All about whining

How to help kids ask for what they want so people will listen.

If Family Feud listed the top 10 irritating blips of childhood, whining would surely be on the board. Carrie Smith of Halifax, mom of four-year-old Aidan, knows all about it. “He whines when I won’t let him have something he wants, whether it’s Smarties for breakfast or a third cup of juice at supper. He was whining today because I closed his puzzle box and he wanted to be the one to close it!”

The sound that distinguishes a whine from a run-of-the-mill complaint — that fingernails-on-a-chalkboard pitch — tests the mettle of even the most patient parent. Val Bergeron, coordinator and parenting consultant with Information Children at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, says the tone of whining gives us a clue as to its roots. “Some people believe it’s a natural evolution from crying,” she says.

Whatever its origins, whining is a habit most parents hope their kids will break. Here’s a look at how to put a cork in the whine.

The why of whining

Children whine when they need something (like a hug) or when they want something (like candy for breakfast). That distinction is important — although the tone is aggravating, your child may have a legitimate complaint. “We ask parents to think of the HALT acronym — is the child hungry, angry, lonely or tired?” says Bergeron. “Are any of those factors playing into it? If it’s a real need, we encourage parents to step in. Not to give in to every whim, but to take a look at what’s really going on, and respond.”

Whining may be linked to the child’s age. Young children are egocentric. “They aren’t patient and they don’t understand the concept of time,” Bergeron explains. “When I’m hungry or want that red truck, I want it now because one minute from now might be tomorrow for all I know!” When a snack or a truck doesn’t materialize in a wink, the child may grow anxious and up the ante — and the pitch.

Whining often peaks around age three or four. “This is a time when life can get frustrating,” says Bergeron. “They’re floating between wanting independence and still needing to be babied a little.” Kids this age are often starting preschool or taking on a new role as big brother or sister — mighty responsibilities. They may have learned that whining is an effective way to get the attention they need as they adjust to these new and unfamiliar roles.

How to un-whine

When a child is whining, parents have a couple of roles. To begin with, you want to understand what’s really up. This is where HALT is handy. “Try to respond to the emotion by saying something like, ‘Sounds like you’re feeling angry,’” says Catherine Lee, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa. “Often that’s enough for the kid to tell the parent what’s going on in a normal voice. They want an acknowledgement of their feelings.”

Next, help your child express how she feels more directly. Kids are entitled to their opinions — and complaints — and you want yours to feel comfortable voicing her views. But people are more inclined to cringe than listen when a child is whining. “Our job is to help our children learn the most effective way to be heard,” says Lee. “If they come back at the teacher in a whiny way, the teacher is unlikely to give them what they want.”

Here are some tried and true ways to help kids of all ages learn to un-whine:

Five and under

Heed the need

Kids are less likely to whine if they are getting enough of our focused, positive attention. Break up a road trip with a stop at a park, and make sure kids aren’t hungry or due for a nap when you hit the mall. A little bit of time spent playing together before heading out to do errands can go a long way in whining prevention.

Give them words

A young child may have trouble expressing himself. It’s very frustrating when he knows what he wants but doesn’t quite have the words. Step in with, “Show me what you want. Oh, you want a banana!” Use a similar strategy for your child’s feelings; help him find a word that describes “sad” or “grumpy.”

Give yourself words

Pick a phrase you’re comfortable with. Bergeron gives an example: “When a child is getting to age four and older it’s fair to tell her, ‘When you can use a regular voice, I’ll be happy to listen.’ If the child hears this over and over, she’ll start to get the message. Hopefully.” A caution, though: Be careful not to give your child too much attention when she whines — this could inadvertently reinforce the habit you’re trying to discourage.

Six and up

Nab the habit

A six-year-old may have been whining for almost five years. Ask her, in a kind, calm way, to listen to herself — she may never have really heard her own voice. This can help her understand how her tone affects other people.

Meet big kid needs too

Could the preteen who’s whining about his homework actually need you? “Maybe he’s been asking me for help for half an hour, and I haven’t heard him because I’ve been so busy,” suggests Bergeron. If the behaviour persists, address it. “Remind a 12-year-old that he can use a different voice, and tell him you’d like him to reword his comments or change his tone,” says Bergeron. “That’s an approach you would be taking with a teen or preteen anyway, when they throw attitude at you, for example.”

Keep talking

Even though you can’t stand the tone, your child may still have something valuable to share with you. If your preteen or teen is actually talking to you, you’ll want to listen carefully and keep the communication going. Lee says, “We really have to be careful not to shut them down emotionally.”

Un-form the habit

Any long-standing behaviour is hard to change. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while. Bergeron cautions, “Expect it to get worse before it gets better.” When a strategy the child has been using stops working, she may increase the intensity, thinking she’s just not trying hard enough. It’s important that you stick this out so she sees that whining really isn’t going to work anymore.

Cut yourself some slack

If it’s 5:30, you’re dead on your feet and the kids are whining for an-out-of-the-question treat — you may give in. It’s not the end of the world. “Sometimes you do what you need to do to get through the situation, suggests Bergeron.

“However, if you have a child who’s a chronic whiner and you repeatedly give in, it’s probably going to reinforce the behaviour.”