A whingeing kid is guaranteed to push up your blood pressure. Read this before you fly off the handle to try an understand why kids whine.
If you’re a parent, you’ll know all about whingeing – that infuriating blend of crying and high-pitched talking or wailing that children use to get your attention.
When your toddler asks for something politely and you don’t respond the first few times, he or she may protest or yell more loudly, even throwing a tantrum for good measure. An older child may resort to a full-on moan-and-groan session.
It’s interesting to note that children don’t consciously use whingeing as a strategy. According to San Francisco paediatrician Dr Laurel Shultz, it’s a learned behaviour that parents often unwittingly help create.
While annoying, it’s important to question why your child behaves in this way. Developmental psychologist and educator Dr Becky Bailey reminds parents that a whingeing child is actually asking for help. The child isn’t just trying to irritate or deliberately annoy you.
Whingeing through the ages
The reasons for whingeing – and the strategies for dealing with this behaviour – differ, depending on the age of your child.
In the interest of your own sanity and your child’s healthy development, it’s worth taking note of the following:
Toddlers (1-2 years)
Toddlers tend to whinge when they feel overwhelmed and out of control. Remember that these little ones don’t yet have the language abilities, social skills or vocabulary to express their frustrations, let alone deal with everything happening around them. So, like babies who cry to make themselves heard, toddlers whinge.
Toddlers typically whinge when they’re hungry, tired or over-stimulated, so try to pre-empt meltdowns by making sure these important physical and emotional needs are met. For example, if you’re planning to go out shopping for groceries, make sure it’s not close to your little one’s naptime.
Also patiently work with your toddler on better ways to ask for the things they want or need. Remember to keep language simple and use games or role-play to get the message across.
Pre-school teacher Bronwen Johnston of Cape Town, South Africa, uses a clever trick. When her kids start whingeing, she uses exaggerated facial gestures and a high-pitched tone to ask, “Whyyyy are you taaaaaalkinggg in that voooiceee?” It shows them how annoying whingeing is and invariably makes them laugh, thereby distracting them from their original complaint.
Preschoolers (ages 3 – 5)
Whingeing makes children between the ages of three and five feel powerful, as they test the limits of their independence, says psychologist Dr Carolyn Crowder.
As co-author of Whining: 3 Steps to Stopping It Before the Tears and Tantrums Start (Touchstone, 2000), she points out that what preschoolers lack in vocabulary, they make up for in smartness.
With low frustration thresholds, craving attention (even if it’s negative) and having to deal with lots of changes, young children often use whingeing as the only way to express themselves when they’re tired, irritable, uncomfortable, hungry, or just don’t want to do something.
A few tips:
- Distraction works wonders. One parent uses a “whinge” cup or whatever container is available. When her little one starts whingeing, she tells her to go and “pour out the whinge” and bring back her normal voice. When she does, she gets praise for using a more agreeable tone.
- Try whispering. It’s sure to quieten your child so they can hear you.
- Most young children grasp that there are consequences to their actions. Tell your child you can’t understand them when they whinge and that you’ll try to listen when they use their normal voice.
- Try a playful approach. Say, “Oh dear, your normal voice has disappeared! I wonder where the nicer voice went.” Look around the room and pretend to find a nicer voice behind the couch. Next, pop the imaginary voice in your little one’s mouth.
School goers (ages 6 – 8)
Young school-going kids may whinge when they’re bored or are expected to do something they don’t want to do, like chores.
Ask yourself whether you have reasonable expectations. After all, is it really so bad to complain at the end of a long school day? Most adults find it hard to cope with the demands of everyday life, so it’s not surprising that children feel the same.
Try and be a bit flexible and meet your child halfway. Using compromise isn’t a bad thing. It teaches kids that reasoning with you is better than whingeing and acting out.
Note that continual, persistent whingeing about hating school or wanting to avoid activities may signal emotional or developmental problems. If you’re concerned that your child might have other problems, consult your doctor or a child psychologist.
Older kids and teens
In an article on Empoweringparents.com, child behavioural therapist James Lehman gives the following valuable tips for parents of older school-going kids:
- Encourage your child to express their whinge using full sentences. Nobody can keep up an annoying drone in complete sentences.
- Establish a “complaining time” to extinguish constant whingeing. Give your child a journal where they can write down their complaints. Set aside a certain time every day when your child gets 10 minutes to complain, discuss bothersome issues and whinge. Make sure to listen when they’re talking. If they whinge again, tell them to write it in their journal or save it for complaint time tomorrow.
- If you’ve promised to go somewhere with your child, write down a one-sentence “agreement” on when and where you’ll go. Make sure to include that any further whingeing will nullify the contract. More importantly, follow through, or it won’t work.
A few last tips
The following general steps will further help you put a stop to whingeing:
Step 1: Be consistent. The only way to deal with whingeing is to break the pattern in a firm, consistent way that encourages your child’s development rather than punishing them, asserts educational expert Dr Jane Nelson and co-author of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. When you stop getting frustrated by the whingeing, your child will stop too.
Step 2: Assess nap time. A common reason for whingeing is tiredness, as children need longer, more frequent sleep than adults. Review your child’s sleep schedule and make adjustments if necessary, even if it’s not convenient for your own routine.
Step 3: Investigate other possible causes. Dr Bailey suggests looking at the bigger picture if your child continually whines. This includes asking yourself if your child’s routine has changed, if you’ve been busier than usual or otherwise occupied, or if other situations at home might be behind the whingeing.
Step 4: Keep your calm. Responding in anger or frustration, and shouting at a whingeing child, may boomerang if your little one sees bad behaviour as a way of getting attention. Firstly, take a deep breath to compose yourself – the trick is to avoid looking irritated. Now use a calm tone and specific words to show your child how you’d like them to respond, advises Dr Bailey. For example, you could say: “I don’t like it when you whinge. If you want a cool drink, say it like this….”
Step 5: Praise good behaviour. Try not to only scold your child when they whinge or misbehave, and never label your child a whinger. According to parenting expert Dr Michelle Borba, parents often don’t give their children praise or positive reinforcement – thanking your child for “asking nicely” or using their “normal voice” could works wonders.
Step 6: Look at your own behaviour. Dr Borba reminds us to think of changing our own habits as parents and to remember that we all whinge and complain at times. Some kids may take more time than others to overcome their whingeing habit. It won’t happen overnight, but guiding your child to learn more effective methods of communication will help both of you in the long run.