Moody Kids: How to Respond to Pouting, Whining and Sulking

by James Lehman, MSW
Moody Kids: How to Respond to Pouting,  Whining and Sulking

Pouting, sulking and whining are three of the most annoying ways that kids communicate their displeasure, anger or frustration with a situation. This behavior is not just limited to young children, either—teens do it because they haven’t always learned the skills to express their frustration in an appropriate way. Simply put: it works for them.

When kids or even teens walk around the house in a huff in order to get their way, that means someone—probably one or both parents—is still reacting to it. But know this: if you start blaming, accusing or trying to reason with your child about this type of behavior, you’re just feeding the tiger—you're simply giving it more meat. The behavior will continue if you continue to get sucked in by it.

If you start blaming, accusing or trying to reason with your child about this type of behavior, you’re just feeding the tiger—you're just giving it more meat.

As your child grows older, they’re supposed to learn ways to express their displeasure, frustration, anger or anxiety about a situation.  Most kids are eventually able to do this most of the time, but some kids persist in sulking.  It’s not unusual to see children continue this all the way up into grade school and beyond. Remember, the behaviors kids tend to continue are the behaviors that are meeting their needs. And until your child learns other, more effective ways of communicating, it will probably continue.

Make Your Home a Safe Place to Express Different Views
Your child’s freedom to speak his mind assumes one primary condition: that it’s safe to express himself in your house. Don’t forget, this behavior may be a replacement form of communication for kids who don’t feel safe saying what they really want to say. Instead, they use other, more passive methods to let people know they’re unhappy, without actually having to take responsibility for it.

Help Your Child Find Other Ways to Express Herself
Initially, you can sit down with your child and identify alternative ways for them to express themselves that don’t involve a dramatic display of their bad mood. So the message they want to get across might be, “I don’t want to go to bed now,” or “I don’t want to do my homework,” or “Why can’t we go to the movies?” Instead of pouting, as kids grow older, the expectation is that they should be able to express that verbally to you. So at first, bring it to their attention. Say, “I notice now that you’re sulking. If you want to say something to me, figure out a better way to say it.” In my opinion, the best thing to do is ignore it and say, “I’m not going respond when you act this way anymore. You’re going to have to communicate differently.”

Don’t Give It Too Much Power

I wouldn’t give pouting and sulking too much power by overreacting to it or punishing your child. I personally wouldn’t give consequences for it, either. After having the conversation with your child about other ways they can express themselves, I would ignore the behavior completely. But here’s the key: whether they’re sulking or not, your child still has to comply with your rules and do what you’ve asked of them. If they behave oppositionally or defiantly because of your requests, then deal with that behavior. Although it’s annoying, try to stop responding to the fact that your teen is walking around the house with a huffy attitude.

Remember, deal with behaviors that are more easily observable and are more “acting-out” in nature. So, allowing your child to be in a sulky mood and not responding to it is the best way to get out of it. Let it die by neglect. In fact, like plants, a lot of these behaviors do die from neglect. If you leave them alone, they’ll die. If you water them and nourish them, they continue to grow. It’s as simple as that.

How to Reduce that Whining in Your Ear
Whining is another annoying way kids have of expressing themselves. It has also become much more prevalent in our society over the last decade. You see a lot of people complaining all the time about things they can’t change. People blame others for their emotional state regularly, on all ends of society. When people constantly complain about problems, emotions or situations, they're not willing to do anything positive about them. You’ll hear wealthy people whine, you’ll hear poor people whine. You’ll hear conservatives whine, you’ll hear liberals whine. And in the midst of that, you’ll hear children whining.

Now, the emotional state that accompanies whining is usually that of feeling sorry for yourself. So maybe something’s not going your child’s way. They’re not getting something they want, or they’re afraid they’re going to lose something they’ve got. All of this contributes to the level and intensity of the whining.

Establish a “Complaining Time”
What I like to do is to give kids a journal in which they can write their complaints. They get to complain about something once, and afterwards they have to write about it in their journals. Set aside a certain time every day when your child gets ten minutes to complain, discuss what’s bothering them, and whine. At the end of the ten minutes, (and it’s got to end on time—use a little egg timer), everybody goes their way.  Your child gets another chance tomorrow during "Complaint Time" or whatever you choose to call it. This will help extinguish the constant whining.

By the way, when you establish a complaint time (or whining time), your child will have to work to find things to complain about. The whining stops because most kids don’t want to do any work—they just want to complain. Another benefit to you as a parent is that from now on, when your kids whine, you can tell them to write it in their journals or save it for the complaint time tomorrow.

One Parent Gives in, the Other Doesn’t: What to Do?
It’s not unusual to see kids who sulk and whine at home but don’t demonstrate that type of behavior at school. This is because they’ve learned it’s not going to work: their teachers don’t respond to them the same way their parents do.

You’ll also see times where it works with one parent and not the other. Whenever any behavior is more pronounced with one parent, it means that the behavior is working better with that parent. Kids learn very early that their parents are two different people and that they can have two different strategies when dealing with them. If it’s an inappropriate behavior, I think it’s important for parents to remember not to use the cop out of, “Well, his mom lets him get away with it, what can I do?”

Sound parenting requires that both parents communicate with each other separately from their children. If there’s no TV after seven o’clock at night, that’s a house rule. If one parent allows sulking to change that, then there’s something wrong with the couple’s communication. There’s nothing wrong with the kid—he’s just doing what works, after all.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s up to both parents to create a culture of accountability between them and their children. And that culture of accountability says, “You’re accountable to me and I’m accountable to you. And no matter what else is going on with other people, you have to speak to me in a certain way and I’m going to speak to you in a certain way.” End of story.

Develop a strategy on how you’ll deal with your child’s annoying behaviors, and you’ll soon see that behavior wither and die.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

good information

Comment By : mary kanady

My 11-yr-old has always been manipulative, although I've only been figuring this out over the last two years or so. But he's also started having what I'm sure are "panic attacks" off and on for the last year. (I've had them all my life and was glad at the thought that my adopted sons wouldn't inherit it, since it's so strong in my family...) Both of our sons are adopted, and we've always considered them our miracles. I never anticipated what we've gone through! The first time my 11-yr-old told me he wished we'd never adopted him, I thought that letting him know that hurt my feelings would work--WRONG! He later said it again when he was angry. That's when I decided to "blow it off" and just said very little except maybe a comment like, "Well, that's unfortunate, but adoption is more permanent (relationship-wise) than birth..." This past weekend, we were on a youth hunt. I was with him in the deer blind on Saturday evening. He put his head down and fell asleep on my lap. After sleeping for 45 minutes, he woke up grumpy. He started complaining and even said, "I bet you made noise while I was asleep and scared any deer off so I couldn't shoot one." I decided not to engage, since it was obvious he wanted to use me to let out his "bad mood" on. I said, "No" and just kinda shrugged. He made a few more complaining comments and even gave me a couple dirty looks when I looked at him. I realized I'd better not give him anymore opportunities, so I didn't look at him. I just looked around and whispered a few nice comments about the beauty I was seeing. After some more "quiet", he said out of the blue, "Mom, I love you". Wow! That was the first time I had such a positive result since trying the dis-engage tactic. (and mind you, walking away was not an option! lol!)

Comment By : jmjlori

Thank you for taking the time to share. Hearing other parents talk about this kinda thing helps me to keep myself in the right perspective. I love hearing hearing about how you had to "tweek it to make it work for you too!

Comment By : 2ndamendmentmomma

i appreciate all the time you spend sharing & advising.our #4(the youngest)just turned 7.he is our whinney,pouty,sulky one.all 4 of them do it of course but he is the pro.always has been since before he could walk.there is nothing subtle about it either.as soon as something goes amis his shoulders sink to the ground & he throws his head back & it seems as if one day it may just pop right off. i guess our problem is mostly consistancy w the issue. one day we ignore it & other times he is being lectured. i know that being 'the baby' of everyone else has to play some role in defeat as well.always feeling like everyone is not on his side is usually part of his complaint once we get to that point.but this happens on nearly a daily basis.it is overwhelming at times.

Comment By : 6ofHearts

This hit me close to home as I am a teacher and do not listen to the whining at school. I am going to try the 10 minute suggestion about complaints. You are right! In the complaint session they will more than likely forget what they had to complain about in the first place because they have to think. Mornings are the worst at our house. There is nothing like starting your day out with whining. For my 9 year old clothes are supposed to be laid out the night before. When she forgets the world comes crashing down. I ignore her when she does this but she still continues. I am usually late for work. If one of the children at school starting whining, just a mention of their name usually stops the whining. The older the child the different technique. I always tell them to pretend that I am their teacher and ask if they would do or say that in front of them. The answer is usually no. We get respect from other peoples children but not from our own. I am not hopeless since I have found this web-site and read everything I can get my hands on.

Comment By : Katie8814

* Thanks for your comment, Katie8814 -- we love to hear that EP is helping our readers parent more effectively, and giving them hope with their kids. I really like the technique you mentioned, too, of asking your kids if they would behave that way in front of their teachers. (I'm going to use that one with my son.) Keep up the good work, and thanks for reading EP!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

I haven't tried a complaint time or journal although I have used the 'find a better way to express your feelings' approach. I wonder whether the complaints time and journal would not merely reinforce minor grudges giving them a shape and size way beyond what they really deserve. I am not talking about complaints that do need to be taken seriously and now I think about it having a regular 'safety valve' for complaints would be a good way of catching more serious problems early and dealing with them and would be an excellent way of building trust - as long as parents are sensible and responsive. My first thought on reading this though was that if we are going to have a complaints time we should at least balance it with a gratitude time. One theory in the parenting books I work with is that what you focus on grows. So, to prevent this happening to complaints, taking time regularly to focus on all that is good, beautiful, delightful or pleasing to us in any way whatsoever no matter how small is a habit of mind that should also be encouraged. (As parents we really need to remember and live this too: look at all that is good about our children! celebrate that! and then we will find the courage to tackle with love the things that really need addressing and knowing that we appreciate them our children will be more responsive to us - don't forget the teen years especially are all about distinguishing ourselves as individuals and the stronger the parenter controls are the harder the children will have to resist us to do that importnat work of differentiation.) This is not to gloss over reality but to learn to see and appreciate good as well as learning to recognise and tackle what is not good - an important life skill for all.

Comment By : Breda

This really helped! I am a camp counselor and there are a couple of kids in my group that drive me bonkers!! One of them constantly pouts and for a larger part of the day is quite mean spirited. She wants her way or all hell breaks loose, is very clingy and well is an attention hog. Its all about her constantly!! This other camper of mine is always a few seconds away from a melt down. I am so glad I now have the tools to deal with them tomorrow. Less paying attention to their bad behavior and more interaction with them when they are behaving the way they should.

Comment By : Frustrated camp counselor

I just started nannying for a 4 year old and he's not like any other 4 year old I've ever had to deal with. He is never happy with any game we play, he whines, complains and NEVER smiles. This website really helped me with tips on how to deal with his behavior. Thanks a bunch!

Comment By : Spabunny18

I am unsure if this is really pertinent since my child is a rather grownup who is twenty years old and studying abroad. She seems to be sulking all the time and whenever pinging or speaking to her is often grumpy She also does not like to socialize (or uncomfortable) to move with others, so is finding trouble to go out and make friends.. A lazy girl at home, she has had a big change in that she has to do all the chores now all by herself (which she never used to do while she was at home). While it was her dream to go and study abroad, having accomplished that, she is missing to see that she has ended up in a place where she is actually better off than sit at home. She is worried that she is yet to get a job, even while I see that she has not really made any big attempts to get a job in the first place... She is cutting down expenses and therefore going out and doing stuff she likes, my pointing out that she getting a job will make her feel more engaged as well as get some money that could make her not worry about expenses is falling into deaf ears... Can you help?

Comment By : Mom

* To ‘Mom’: It can be so frustrating to deal with grumpy kids who don’t seem to want to do anything to improve their situation. It’s best to focus on what you can control here, which is yourself and your response to your daughter. Try your best not to pay attention to her moods or feelings and instead offer her some support in solving problems. For example, you talk to her about what her goal is while she’s abroad and what she can do differently to accomplish it. This is where you can make some suggestions if she seems stuck, but otherwise it’s best to let your daughter make her own choices and learn from the natural consequences of them. When you find yourself worrying about your daughter, do something to take care of yourself. We wish you luck. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Thanks a ton, Sara for the kind words. True, for some only experience is the best teacher... To tell you the truth, my husband's approach seems to be more aligning to what you have suggested but here is the twist... For some years now, while her father has adopted thsi approach, i have always more actively attempted to pull her out of her total negative mindset... and in a way I feel that pushed her to come out of her shell to even get the courage to go abroad alone in the first place. So I am having this feeling that we need to be urging her to help her otherwise she might not make the right choices. However i also understand that there is a limit to this... only problem is i fail to understand what that limit is and yes, in the process i do really get anxious. Sometimes, all i do is to pray God and leave the rest to him...

Comment By : Mom

Wow...I am seriously relating to pieces of most of these articles. My (1st) internet search for 'help with my negative, whining, disrespectful 6yr old' landed me here and I'm so glad it did! Me-45 & hubby-53, our daughter-6. My 1st, his 3rd (32,19,6) If I step back, I do see where I have given/done too much for (...Ok, I'll use the word 'spoiled') & my husband has called me on it many times after seeing my frustration with her. I am always trying to please her and make sure she has what she needs (ok, wants) & also, my husband says, trying to be her friend ("she needs a mom, not a friend"). When things don't go her way, it can be a borderline tantrum with me; not with him as he just will not tolerate it. With me there are always chances and promises of punishment that never come. I have, many times, used "...I will get your father if..." or "..do I need to get your father?!" No wonder she is the way she is...She gets most of what she asks for, + snacks, surprises... so much that even the big nice things have little value to her...& me?...very 'anxious' & 'futurizing', asking myself 'what have I created here?', how do I stop this 'train' before it wrecks? After reading all this, I'm feeling optimistic about trying something completely foreign to me, as my method of always trying to reason (with a 6yr old), or 'feeding' into the behavior with constant correcting just isn't working. I will most definitely return (to this wonderful site) to post my results....Thank you ever so much!

Comment By : The444Mom

* To The444Mom: Thanks so much for your comment--we're glad you're finding help here on Empowering Parents with some of the parenting issues you're having with your daughter. As Editor of EP (and a parent myself), I understand where you're coming from. I want to welcome you to our site and also encourage you to continue making comments and asking questions. P.S. Just in case you haven't read it yet, be sure to check out "Negative Children: How to Deal with a Complaining Child or Teen" by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC: http://www.empoweringparents.com/how-to-handle-your-negative-complaining-child-or-teen.php. Very helpful and informative!

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

i have a 19 years old. she sleeps at 3a. she wakes up at 2p. she does not want to do anything except on her computer. she does not want to make food and wash dishes after eating. she does not want to wash her clothes and keeps wearing dirty clothes over and over. i talk to her she ignores me and does not respond. what am i to do. does she have a mental problem.

Comment By : phan

* To “phan”: Many parents become frustrated with their adult child’s apparent refusal to meet even basic expectations. Many adult children who live at home have sense of entitlement. The truth of the matter is your daughter is an adult and, as such, any support you give her is a privilege. One thing you might consider is developing a living agreement like James Lehman suggests in his article Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement? From our perspective, the most important part of parenting an adult child is having clear limits and firm boundaries around what you will and will not tolerate within your household. A living agreement will help you establish those limits and boundaries and also help you hold her accountable when she chooses not to follow the rules. You might also like the first two articles in the series Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I and Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II: In Response to Questions about Older Children Living at Home. If you feel there may be an underlying issue at play, we would encourage you to have your daughter speak with a trained professional to make that determination. You can contact the 211 National Helpline at 1-800-273-6222 (www.211.org) to find out what supports and services are available in your area, including counselors and therapists. We wish you and your family the best as you work through this issue. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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Moody Kids, Pouting, Sulking, Whining, Annoying behavior

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