Transforming Whining into Positive Connections
“Mooooommmmm, I don’t want to do my homework,” seven-year-old Elaina says in a nasily, high-pitched, and sing-song (in a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard, not melodic) way. The powerful whine is wielded to get her Mom’s attention. And it works every time. How can you not hear, turn toward, and grimace at that tone? In fact, research confirms what we already know — that whining is the most annoying sound we can hear beyond crying or yelling which also makes it a power tool for our children and teens. Though whining peaks between the ages of two and four, this tool is not limited to the young. We encounter adults who whine in the workplace when the work is stacked high or whine at partners who face a pile of dishes.
Because whining is so irritating, we, as parents or educators, often don’t react in the best ways. “Stop whining!” might be an automatic response or “Just do your job!” may be another. Both expressions are likely to be said with force and aggression since we reactively want to match the astringent tone with the same level of emotional energy. In order to become adept at reacting to whining, we need to understand the motivation behind it. The whining may be an attempt to:
- gain more connection with you. With children, often any attention, even if it’s negative, is good attention;
- get a physical need met. Hungry? Tired? A mash-up of these is more often the case.
- get an emotional need met. Children may be upset and seeking your support and understanding.
- seek comfort and solace in behaviors from their younger years. As our children grow older, they retain all of the ages and stages from their past and can fall back to old habits when they are feeling sensitive and vulnerable.
- gain control of their situation. If your family has been particularly stressed, you might experience your child whining more frequently.
- Avoid responsibilities. Children can feel overwhelmed by the mound of school work they have or a full messy room you are directing them to clean up.
Our responses then can be most successful if we address their motivation. Keep in mind that all whining is a request for your attention. How you respond can turn around the situation so that your child feels supported and knows how to gain your attention without using his caustic power tool: whining. Here are some easy tips.
Teach Positive Ways to Ask for Attention.
What could your child say or do that would guarantee your attention to their needs? Often we inadvertently reinforce whining only offering our focused attention when that annoying communication tool is used. Instead, practice ways your child could genuinely gain your focus. “Mom, I could really use a hug right now.” “Dad, I want to tell you about what happened to me today.” After practicing together what you want your child to say, work on recognizing when they are asking in appropriate ways and give them attention in response. Also, if your child is frequently interrupting you when you are talking to another, how can you create a hand signal to get your attention so that they don’t have to interrupt you to get their needs met? Maybe they raise their hand or you give each other a high five indicating you’ll be with them in just a minute.
Trading Places — Dramatically Play through Gaining Attention
This strategy is best used if played (read: practiced) in advance. If your child is in the midst of whining to you, stop and say, “Switch!” See if you might change places — you playing the child, your daughter playing Mom. Now, Mom gets to whine and see how daughter will respond. If she struggles, then you might ask “How can we help you feel better? How can we help me feel better too?”
Be Certain to Have Sacred Time Together Each Day
If your child is whining for greater connection, they may only increase their efforts until they get that attention from you. If you have multiple siblings to share your attention among, why not create a daily ritual in which you can solely focus one-on-one time on each? Perhaps bedtime is an opportunity for a five-minute time to connect and share with one another thoughts from the day? When the whining occurs, you might mention that you are looking forward to that special time together.
Identify the Feeling
The whining may be occurring because your child is feeling sensitive or hurt. How can you help meet that emotional need? First, name the feeling to help your child figure out what’s going on inside of her and show you are working to seek understanding. “Are you feeling sad? How can we help you feel better?” might be all that is needed — that and a good hug — to chase the blues away.
Meet Physical Needs
Can you tell or do you know that your child is simply worn out? Time to take a break and work on a consistent bedtime routine so that a full night’s sleep awaits. Do you know your child is hungry, or in this case, hangry? Try out a high protein snack to see if it might do the trick.
Break Down Big Responsibilities into Small, Manageable Ones
Children can easily become overwhelmed with too many choices, or too many tasks. And that overwhelm can contribute to whining and giving up trying. That’s why it helps to recognition when they are feeling like it’s all too much. Break down any homework or clean up tasks in one small step at a time. “Do you want to put away your Legos or your books?” Or “Do you want to begin with your math worksheet or spelling words?” This will teach them how to manage their work load and prevent future whining episodes.
Notice Positive Attention-Seeking Behaviors
All too often we get in the habit of calling out behaviors we want to change but when things are going smoothly, we are simply relieved and don’t say anything. When you see improvement, tell your child in the moment what they are doing well, particularly if it is a behavioral issue you are working on with him. Be specific. “I notice you waited until I was finished with my conversation to ask me a question. I realize that takes patience and I appreciate it.”
Plan for your Own Reactions
Naturally, we’ll want to cringe when our child whines to get our attention. After all, that’s the intended reaction to bring full attention to the child whining. But if we think ahead, decide how we’ll react, we can lessen future whining instead of unwittingly encouraging it with our negative responses. What can you do to help yourself remember to stop, breathe, and pause before responding? Post a note on the refrigerator? Wear a red bracelet? Then, practice moving toward your child to show support. If you are too annoyed and it will clearly show in your voice, don’t talk. Place your hand on their shoulder, rub their back or hold their hand. Show that you are trying to understand and support them acknowledging they are having a rough time.
Connect More During Stressful Family Times
Whether you are moving, renovating, having a baby, or dealing with the passing of a loved one, these stressful times can become ripe conditions for your child to whine more. And those are precisely the times when we do not react well considering that we may already be stressed to our limits. So during particularly stressful times, we can help ourselves by creating more frequent opportunities for loving connection with our children. Add more hugs, more snuggles, and more time to read together to help get through the rougher times together showing support for one another.
Simply put, if you are dealing with a whining child, it requires a little more of your time to focus on that child. As you offer more positive connections, you’ll experience less whining. And all family members can feel a greater sense of loving connection.