So why do kids whine? In most cases, it’s because we let them.
Kids may whine because they’re overtired or hungry and these cases, it’s best to comfort your child and tend to her most pressing needs. But otherwise? Walk away.
Why? When kids whine and we respond, we provide reinforcement for the behavior and it continues. Kids do not whine to be annoying or intentionally irritate us – they’re often just looking for attention.
We are hard-wired with two basic emotional needs – attention and power. When kids aren’t getting as much positive attention as they need, they will seek it out. And to kids, negative attention is better than no attention at all. So kids whine repeatedly in the hopes that eventually they’ll get the positive attention they need. When they don’t get that attention, the whining and attention-seeking behavior will intensify into behaviors that seek power.
Children only continue behaviors that get results. When kids whine and parents give in, kids realize that whining gets them what they want – the attention they crave and maybe even that candy bar in the grocery checkout line. If you don’t address this behavior now, it will continue well into our child’s teenage years.
But giving in to demands – like one more television show or another scoop of ice cream – isn’t the only way we enable how our kids whine. Simply responding, even if it’s to reprimand them, gives a result. Picking up your child or responding with an annoyed remark, still gives the child attention – and now they know they can do this again and may get the same result.
So how do we deal with how our kids whine now? The first step is to remove the reward for whining. While it is not effective to have a calm conversation in the middle of a whining meltdown and the ensuing chaos, it is necessary to let your child know how you will be responding in the future. Pick a calm moment when everyone’s relaxed – maybe over lunch or a snack – to talk about the whining. Explain and model the difference between a whiny voice and a normal voice, and how a whiny voice hurts your ears. Let your child know how you feel when he whines and let him know that you won’t respond when he whines – you’ll just simply walk away. When he uses a normal voice, you’ll be happy to talk to him.
The next time your kids whine, stay true to your word. Stay calm and walk away – even our negative non-verbal reaction to whining can be a payoff. When your child uses her normal voice, be sure to respond right away, calmly and pleasantly. The first few times, the whining may be more intense, as she tries to see how long it will take for you to give in. But after a few instances of not experiencing reinforcement for whining, she’ll realize she’s more likely to get positive attention by using her normal voice.
Whining is an attention-seeking behavior, and may be a signal to parents that our child – whether toddler or teen – is craving more one-on-one time with us. I like to think of it as a gardening metaphor. Instead of fertilizing and watering our good plants with positive attention, we’re feeding the weeds instead with negative attention. And the weeds – the whining – get worse. Reinforce the plants/behaviors you want to cultivate and stop feeding the ones that are not helpful.
It can be as simple as spending 10 to 15 minutes twice a day having fun, being present, with your kids individually. Put your iphone away, stop doing the dishes, and be with them, in the moment. Do something they like to do, like reading, coloring, a puzzle or sports. My four year old is in a very tactile, physical stage, and often the best way to deal with her negative attention seeking behavior is to proactively ask her if she needs snuggle time, as soon as I read the early signs of her need for attention and connection. Ten minutes of undivided mommy time and she is usually off on her merry way to play happily and independently. Your investment in one-on-one time will pay off in well adjusted, well behaved and self aware children.