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Q: My daughter has started whining every time she wants something. If I don't give in, the whining escalates to screaming and crying. Just the pitch of her voice is driving me crazy! What can I do to discourage this?
A: Many young children go through a whining, shrieking phase. Sometimes whining may be the only way your child can express herself when she is feeling tired, frustrated, cranky, hungry, or ill. At other times, she may be trying to get your attention or whittle down your resolve. The unrelenting tone can certainly feel like torture to even the most patient parent! The key is to stand your ground and not give in to whining and other annoying behavior-or you may find you're actually encouraging it to continue.
- Refuse to give in to those annoying tones so the child learns he will not get what he wants by whining.
- Use an "I" statement to express your feelings. Say, "I cannot listen to that voice, it hurts my ears.'' (Then, with your hands over your ears, leave the room.)
- Try some humor, and whine right back! The child will often get the message and will begin talking in his regular voice again after a good laugh.
- Take a deep breath, then ask yourself if your child is frustrated because you have become inappropriately demanding due to your very bad mood. If so, try to restore good feelings and consider apologizing to your child.
- Try giving your child a quick hug or cuddle (while ignoring the whining); this won't work for every child, but for some it's just enough of the right kind of attention to reset the mood and enable you to mollify "the whiner."
- Treat your child as if he were speaking a foreign language-and if you know one, consider responding in a foreign tongue. Your child will wonder what you're saying and, for the moment, may stop whining!
Acknowledge your child's feelings without attacking her character.
- When Daniel was little, he hated the way his father attacked his character and made threats to get his point across, "You big baby, you'd better stop whining this instant or I'll really give you something to cry about!" he'd say. That's why Daniel consciously chose to tell his daughter, "Samantha, that's enough! I can see how tired you are, but I still don't like whining and I simply won't listen to it!"
Ask your child to speak in his "big boy" or "big girl'' voice.
- Mom told Caitlin, "I can't understand you when you whine. I'll bet you can make a really big voice and talk to me. Take a big breath and tell me like this," Mom puffed up her chest and deepened her voice, which Caitlin seemed to enjoy imitating.
Praise your child when she speaks in an acceptable voice.
- "I'd be happy to get you a glass of juice since you ask so politely," Mom told Cody.
When your child is caught in a cycle of whining, be absolutely consistent in your refusal to reward the whining. It's not always easy to hold your ground, but it is necessary in breaking bad habits. Be forewarned, your kids will test you to the "nth" degree. And on a bad day, you may feel like a broken record!
Tell your child that you will ignore him when he chooses to whine. Even scolding him for the whining serves as a form of attention he may be seeking. Adopt a "neutral" facial expression, avoid direct eye contact, and direct your attention elsewhere.
Distract the child by directing her attention to something else. As you walk to the window, pretend to be a little bird in the tree and start "talking" to her in your best bird voice: "Dana, come and see my nest. I have two little baby birds in here. I wonder if you can see them?''
Take Heart - You're not the only parent who's ever found it impossible to ignore something that nearly drives you crazy!
Admit when you've simply "had it!" Tell your child that you just can't stay in the same room with him while he's whining. Either you take a time-out by leaving the room yourself or give a time-out to your child. (See "Time-Out," page 299, and "Wits' End," page 331, for helpful strategies.)
Try taking a breather when your child is whining in public. Tell him that you are both leaving for a little while, until he gets control of his voice.
Use humor to jog your child out of his whiny mood.
- When Nolan ran into the kitchen whining about getting another cookie, something in his dramatically contorted face struck Caroline as funny. She whined right back, "Oh, no-o-o-o, not you-o-o-o again! I just started washing these dishes and there's so-o-o-o-o many of them." Nolan looked startled for a second. Then, to Caroline's amazement, he put his hands on his hips, wagged his finger in her face, and firmly said, "Mommy! You know I can't understand you when you whine!"
Tape-record your child whining so he can hear how he sounds. This is often surprising to the child and often gets a big laugh! You might also tape-record your child asking for something in an acceptable way, though this isn't quite as much fun.
Practice ways to ask for something without whining with your child. (Try role-playing, using puppets, or telling stories to make your point. See the role-playing box on page 25 for more ideas.)
- While Manny was on the phone, his three-year-old daughter, Christa, rudely interrupted him by whining incessantly for a cookie. The next day, Manny had some one-on-one time with his daughter. He chose to discuss the previous day's incident as they gathered her dolls for a "picnic." Manny said, "You know, yesterday, I couldn't listen to you when you were whining for a cookie. Here's how I like to be asked: 'Excuse me, Daddy, may I please have a cookie?' I'll bet you can make one of your dolls ask for a cookie just the right way." When Christa complied, Manny complimented "the doll" on how politely she had asked, without whining.
Expect your child's whining to actually increase temporarily when he doesn't get his way. Hold your ground! Thankfully it will lessen as he realizes you won't give in.
Go all out and if you can't beat 'em, join 'em! Declare an "all-whining" day.
- Gus and Jan tried an idea suggested by author and parent educator Fred Gosman. They called the kids together and organized an all-whining Sunday! Gus and Jan started out the day by painstakingly demonstrating the annoying decibels and shrill tones that were required. Any pleasant-toned conversation was strictly forbidden. Although Gus and Jan had great fun with their little charade, the kids soon grew tired of it. They called everyone together in exasperation and begged, "Please, no more whining!" Everyone in the family got the point, and there was no more whining in their house for a while.
Help your child come up with "non-whiny" ways of expressing herself. Brainstorm ideas outside of the heat of the moment, perhaps in a family meeting or "quiet time."
- Chelsea came up with a nonverbal signal that only she and her shy child understood. Instead of interrupting Chelsea with her familiar whine, Melissa came right up to her mother and pulled twice on Mom's little finger to get her attention.
Periodically "check in" with your child during times when you're particularly busy with a project, so she won't be as tempted to use annoying behavior to get your attention.
See if you can determine an underlying problem when your child is whining that is easily addressed. Is she tired, hungry, sick? Some children resort to whining only when they are overtired; a little more sleep just might do the trick!
Take an honest look at your own behavior; are you modeling the correct way to speak and minimizing your own complaining? Remember, children tend to do as you do, not as you say.
Develop the patience you need to "stay cool" by remembering to take the time to address your own needs. A good mood promotes tolerance. Rest assured that even a two-year-old who seems to whine for just about everything he wants will pass out of this stage as his verbal/language skills develop.
The Bottom Line
Discourage persistent whining by giving your child the clear message that it will never get him what he wants. Remember, children continue to do only what works.