Dear 1-on-1 Coach:
I have two daughters, aged 12 and 8, and a son who’s 4. My problem is that none of my kids can seem to talk without whining. They whine when it’s time to get up, when it’s time to go to bed, when we ask them to clean their rooms, turn off the TV, or do their summer reading. Is there any way we can stop this annoying habit? It’s driving me and my husband crazy!!!
–Heidi in Sacramento
Whining is at the top of many parents’ lists of the most annoying child behaviors. I was in a used bookstore a few days ago. From across the book stacks, I could hear a young girl whining: “Why won’t you buy me that book? Grandma said she’d buy it, but she left. Now you have to get it. I need that book and you’re not getting it for me.” Her father replied, “I’m not buying any books.” The child continued, loudly, from far across the store: “But I want the book! Grandma said! I have to have that book. Why can’t I have it? You don’t understand! You have to buy it!” I’m sure you can imagine the exact tone of her voice! Her father continued to explain and defend his decision, and the girl continued to whine.
Kids whine because they think it will get them what they want, whether that’s a later bedtime, a reprieve from chores, or a new book. Whining works precisely because it’s annoying – adults often give in to the request just to make the whining stop. Or, like the father I described above, parents find themselves repeatedly defending their decision, while the child continues to try and wear them down with their whining.
Children also whine when they want to get out of a task. That’s part of the child’s goal – by whining, they are effectively putting off whatever it is you have asked them to do. Let’s say you’ve told your child to clean their room. Instead of following your direction, they whine about how unfair it is that they have to do it, or they whine that it’s not their turn. If you debate them, or try to justify your position, they keep whining. As long as this goes on, they don’t have to clean their room. Whining is an effective stall tactic.
How do you stop the whining habit? Address the whining directly. When your child whines, tell them clearly and firmly, “Whining is not going to get you what you want,” or “whining is not going to get your room cleaned.” Do not explain or defend your decision or make bargains with your child. If they continue to whine, state, “You don’t need to agree with the rule (or with my decision), but you do need to comply with it. How can you help yourself get that room clean (or do your chores, or get to bed)?” Let your child know that there will be a consequence if they do not complete what is asked of them. Once you have addressed the whining issue, walk away. Do not continue to engage with your child.
If your child is whining about something she or he wants, address the whining, not your reasons for saying no. In the case of the father and his daughter above, the father might have responded, “Whining is not going to get you what you want.” If his child continued to whine, he might have taken her aside and said, “Whining is not going to get you that book. I have already told you ‘no.’ I know that is not the answer you want, but that is the answer. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to figure out how to deal with it. If you choose to keep whining, we will leave the store, and we will discuss a consequence for your whining later.”
As you make these changes in your own response, you may notice that your child’s whining actually increases. Don’t panic! Annoying behaviors often get worse before they get better. If whining has worked for your child in the past, they may think they need to whine more, better, or louder in order to get their old results. Just stay calm and deliver a clear message that whining will not get them what they want. If they choose to keep whining, remind them that there will be a consequence for continuing to whine, and that you will talk about it when they’re calm. Then walk away. Once your child has calmed down, have a discussion about whining and what your child can do differently next time.
Whining is annoying. How you respond to it changes everything. As you deliver a clear, consistent message, your child will begin to understand that they will not get what they want by whining. Once they realize it is no longer effective, they’ll drop the habit. Good luck, and let us know how it works out!
–Megan Devine, LCPC