What You'll Learn
- What Feelings Are at the Core of Whining
- Common Ways Parents React to Whining (and Why They Don’t Work)
- Strategies We Can Use to Minimize Whining
- Tips for When Whining Comes From a Desire For Attention
- The Benefits of Validating Feelings
Whining is potentially one of the worst sounds we hear as parents. For most of us, it almost feels painful—like fingernails on a chalkboard. In those moments, we don’t always navigate the situation the best way. So, how do we get kids to stop whining?
To find the answer, I chatted with Joanna Faber and Julie King, authors of the bestselling book, How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen. In a recent blog post, Joanna and Julie discussed navigating defiance. Today, they’re back to discuss how to talk when children start whining.
The Power of a Wishlist
With three boys under the age of 7, I hear a lot of requests.
“When can we go on vacation?”
“Can we visit Hawaii?”
“Can I have a giant life-sized robot?”
The answer to many of these requests feels like an obvious no. But the more I have to say “no,” the more whining comes my way—unbearable, cringe-worthy whining.
So when I read How to Talk When Little Kids Won’t Listen, I was eager to try some of the strategies. One such strategy was using the power of a wishlist.
Instead of jumping to “no,” I created a wishlist for each child. Each request my boys make, no matter how outrageous, goes onto his wishlist. They know it’s not a guarantee that they will get these things. But it makes them feel heard, gives them some power and autonomy, and makes them feel proud when they look back through what their lists entail.
It’s tempting to try to silence the whining and put my foot down with a firm no.
I often feel like it’s tempting to try to silence the whining and put my foot down with a firm no. However, that reaction doesn’t get to the core of whining—the big feelings that are underneath. And it doesn’t make my kids feel heard.
What Feelings Are at the Core of Whining
Julie and Joanna asked me to envision that my husband and I had created a monthly budget and saved up for a toaster. While shopping in the store, though, what if I saw a perfect top in just the color I’d been looking for—one that was on sale, and the last one in my size. How would I react if my husband said, “Of course we can’t buy this, it’s out of our budget!”
I wouldn’t feel great. In fact, I’d feel a little bit ragey. And I would certainly try to argue my way into buying that top, explaining how it would be gone if I didn’t get it now, and it was on sale, and it was just perfect.
But what if he responded with, “uh-uh-uh, I can’t even hear you when you talk like that?” Well, in that case, I would absolutely see red.
I’d feel frustrated, unheard, and helpless.
At the core of whining, children often feel powerless.
At the core of whining, children often feel powerless. Sometimes they want something they can’t have, and they feel powerless to get it. Other times, they are dealing with an unsatisfied need—hunger, sleepiness, or sickness—and aren’t sure how to express that.
Either way, whining often stems from that feeling of powerlessness, of having no control or autonomy over their own lives. When we can understand and empathize with that, we have a better chance of navigating it in an effective way.
Common Ways Parents React to Whining (and Why They Don’t Work)
When parents hear whining, we just want it to stop. We try to turn it off, to silence it, without listening to the feelings underneath it.
In response to the whining, we dig in our heels and try to control the behaviour, by scolding, lecturing, or giving orders.
But when a child who is already feeling helpless hears more orders and demands, they feel even less in control—leading to even more whining.
In the moment, it might feel easier to attempt to squash the whining. But a better strategy for everyone might be to take a step back and address the feeling underneath the whining and find ways to give some of that control back to our kids.
Strategies We Can Use to Minimize Whining
One of the simplest and most effective strategies is the one I adopted for navigating my boys’ frequent requests—the wishlist. It helps children feel heard and gives them a sense that, even if they can’t have what they want right now, it might be possible later. (Some kids are very literal thinkers—make sure to manage expectations and be clear that the list is never a guarantee!)
This can even apply to meals and snacks—common times when whining pops up. If our child asks, “what’s for dinner,” and we say, “chicken,” only to be met with a whine of, “Ugh, I wanted pizza,” our knee-jerk reaction might be to scold or lecture, pointing out that they should just be appreciative.
An effective strategy might be to validate the feeling, then give them an opportunity to feel in control.
But a more effective strategy might be to validate the feeling, then give them an opportunity to feel in control. You could say, “Oh, you really like pizza! Let’s put it on the list for next week’s meals!”
Another strategy is to give in with fantasy rather than reality. For example, if a child asks if we can take a trip to Hawaii, you could respond by saying, “Oh, that would be so cool! I want to go to Hawaii too. What would we do when we get there? What is there to do in Hawaii?”
This allows the child to imagine what it would be like to get their wish, while also asking questions that get them thinking about something other than not getting what they want in the moment.
Providing an allowance is another way to give children some autonomy. They can save up and take their money with them on trips to the store. This puts them in charge, allowing them to make decisions about their spending.
Even if you don’t give an allowance, however, you can still let your kids take charge. They can choose which apples go in the basket, which aisle to go down first, or make other small choices that make them feel less helpless.
Tips for When Whining Comes From a Desire For Attention
Sometimes, the whining doesn’t stem from wanting something, however. Another common situation for whining is when kids want attention or want to express their feelings.
Transition times and meal times are often hard—especially if you have multiple children. They seem to have a knack for all wanting to talk to you. It’s hard to navigate who to listen to first, and inevitably somebody doesn’t get heard, resulting in whining.
Sometimes whining happens when kids want attention or want to express their feelings.
One strategy to try in this situation is to practice tones of voice outside of the moment. It’s rarely effective to say, “ugh, stop whining, I can’t hear that voice!” But coming back later and saying, “hey, let’s practice some ways you can get my attention by using your voice differently” can help.
You can also enlist the children in problem-solving. Ask them to brainstorm solutions for when everyone wants to talk at the same time.
Julie shared a story of when she tried this strategy with her own children. Her oldest son, Asher said that they should create a rule that nobody should be able to interrupt. But her other son, Rashi, pointed out that he might forget what he wanted to say. However, when Asher countered with the point that if Rashi interrupted, he would forget what he was going to say, Rashi had an aha moment.
By letting her kids take part in the problem-solving, Julie found that her kids could empathize with each other and realize that they could see things from other people’s perspectives.
The Benefits of Validating Feelings
Sometimes parents are hesitant to validate kids’ feelings because it feels too permissive. But as Joanna and Julie pointed out, what actually happens is that kids find it easier to accept limits if they feel heard.
And, just as Julie found with her children, acknowledging feelings also helps kids become more sensitive to our feelings. They’re able to empathize more.
Acknowledging feelings also helps kids become more sensitive to our feelings.
As kids get older, it’s fine to respectfully discuss your own feelings. I often tell my oldest son that there are ways to talk to me that make me feel more helpful. “You know, there are ways to talk to me that make me feel more helpful.”
I never want him to feel like he’s responsible for my feelings. But I can still narrate, in a lighthearted, playful way, what makes me feel more respected and more willing to work with him.
Ultimately, validating feelings and helping kids work through conflicts without silencing or solving the problem lets them see how to resolve and navigate situations. It also strengthens their emotional intelligence, allowing them to see where others are coming from. Those are more desirable outcomes than simply obeying us.
Is whining making you feel mommy rage? Make sure to catch my course with Dr. Ashurina Ream, All the Rage: Raising kids with less anger and more connection, to help manage even the toughest situations. Enroll in the course today!