(Note: I often receive emails from parents about their struggles. Here, a parent has given permission to share our email exchange about whining and her preschool-age son.)
I have a parenting question for you…Do you have an effective way to deal with whining? Our son like most 4 year olds, can be very whiny at times. We have tried all sorts of ways to deal with his whining: talking to him, counting him out, timeouts, ignoring, rewarding him for good behavior. Nothing seems to work all that well. Whining is not fun…and how we are dealing with it is making for some un-enjoyable times, especially on the weekends. I have always valued your parenting advice so any thoughts you have are greatly appreciated. Thanks so much! Take care,
“Mom who needs help!”
To “Mom who needs help with whining 4-year old:”
I love your question about whining. It reminds me of those lovely days with preschoolers in my house, (and whining a lot!) I sometimes made a joke with my children that “I don’t understand whining language. Can you speak Clear Talk Language?”
Whining is an older child’s form of infant crying. Your son whines because there is something that he can’t handle, doesn’t like, or is frustrated by. Using a whining voice is like crying with words. It’s very easy to see our little guys as older than they actually are emotionally, especially when they can speak so well! Often, though, the whining comes from a place of not completely understanding the emotional landscape of what’s happening inside them (and sometimes to the powerlessness they feel in a situation where they have little or no control – like when to go to bed, whether or not they’ll be allowed to watch TV, etc. etc. etc.!)
Acknowledging the feeling, while still limiting the behavior is the first step. “I know you really want to stay up because we’re having so much fun, and you wish you could stay up forever and ever, AND every body needs rest, so it’s time for bed. Let’s hop on one foot all the way to the stairs!” If distracted attention doesn’t work, acknowledge the feeling by asking about it during a lap squeeze (attention without “giving in” to the whining, but with some loving connection) – “Let’s sit in the cuddling chair and try to figure out what’s really going on.”
Often a preschooler whines when they are hungry, angry, lonely or tired (HALT) and can’t completely identify their need – so they whine about everything else! Meeting those HALT needs is another good strategy. Trying to pre-empt those times of pushing beyond what’s reasonable to expect (like a four hour shopping trip in the 90 degree heat…) will help keep your son from getting to the point of whining to release his frustration.
Another more difficult reason for whining is to express negative feelings, but not having a safe way to do it. Some children don’t want to scream or “lash out” because anger is not a socially-acceptable emotion to express, though we all need to express it at one point or another. Giving ways to express frustration and anger in healthy ways (strong physical play with an inanimate, indestructible object like a cardboard box or big pillow) is key to avoiding it “leaking out” in other ways, like whining or passive aggression.
More practical tips can be found in this article by Laura Markham. Hope it will help you! Til soon, Beth