How can I get my kids to stop whining?

Article at a Glance:

  • Whining happens, but it shouldn’t be the norm for your child.
  • Understanding why children whine can help you respond appropriately.
  • Setting clear boundaries around appropriate speech helps children understand what to do.

Children’s voices are typically sweet, with one terrible exception: whining. The characteristically nasal tone of a whining child can be a huge annoyance for parents, especially when it turns into habitual behavior. While whining is a nearly universal phenomenon in childhood, it doesn’t have to be the soundtrack of your life.

There are several ways to address whining, depending on its cause. Getting insight into the emotions that lead to your child’s whining may help you determine which path to take. But be warned—no method of modifying behavior is an overnight process. Imagine trying to isolate the source of one of your bad habits and attempting to change it in a single day! You’d never expect that to work.

Thoughtfulness and consistency are key for both parents and children, which you should keep in mind as you read the when, what, why, and how of stopping whining:

1. Look to your own behavior first.

Parental behavior shapes child behavior. Remembering when you’ve given in to whining or tantrums in the past will help you trace the source of today’s undesirable behaviors. Inconsistent or weak parenting opens the door to children looking to test boundaries. Children are smart, and if a behavior has worked for them in the past, they might persist with the same behavior until it gets results. Don’t despair, though. Past inconsistency doesn’t have to be a “point of no return” for your parenting. Simply be firm and consistent when faced with whining moving forward, and you should notice a difference in your child’s responses.

2. Pay close attention to when your child whines.

A running diary of when whining usually seems to crop up will let you know if there’s a pattern. Especially note how close the whining is to dinner or bedtime. Children need more sleep than adults, and they may have different times of the day when they’re hungrier than you are. Scheduling food or sleep according to an adult timetable might be a recipe for cranky, whiny children. Finding a good time to distribute a healthy snack or considering an earlier bedtime might nip feelings of helplessness and discomfort in the bud—and eliminate the whining along with them.

3. Pay close attention to what your child is saying.

Is whining coupled with crying, repeated rubbing of the same area, or complaints of pain or discomfort? If so, there might be an underlying medical issue that your pediatrician should address. Any complaints that touch on physical condition, regardless of whether the child seems sick or injured, are worth investigating. These little people can’t communicate with the same specificity that adults can, so any habitual whining about “not feeling good” —no matter how vague or unsupported by visible symptoms—isn’t to be discounted.

4. Remember why children often whine and avoid the urge to drop what you’re doing and go straight to punishment.

Many times, whining is just a child reaching out for connection and attention. It’s not the most pleasant way to do it, sure, but they might be okay with eventual negative backlash as long as the spotlight is on them. Calm, unruffled attention can go a long way towards reminding the child how best to communicate. Model the rational behavior you want to see, and whining may lose its luster for a child acting out. That’s not to say consequences aren’t sometimes warranted, especially if the child is whining to steal attention from a sibling in need, or is being openly defiant.

5. Set clear boundaries around how children should use their voices and give them a clear point of reference to improve their behavior.

Without set standards for what “good” speech is, it may be hard for children to understand what parents are looking for. Below are some ideas to help you set these speech boundaries at home:

  • A recording taken of the whining child compared to a recording of the child’s normal voice, when thoughtfully used later as instruction (not vindictively), might help the child understand the difference between the two. Be sure to point out what exactly constitutes whining.
  • You can also model a “nice” voice of yours, versus an irritating whine. Ask the child, “Which of my voices do you like better?” to see their reaction. Once again, this should not be a response to whining in the moment, but a way of setting boundaries at a neutral time. Mean-spiritedly imitating the child when you’re frustrated is obviously a bad idea. When kids know what “nice” voices and good manners sound like, and when you praise and reward them heartily for using them, whining (and its consequences) can only get less and less attractive.
  • When you hear the dreaded sound of a long “pleeeeeeeeeeeaaase” after a “no” from you, for example, a quick, firm word to the child about using their “normal voice” or their “nice voice” to pose the request instead will reinforce speech standards.
  • Another option is to simply tell a whining child, “I can’t understand you when you’re speaking that way” and refuse to engage with them until they return to the right decibels.

A little whining is probably inevitable. Just chalk it up to childhood and expect it to eventually pass. But habitual nuisance whining shouldn’t be the norm, and a quick inventory of your rules and your child’s behaviors can help you figure out the best way to tackle the nasal nonsense before it conquers your child’s speech patterns.

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