4 Ways to Deal With Whining Children

Is your little one always whining and crying? We've got advice about teaching your preschooler to find less annoying ways to get what they want.

Outside of spontaneous vomiting, which we've likely all experienced, whining is probably one of the least favorable parts of parenting. That high-pitched, exaggerated tone kids use when they want something is pretty much universal—and so is parents' distaste for it. Here, we'll talk about why kids whine for what they want, and what to do if you find yourself falling victim to it.

Why Do Kids Whine?

"Whining is totally normal," says Janeen Hayward, a licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of Swellbeing, a parenting resource in New York City. Virtually all kids become pros at the shrill mewling that serves as a desperate plea for something (usually an item they know they can't have) and also expresses a feeling of powerlessness that crying or talking doesn't. "Three- and 4-year-olds whine frequently because they have big expectations and desires, but don't always get their way or have the ability to do the task at hand," explains Hayward.

Grumpy and whiny child
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It may be comforting to know that your little one is just expressing their needs, but it's also frustrating to realize that such an annoying behavior is so incredibly effective. Many parents find themselves giving in to even the most outrageous request simply to stop the noise and save that last shred of sanity. But of course, that only serves to make the problem worse. "When you give in to your child's demands immediately, you're reinforcing her behavior," Hayward points out.

What to Do About Child Whining

You might be tempted to tune your child out when they start whining. And who could blame you? But that isn't always the most effective solution. When you're ready to wipe out the gripes, you can use these tips to win the war on whining.

1. Don't ignore your child.

Put away the earplugs and take action. "Kids can whine all day, easily outlasting a parent who is trying to tune it out," says Rene Hackney, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in Alexandria, Virginia. "The longer you let your child complain, the more determined she'll become to get her way."

Instead, help your child understand that their whining voice is very frustrating. You can say, "I can't understand you when you whine. If you want to tell me how you feel, then I need you to use your regular voice." Don't assume your little one knows what it means to whine. Demonstrate to your child how it sounds by whining back at them, suggests Hayward.

Also, take stock of whether they may be whining because they're tired or hungry. Sticking to a nap schedule and stashing a snack in your purse for outings can help prevent a major meltdown.

2. Relate to their feelings.

Try getting to the bottom of your kid's bellyaching. Are they whining because they're trying to control a situation? If that's the case, give your kiddo a job that relates to that specific scenario. For instance, if your little one whines about how long you're taking at the supermarket, let them choose which apples to bag or how many bagels to buy.

Or maybe they're simply venting? Just as you like to gripe to your partner about a bad day at work or a stressful exchange with another parent, 3- and 4-year-olds need to express themselves too. You might start by saying, "I know you really want to have an extra balloon, but each child gets only one at the party," advises Dr. Hackney. This will validate your child's feelings and also give them a reason why you're rejecting their request.

3. Encourage your child to rephrase their request.

"When the whining starts to gear up, ask your child to use their nice voice and say please, and demonstrate exactly what to say and how to say it. Once your child does that, you can then respond to the request with a yes or a reasoned no," suggests Dr. Hackney.

Although you may be tempted to punish your child if they continue to whine, that's not the best solution, says Hayward. "Taking away something like a favorite toy or a special privilege doesn't teach kids how to engage in a positive way in order to get what they're after and just ends up adding to their feelings of powerlessness."

4. Reward your child's efforts.

When your preschooler asks you for something in a calm, sweet way ("Can I please have a cookie?"), it's a perfect opportunity to recognize and reinforce their good behavior. "Don't be afraid to gush! You can say, 'Wow, what a lovely way to ask. That sounded so nice,'" says Dr. Hackney.

Even if you refuse the request ("We are going to save our appetite for dinner and skip the cookie now"), pointing out how well your kiddo used their good voice will make them less likely to resort to whining next time. You'll be relieved you've silenced the din, and your little one will have learned how to be heard.

The Bottom Line

In short, whining is a developmentally appropriate part of childhood—but that doesn't make it any less irritating when your child uses it to get what they want. That's why it's important to teach your preschooler better ways to express themselves to change this unwanted behavior.

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