A whining child can be a challenge for parents. There is something about that high pitch sound that can drive even the most cool headed parents up the wall. Let’s face it whining is annoying and usually we just want to make it stop. The interesting thing is that we are willing to do almost anything to – Make. It. Stop. We ignore it (as long as we can), we give in, we tell kids we don’t want to listen to whining, we tell children to use their normal voice, their strong voice, that we won’t listen to them if they whine – basically we try to control it.
The thing about it though, is that we can’t control whining and that, I think, is the very thing that makes it so frustrating – you can’t set limits on whining. Our best efforts do nothing and so we are left with constant power struggles over it. This is because whining is the signal of an upset child. The child owns the problem and our typical reactions completely ignore that the child needs help because the way they are going about seeking that help is not acceptable to us. A child who is whining is upset, much like a three year old having a tantrum – a five year old whining has simply matured into whining. A contained cry, if you will, and I treat it pretty much the same – I empathize and I Active Listen. “NO!” parents say “Not with my child, with my child it’s a learned behavior, it’s how they try to get their way.” “I tell them I can’t understand that voice.” “It’s a manipulation” they say and to that I answer “Why does it matter?” A manipulation, a learned behavior, a whine – whatever parents think it is – ALL of those things are a way for a child to meet a need, to solve a problem. There would be no need for him to do any of those things if he wasn’t experiencing a problem and that is why my answer to whining is to Listen.
Just listen. Get close to the child, kneel down and look him in the eye. Give him your full attention and empathize. Repeat back what you see and what you think the child might be feeling. This allows the child who is so distressed you can’t understand his words to be soothed enough to talk, it also allows the child to hear his thoughts out loud and to think through them more clearly. It also helps him to get to the underlying reason of why he is really upset and this leads to self awareness. This is how it sounded in our house recently:
Child: Please…..just one cookie…. please….
Mom: Wow, I hear how upset you are about not getting that cookie.
Child: YES! It’s not fair! I never get cookies! They always run out and everyone else gets more than me!
Mom: You’re worried you won’t get a cookie at all if you don’t have it right now….?!
Child: Yes! Dad always takes cookies when he gets home from work and B already ate his lunch and there are only three left!
Mom: I see so you think B or Dad will see them and get them before you have a chance to finish lunch.
Child: YES! That’s why I need it NOW!
Mom: I see you want to make sure no one else gets yours AND I don’t want you to be full before lunch. I wonder what else we could do so we both have an idea we are happy with?
Child: You could hide it in the back of the fridge!
Mom: That’s a great idea. I can certainly do that.
Problem Solved. My child was whining for a cookie because she was afraid we’d run out before she got her chance. She just didn’t have the language skills or self awareness in that moment to do anything else but to try to meet her immediate problem. By listening to her, I was able to calm her emotionally flooded brain. If I had told her to stop whining, to use a normal voice or ignored her – I would have sent her the message that her problem wasn’t important to me. I would have dismissed her. Or I would have punished her for being upset the wrong way. That’s not the message I want to send at all. I want my children to know that they can come to me with their problems and most importantly I want them to learn how to solve them on their own, because they can. Just like she did on this day with the cookie. Whining is an opportunity to learn – for both of us.
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