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Whining: It Can Drive You Nuts

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A child’s whine—that awful cross between crying and talking—can drive some parents to the breaking point. It grates like nails on a chalkboard and can push the buttons of the most mild-mannered and patient adult.

 When Whining Starts and Stops

 Why Your Child Whines

 Smart Strategies

When Whining Starts and Stops

Whining first appears around age 2, when a child has the basic language skills he needs to ask for the things he wants. The subtleties of tone are beyond the child at this point. He’ll combine a word with a cry just as he’ll mix one with a giggle. Unfortunately, he quickly learns that whining often gets him extra attention.

For most children, whining disappears in a few years. By the time they are in grade school they have learned more sophisticated and more effective ways of getting what they want.

Still, the toddler and preschool years can be trying times for the parents of a chronic or even an occasional whiner. Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on when a child acts this way.

Why Your Child Whines

All children whine at some point when they are tired, hungry, or ill. In these situations, no amount of parental skill or psychological insight is as effective as a nap or a snack. This type of whining is an expression of just how emotionally or physically overwhelmed the child is feeling and reflects the child’s limited skills in expressing his emotions verbally.

Toddlers and preschoolers also whine when they’re frustrated, such as when they want another child’s toy or when they realize they don’t have the coordination to do something that an older child is doing. When this happens, the best solution is to distract the whining child with an activity that he can do. If he’s really upset, quiet activities such as putting together a puzzle or reading a story with you can help him regain his composure.

Smart Strategies

What can you do if your child is whining more than you’d like? Here are some suggestions:

  • Remember that whining is a child’s solution to a problem. Often that problem is a desire for attention, though it may sound like he’s asking for a cookie or a toy. In this case, help him practice more appropriate ways of asking for attention (“Mommy, please play with me!”). Give him lots of attention when he behaves more appropriately. When he whines, remind him to ask more appropriately. If he does not, simply ignore him. If you’re consistent and have reasonable expectations, he’ll quickly stop most of the whining.

  • Catch your child being good. All too often we focus our energy on correcting our children when they do things we don’t want. Instead, spend more time rewarding the behaviors you’d like from your child.

  • Remember that it’s fruitless to ask a cranky toddler or preschooler to justify his feelings or to explain what’s bothering him. That doesn’t mean that a child this age can’t communicate with you. Instead of asking open-ended questions like “What’s wrong?” make an educated guess and ask an upset child a simple yes-no question (“Are you hungry?” “Are you angry at your friend?” “Do you want my attention right now?”). This will make it easier for your child to identify his feelings and give you the information you want.

  • Establish some ground rules for whining. Do this when your child isn’t upset. Explain that you’ll never give him something he wants if he whines about it, but that you’ll consider his request if he asks politely. Expect your child to test you on this later to see if you’re serious.

  • If nothing’s working, consider joining your child in two minutes of joint whining. Put your arm around him and whine together. Take turns complaining about your day in as whiny a way as you can each muster. Although it sounds silly, it can have a wonderful effect. By joining in on the whining without mocking your child, you’re letting him know that his feelings are legitimate even though his tone of voice is wrong. Besides, after a few rounds of this you’ll probably both be giggling, your child will feel better (as will you), and the whining will stop.

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