What to Do About a Kid Who Whines Incessantly

a kid who whines
Image adapted via Pixabay

If there's one question I hear over and over again, it's “How do I stop my kid from whining?” Whining gets under a parent's skin to the same degree that a public tantrum does. It raises our warning flags and often triggers us to react either out of anxiety or anger — or some combination of the two.

Whining is very common among young children. In general, they've outgrown the instinct to throw a tantrum the moment something doesn't feel right, but they don't yet have the advanced coping skills necessary to respond to triggers in an adaptive manner. In short, they whine because something is bothering them and don't yet have a better way to communicate that to you. Also? It tends to work. Much like the tantrum, whining gets a reaction. And when kids get to that point, they don't always care if the reaction is positive or negative.

Here's the kicker: It's important to teach kids the power of “give and take.” Maybe your kid really wants an ice cream cone right now, but it's too close to dinner, so you say “no,” and your child whines. That's annoying to a parent. Instead of completely shutting the child down, though, it's worth teaching your child a more positive way to interact so that she learns how to state her case. You think you need an ice cream cone? Come up with three good reasons to persuade me, and then I'll decide if we can have ice cream after dinner.

Parents are often coached to redirect kids to use a “nice voice,” but what does that even mean? It makes more sense to practice communication styles and go from there.

Are you ready to stop the incessant whining that makes you want to pull your hair out? Start here.

Find the source.

As a rule, kids don't whine for sport. They whine to get some need met. The perceived need might or might not actually have merit, but it's important to the child.

The obvious first step is to consider the basic needs of your kids. Are they hungry, tired, lacking adequate playtime, in need of quiet time, or in need of one-to-one time with you? If any of those needs isn't being fulfilled, whining is likely to result. It's also a good idea to consider the circumstances. Taking your child to the grocery store at 7 p.m. is a recipe for poor behavior. Make sure to focus on the basic needs of your kids (especially those 12-14 hours of sleep!)

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One last thing here: Many kids whine when they fear stating their actual needs. If they feel they might be dismissed, harshly criticized, or humiliated, they might rely on whining.

Practice communication skills.

As adults, we tend to take assertive communication skills for granted. Sometimes I find myself reminding my kids to use an assertive voice without stopping to make sure they know what that means.

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We like to put on little social plays around here to practice being assertive. Assertive communication requires eye contact, standing tall, and a strong (but not overpowering) voice. It helps to act out passive and aggressive communication as well so that kids can see the difference.

Compliment the good stuff.

Kids hear a fairly significant amount of negative feedback on any given day. Given the fact that childhood is largely based on trial and error, kids make mistakes. All too often, those mistakes are met with harsh reprimands or negative feedback. This leaves them feeling overwhelmed and defeated.

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But what about the good stuff? The best way to break the whining habit is to notice (out loud) the positive behaviors. I'm not saying you need to throw a party every time your child uses assertive communication, but a well-timed “Thanks for using that strong voice so that I know what you need” can go a long way toward eliminating whining.

Try a little empathy.

More often than not, kids are in a compromised state when they whine. Empathizing with your kid and showing that you understand isn't the same as giving in to the whining. Kids feel powerless a lot of the time. Taking the time to show them that we understand and that we care can help alleviate the whining.

Don't cave, but don't yell.

Whining is one of the frustrating behaviors that can trigger parents to match the behavior of the child. We all lose patience at times, but it's best to keep your cool when whining takes center stage.

Try this response: “I can't understand you when you use that voice. Take three deep breaths and try again.” Repeat as necessary (your child will catch on).

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Whatever you do, don't reward the whining by giving in.

Talk about it.

The time to confront whining is not in the heat of the moment, but when the whole family is calm. Family meetings are great for all ages. Kids and parents have a calm time to share their likes and dislikes and talk about family stuff.

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Use a family meeting to talk about whining — both what it means and what it sounds like. Brainstorm as a family to come up with healthy alternatives (like a code word or signal to use when whining emerges). When families work together, positive behaviors crowd out the negative ones.

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What to Do About a Kid Who Whines Incessantly

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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