Stop That Whining!

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on May 11, 2017

Question: My seven year old whines a lot….a lot…a whole lot. He whines so much that I am beginning to get resentful and lose patience easily. I feel as though I am very consistent in not giving into the whining and yet it continues. He is never rewarded for whining and I have gotten to the point where I walk out of the room when he begins to. This is usually met with stomping of feet and slamming of his bedroom door only for him to appear later sulking around. I’m losing patience and starting to wonder if more is going on than his desire for a treat or to watch television. How do I know what is normal whining and how do I deal with it without losing my cool?

Answer: It is difficult in our busy lives to divvy out attention when needed, or wanted, on demand: hence, the invention of whining. Whining is hard to take. It sounds like you have tried coping as best you can. Children are whining to get more attention, or when they are over tired and hungry. Try to assess which it is. If they are hungry ask them to help make the meal while they crunch on carrots. This way the child gets your attention and a healthy snack. Sometimes the attention they get is negative attention (like you losing your cool) but, it is attention none the less. Also, investigate where the whining is working for the child, whether it is at home, school, or daycare. Behaviors exist because they work for the child. This step, when identified, can make it much more successful in extinguishing the behavior. 

The most important thing is to not reinforce the behavior, which it sounds like you have been trying to do. At a time when it is calm with no whining going on, explain that there is a new rule…NO WHINING. Explain that if whining happens, it will be ignored. Only when requests are made without whining will attention be paid to them. This can be turned into a fun family discussion, introducing stickers for specific rewards especially for the young ones, and opportunities for special attention when the stickers show consistent behavior (Ex. “Mom and me”, or “Dad and me” time, to play catch or go for ice cream. In my house, it was a special shopping trip for a new GI Joe!). In fact, initially try to respond to in a positive and happy way when your child’s behaviors are the opposite of whining. Like when he/she asks politely or uses big boy/girl words. 

Here are some tips for eliminating whining for shopping in stores. Talk about the ground rules for purchases (and whining) before the trip. An important lesson to follow, takes time, but is well worth it. If your child tries to manipulate you by whining in a store, take the child by hand and walk out of the store putting purchases back in their places and promptly leave. Make sure that the child knows that it is because of the whining and not following the new rule. You usually will only have to do that only once. However, you must be consistent in not responding to whining. Your child needs to know that you are in charge, that the rules are important and that you will enforce them. I have been in stores and have witnessed a child who is whining about wanting an item, the parent says ‘no’… the child continues whining, cajoling, and pleading… the parent threatens loss of TV, or straight to bed once home…the child continues to whine…now everyone is watching the drama…at wits end, the parent buys the child the item. The whole affair leaves the parent stressed, angry and embarrassed. The whining and bad behavior was reinforced and the 7 year old is in charge. The best scenario would be to take the child out of the store as soon as the whining starts. Establish that whining will not be tolerated and no purchases will be made for the child. 

The second part of my reply is about what you questioned was “normal whining.” That’s always a good question for a parent to ask. Children need different things at different phases of their young lives. Sometimes they are uncertain of themselves and just need reassurance that they are loved. They are trying to grow up, but they are still a child. Spend some time one-on-one for ‘hug and talk time’ (away from other siblings) to explore what else might be going on. If your senses tell you there is something more going on, and special attention is not helping, there are many ways counselors can help children learn skills and cope with emotions. Counselors who work with children have toys, sandboxes, games, drums and other cool kid stuff which helps make it a positive experience. Counselors can also identify when your child appears to be developing just fine!

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website and click on “Referrals.”

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