How to stop your child's whining

The most effective way to encourage preschoolers to speak in their big-kid voices.

Photo: iStockphoto

Whining: It’s one of the most annoying aspects of parenting. You hear it in the grocery store, the park and definitely at my house, from my five-year-old daughter, who has her Ph.D. in whining, and her three-year-old brother (and protege). Today, my daughter asked for granola five minutes before dinner. After telling her she had to wait, I got: “But I’m hungry nooow.” My shoulders tensed as my body readied itself for round 947 of Parent versus Whining Tot.

I didn’t budge, which was smart, says Toronto child and family therapist Jennifer Kolari. “Whining is incredibly irritating and because we can’t stand the sound of it, we give in to get some peace, which rewards the behaviour. So, from a child’s perspective, it works.”

Kolari explains that whining is both a behaviour and a feeling. “When kids feel ‘off,’ they want to express that, and they feel the whine through their bodies. Grown-ups whine, too, but kids don’t have the same language skills that we do, and they express themselves through behaviour. The frontal lobe—the part of the brain that regulates behaviour—isn’t developed in the younger-than-five set. Our job is to be their frontal lobe, to help them navigate feelings: Yes, they are hot now, but they will cool down; no, they don’t get a treat every time they go shopping.”

Other than whining because they’re sick (which is understandable), there are four main triggers: hunger, thirst, fatigue and needing to use the washroom. “They feel yucky, and they want you to feel yucky,” says Kolari. If you get mad, or whine back at them (which parents often do), this can feel like a win for them, because they’ve gotten a reaction out of you. What about kids who seem to whine just to get what they want? “This kind of whining is normally associated with boredom, or trying to push for their own way, especially if they’ve been told no.”

So how do you prevent whining, or at least nip it in the bud? “Front-load,” says Kolari. “Always have snacks and water handy, and make sure your kids eat every hour or two—ideally a snack with a protein and a carb.” Also, kids this age need 11 hours of sleep a night. “They don’t get tired, they get wired, which can lead to whining and sometimes aggression. I also suggest keeping playdates and outings short and sweet. We want our kids to have all this fun, but we tend to over-program them and don’t recognize when they’ve had enough.”

Their “mirror neurons” are firing, too, meaning that preschoolers will mimic the behaviour of friends—or what they see on TV. “We are social beings who smile when we see a smile, and whine if we hear whining,” says Kolari. I know the whining increases exponentially if my kids watch Caillou, the whiniest preschooler on television. Many parents I know—including Kolari—have banned the show from their homes.

Given that whining isn’t something we ever truly outgrow, Kolari suggests these strategies for handling it:

•  Tickling and distraction games: Get them giggling instead of whining.

•  Wherever you are, sit down and have a little quiet time to reconnect with a cuddle or a snack.

•  Listen to what they’re telling you, then echo their feelings back to them (“You really want to make a craft today”), so they know they’ve been heard, even if you can’t give in.

•  Invent an imaginary “whiny monster” that gets placed in the closet before outings, or thrown out the car window. Focus on the behaviour, not the child, so you can work together on a solution.

•  Give kids a timed minute to whine to their heart’s content. When you give permission, the whining often stops.

While my daughter’s pleas for granola ended the moment her dinner was placed in front of her, her exhaustion led to several more episodes before bedtime. I tried Kolari’s last tactic, giving my daughter a minute to whine about having to brush her teeth. She didn’t last 30 seconds before we were both laughing.

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