Nails on a chalkboard – that’s what it sounds like to a parent when we hear our kids whine. So why do kids whine? In most cases, it’s because we let them.
Yes, kids whine sometimes because they’re overtired or hungry. In these cases, it’s best to comfort your child and tend to her most pressing needs. But otherwise? Walk away.
Why? When kids whine and we respond, we provide a payoff that makes the behavior continue. Kids whine not to be annoying or intentionally irritate us – they’re often just looking for attention.
All humans are hard-wired with two basic emotional needs – attention and power. When kids aren’t getting as much positive attention as they need, they will seek it out. And to kids, negative attention is better than no attention at all. So kids whine repeatedly in the hopes that eventually they’ll get the positive attention they need. When they don’t get that attention, the whining and attention-seeking behavior will intensify into behaviors that seek power.
Children only continue behaviors that get results. When kids whine and parents give in, kids realize that whining gets them what they want – the attention they crave and maybe even that candy bar in the grocery checkout line. If you don't address this behavior, it will continue well into our children's teenage years.
But giving in to demands – like one more television show or another scoop of ice cream – isn’t the only way we enable how our kids whine. Just responding, even if it’s to reprimand them, gives a child payoff. Picking up the child or responding with an annoyed remark (“Enough! Stop whining!”) still gives the child attention – and now they know they can do this again and again to get the same result.
So how do we deal with how our kids whine now?
The first step is to remove the payoff for whining. Times of whining, meltdowns and chaos are not places to have a level-headed conversation. So pick a calm moment when everyone’s relaxed – maybe over lunch or a snack – to talk about whining. Talk about the difference between a whiny voice and a normal voice, and how a whiny voice hurts your ears. Let your child know how you feel when he whines and let him know that you won’t respond when he whines – you’ll just simply walk away. When he uses a normal voice, you’ll be happy to talk to him.
The next time your kids whine, stay true to your word. Stay calm and walk away – even our negative non-verbal reaction to whining can be a payoff. When your child uses her normal voice, be sure to respond right away, calmly and pleasantly. The first few times, the whining may be more intense, as she tries to see how long it will take for Mom or Dad to give in. But after a few times of not finding a payoff for whining, she’ll realize she’s more likely to get positive attention by using her normal voice.
Give them positive attention
And because whining is an attention-seeking behavior, it can also signal to parents that our child – whether toddler or teen – is craving more one-on-one time with us. Think of it in a gardening sense – instead of fertilizing and watering our good plants with positive attention, we’re feeding the weeds instead with negative attention. And the weeds – the whining – get worse.
The more we can fill our kids’ “attention basket” with positive experiences, the less they will seek out attention in negative ways. When kids receive the positive attention they need, behaviors like whining become less common. It’s as simple as spending 10 to 15 minutes twice a day having fun with your kids individually. Do something they like to do, like reading, coloring or sports. This investment in one-on-one time will pay big rewards in good behavior.
Amy is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of “If I Have To Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program To Get Kids To Listen Without Nagging, Reminding, or Yelling”. She is a regular contributor on The TODAY Show and has also appeared on Rachael Ray, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, and elsewhere.