuuuuice” can be modified to the more socially acceptable and less grating, “Mommy, may I please have some juice?”
The key here—the absolute key—is that you do not acquiesce to their whiny demands until they’ve adjusted their tone and language as needed. If you give in, they’ll just whine harder and louder and longer next time.
A popular variation on this idea is to say you can’t physically understand them when they’re whining: “I can hear that you need something, but I can’t understand your words when you say them like that. Can you take a deep breath and try again, so I can understand?”
Praise their “polite voice”
This one is more proactive and takes additional dedication, but if you find yourself in the midst of a particularly brutal whining phase, be on the lookout for the times when they do ask for something politely, and make sure to point it out with a, “Sure, you can have some juice; I like how nicely you asked!”
Kids love themselves some positive reinforcement. If they think they’re going to get that juice and a compliment, that’s extra motivation to tone down the whine.
More tactics to try
And finally, because every child is different and sometimes empathizing, directing them to “try again,” and complimenting their regular voice still won’t be enough, I asked member of our Offspring Facebook Group for their most effective de-whining methods. Here’s what they suggested:
- “I would announce that he had reached his whining quota for the day and he had one left. Any after that would cost him a quarter.” (Kristin)
- You know what worked eventually? I whined right back. They did not like it.” (Kristine)
- “Videotape them and then show them how they sound.” (Shari)
- “I speak a different language to them. Sometimes it’s gibberish, sometimes it’s a misremembered snatch of a language learned in school, whatever. When they stop all confused and ask why I’m talking funny, I ask why they’re talking funny. Or I’ll say I thought that they were speaking French so I did too, because I couldn’t understand their words when they talked like that. It works at least half the time.” (Rhiannon)
- “I break the cycle of whining by getting my daughter to laugh. Could be a funny voice, an absurd question, or a weird dance. Getting her to giggle and getting her involved in the funny thing redirects her from whining and gets her back on track!” (Bailey)
- “I tell my kids whining breaks the television.” (Katie)
Final word goes to group member Chris: “Wait two years.”