Whining: 3 Steps to Stop It Before the Tears and Tantrums Start

Whining: 3 Steps to Stop It Before the Tears and Tantrums Start

by Audrey Ricker, Carolyn Crowder

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Are you ready to end the whining wars in your house?
It starts with a whimper, an insistent demand, or a certain tone of voice that every parent recognizes with dread — your child is starting to whine, and if you don't respond properly you'll have a full-blown tantrum or argument on your hands. Kids of all ages know that whining works when they


Are you ready to end the whining wars in your house?
It starts with a whimper, an insistent demand, or a certain tone of voice that every parent recognizes with dread — your child is starting to whine, and if you don't respond properly you'll have a full-blown tantrum or argument on your hands. Kids of all ages know that whining works when they want that extra hour of TV, the unplanned toy purchase, or a later curfew. But stopping such behavior without giving in to a child's demands isn't easy, and if left unchecked, whining can lead to constant disruptions at home, in school, or anywhere else your child chooses. Now the same authors who solved a common parenting problem in the national bestseller Backtalk present three proven methods for putting an end to whining, as well as information on

• The best ways to react when your child whines in a public place

• Why negotiating and giving in never work — and what you should do instead

• What kids are really trying to tell you when they whine

• Why whining can lead to poor self-esteem and unsatisfying social relationships — which can follow your child into adulthood — and what you can do about it now

• How to clearly, respectfully indicate to your child what's important to you and why whining will no longer work as a means of communication
Filled with numerous real-life examples, encouraging advice, and simple steps you can start using immediately, this invaluable guide will help you end the cycle of giving in to whining only to have your child do it again, and instead replaces misbehavior with effective, meaningful, and loving parent-child communication.

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Read an Excerpt


Pam walks in the house having just picked up her two children at school. On the drive home, she had told both children that she had to make some work-related phone calls as soon as they got home. She asked the children to take their school things to their rooms and change clothes while she conducted her business.

Once at home, however, the children dump their school bags on the living room floor and fly into the kitchen whining that they're hungry, they need snacks, they must have some milk and cookies right away.

Pam reminds them that she's asked for a few minutes to make some business calls, and she asks them once again to put their things away and change clothes.

At this point, the children begin to whine loudly, bickering with each other as they stand before the open refrigerator door, taking matters into their own hands. Pam is now at a loss. She's promised to make some calls for her fledgling real estate business, and she's already late. She wishes her children would cooperate and give her the few minutes she needs. She begs them to just let her make a couple of calls. They turn teary faces to her as they beg back for cookies.

She wonders if she's asking too much of a six- and an eight-year-old. Their pleading stirs her guilt. When Bobby pulls the milk out of the refrigerator and spills it all over the kitchen floor, she loses her temper, yelling at them to get away from her and go to their rooms.

Spilled milk? Yelling? Whining? Guilt? Parental self-doubt? Pam and her children have experienced all these things and more in their brief trip to the "whine cellar." Do you have a "whine cellar" in your home? Are your kids in it a lot? Do you find yourself going down there on occasion?

If you're like Pam the only things you can think of to do when your children whine are to whine back at them or become angry. Yet, in your heart you know there have to be better ways of responding. This book is about those better ways.

Few things can reduce parents to jelly or make them feel more like failures than the spectacle created by their children's misbehavior, whether it occurs in public or at home. It is difficult enough when children act out within the family unit, but raised eyebrows and critical looks from strangers witnessing "bad" behavior from our children magnify our inadequacies and make us feel as if we're not up to the challenge of child rearing.

Yet every child at times will test our limits, jockeying for power and trying to get the upper hand. A key weapon children use is whining — the loud, pitiful, grating, or whimpering sounds that every parent has experienced. And while every parent knows the nightmare of whining children, very few have even a clue about how to deal with it.

Consider the following incidents:

  • Parents are driving an unfamiliar route to attend a meeting for which they are already late. In the backseat, three-year-old Gina and four-year-old Nick have grown bored. They see a McDonald's with a shiny new playground up front. Both children begin to whine loudly, demanding that Dad stop. When he doesn't, they begin hitting each other and yelling, creating a situation that is not just distressing but also dangerous as parental tempers flare (and Dad tries to control the car).
  • Lindsey needs new shoes and accompanies her mother to the mall to make the purchase. Inside the store, eleven-year-old Lindsey spies some terribly overpriced sneakers with the logo that all the kids at school are wearing. Mom says no and asks Lindsey to make another selection. Lindsey begs, pleads, and loudly whines as other customers and salesclerks look on.
  • Daniel's parents have repeatedly told him not to leave his skateboard outside the house at night. One night the eight-year-old forgets to bring the board inside, and the next morning he wakes to find it has been stolen. Daniel runs whining to Mom. His world has ended. His beloved skateboard is gone: she must replace it.
  • Twelve-year-old Melody is out of school for summer vacation. She wants to meet her friends after dark at the local skating rink. When her mother says she is too busy to drive her, not to mention the late hour, Melody insists she can walk. Mother says no, and Melody begins to whine and plead, using the old "all the other kids get to do it" routine. She accuses her mother of not trusting her, and retreats to her bedroom in tears, slamming doors along the way.
  • At a holiday gathering at Grandmother's house, fifteen-year-old Matthew is watching television with his adult relatives. His dad comes in the room and asks Matthew to go outside and keep an eye on his younger brother, who is in the swimming pool, while Dad goes to the store to pick up the charcoal he forgot to bring. Matt begins to whine and complain that he wants to watch the program and shouldn't have to babysit. He sulks and turns away, muttering that he's not the parent anyway, and does not move.

Parents know all too well that what begins as whining can quickly escalate into a full-blown tantrum, and most parents will avoid that ugly conflict at all costs. If the incident occurs in public and parents do nothing in response, the opportunity for teaching children how to behave is long gone by the time the parents get the children home and out of the public eye.

Whining may become a staple of the children's daily lives, something they use to get their way in the privacy of the home just as effectively as in public.

Here's an example of a lost opportunity when a parent forgoes teaching his children respectful behavior and gives in because that is easier:

Dan, father of three boys, agrees to take them to the video store to rent a movie for Saturday night. He tells them as they leave the house that they can rent only one movie, since on other weekends the family has wasted money by renting three and never watching them. The boys agree and off they all go.

Once in the store, the brothers begin to squabble over which movie to rent, which, of course, leads them to begin whining to their father. One boy accuses the other of always getting his way; another complains that renting just one video is not fair.

Dan threatens to take them home if they can't agree on which movie to rent. They shrug him off, knowing his threat is empty, and continue to argue among themselves.

People in the store can't help but notice the boys' rude behavior and shoot accusing looks at Dan as if he is failing to act properly in his role as a parent. After several minutes of continued whining by the children and scathing looks from the other customers, Dan throws up his hands and yells at his sons to "just go get what you want and let's get out of here."

The sons, having gotten their way, high-five each other and race down the aisles to select their videos. Dan stands alone, feeling defeated and weak, as if his own children have beaten him at some game that he wasn't even aware they were playing.

Dan has just missed a golden opportunity to teach his children how to behave in public. Instead, he trained them how to use whining, arguing, fighting, and complaining to get their way. You can bet that this scenario will occur again and again, because the boys know it works.

Like many parents who find themselves in this situation, Dan backed down by appeasing his sons to keep the peace and restore some quiet, but the three boys have learned nothing about working with each other, cooperating with Dad, or showing respect for others — including the other people in the video store.

Many parents like Dan feel helpless, especially in a public situation where their children's whining is drawing the attention of others. They feel there is nothing they can do but appease when faced with their children's misbehavior. However, parents must remember that whining is just a first step that can escalate to backtalk, arguing, and tantrums. Trying to appease whining children is a losing proposition. You're not going make them happy by giving in; they'll simply whine more. If you think the whining causes critical stares, just wait until the escalating tantrum occurs because you've failed to give them what they want.

Whining can be stopped. You can stop it by the way you respond to your child. In our first book, Backtalk: 4 Steps to Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids, we taught you practical techniques for handling your children's rude verbal behaviors. In this book we give you three ways of responding to whining that work and that are built on respect for yourself as well as for the child.


In this method, your child's whining is met with consequences that occur as a result of the child's misbehavior. For example, when your child whines in public, you immediately take the child home without comment. The logical consequence for not behaving in a public place is that they don't get to be there.

Consequences are most effective if they are logical and immediate. The earlier you begin using logical consequences, the fewer problems you'll have with your children later on. Using consequences works with even the youngest child. In fact, some people find this most effective with very young children who have not yet established patterns of misbehavior.

Most parents talk too much. Instead of taking action, they fuss, lecture, and threaten; meanwhile, the whining continues. Establishing consequences requires very few words, and these should be respectful, clear, and neutral in tone.


This method encourages the substitution of calm, respectful dialogue that gives a child a mode of communication to replace whining. Children learn to ask for what they want and to articulate their desires without tan-trums or manipulation. Parents must model assertiveness for their children and establish it as the typical mode of communication within the family. (Note: This is different from the "assertiveness" you've experienced in business or social situations.)

When you talk to your children, whether it be setting up consequences, following through, or stating how you feel about something, you must always be assertive (take the leadership role), respectful, and calm. We're going to give examples of this type of respectful language as well as provide you with an Assertive Communication Formula that you can use to address whining and other serious issues after you've dealt with misbehavior by establishing consequences.

The Assertive Communication Formula is especially effective when parents need to talk about value-based issues with their children. We urge you to use this method sparingly (the less you use it, the more impact it will have) to let your children know how you feel about very important topics like lying, stealing, physical or verbal abuse, or other behaviors that may result if whining works for children and they escalate into these other areas.


The underlying principle of contribution is simple but effective. Contribution means that children are expected to work for the common good just as adult members of the family do. When children are made to feel they are important to the family by contributing and belonging in positive ways, they have no need to use negative behaviors such as whining to gain that feeling of importance.

These three methods work independently or together depending upon the situation. For example, consequences should be used routinely in response to whining. Any talking done around the setting up of consequences should be minimal and respectful in tone — in other words, assertive. When the whining escalates into more serious misbehaviors that challenge the parents' values, we recommend adding the formula for assertiveness as well. Contribution combats all misbehavior and should be an expectation of every member of the family, including the very youngest.

Children who contribute have a positive sense of belonging, and empathy for others soon replaces the need to act out. From the youngest to the oldest, contribution allows everyone to feel important by working for the good of the family as a whole.

For those of you wondering why in the world children would want to provoke negative reactions in adults, we provide a model to help you understand the purpose of misbehavior and why changing your response works to stop whining. This model is rooted in the theories of two pioneering psychiatrists: Alfred Adler and Rudolph Dreikurs. The ideas we present are based on their techniques, which were developed from 1900 through the 1960s.

The commonsense approach that we provide here is, therefore, nothing new, but it is very much needed in these days of indulgent parenting when adults flip-flop between giving in and making idle threats to punish. Our three methods can be used with a child of any age — and, dare we suggest it, any adult — who whines.

Even very young children who do not yet understand words and sentences will understand tone, body language, and consistency. While these methods work with all age groups, the earlier you begin the easier your parenting job will be.

What we prescribe here is simple but not easy, because it requires you to think before you act or speak and requires you to have a plan of discipline that you follow consistently each time a whining incident occurs. The chapters cover the following topics:

  • Definition of whining
  • Negative effects of whining upon children
  • The purpose of whining
  • How parents mishandle situations
  • Methods for stopping whining
  • Teaching your child to make requests respectfully
  • The importance of contribution by children as an antidote to misbehavior

We also provide a workbook with exercises you can use to teach yourself and your children new modes of communicating. We include a fourteen-day diary that you can use to chart your progress in responding to your children's whining and misbehavior. By taking careful notes you'll begin to analyze patterns of negative behavior in yourself and in your children. More important, by keeping a record of the changes you are making in your own responses, you'll begin to recognize improvements in your family's relationships.

How We Would Like You to Read This Book

First, we suggest that you read this book in one or two sittings so that you get a feel for the methods we suggest. Some of the ideas we're presenting will be new to you, and you'll need to think about how to go about making the changes we're suggesting.

You need not grasp every detail; just read for an overview of the problems and their solutions, and think of ways you can begin to try some of these approaches. It does help to think about the instances of whining you experience with your children and identify specific areas that are going to need the most work. The more thinking you do, the more easily you'll be able to plan and implement positive changes within your family.

Finally, once you've embarked upon your quest to rid your life of incessant whining, go back and read the chapters you feel are most helpful to you. This is your book. Write in the margins! Use the workbook and begin tracking your progress as you work toward eliminating whining behavior once and for all.

Copyright © 2000 by Audrey Ricker, Ph.D., and Carolyn Crowder, Ph.D.

Meet the Author

Audrey Ricker, Ph.D., is a parent and veteran teacher who has worked with children of all ages. Carolyn Crowder, Ph.D., is a psychologist who teaches parenting classes and works as a therapist in the public school system. They are the authors of Backtalk: 4 Steps to Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids. Both live in Tucson, Arizona.

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