“Stop that right now!”
“If you don’t stop that whining, I’ll give you something real to whine about!”
“If you complain about one more thing, you’ll go to your room!”
Listening to a child’s persistent moaning and crying can make the most patient parents feel frenzied and helpless. They want it to stop — now!
They want to exert their authority – make the child change and feel their power and control over him. After all, they are the adults! If they are in public, they feel embarrassed, inadequate and speak through clenched teeth: “Just wait ’til we get home!”
It helps to understand what causes this behavior. Something as simple as being tired and staying up past his normal bedtime can make a child cranky and whiny.
However, chronic whining and complaining usually comes from an accumulation of circumstances that leave the child dissatisfied and unable to comfort himself.
We sometimes chalk up his whininess to “wanting attention,” but it’s usually more. A pestering child can be in the parent’s presence with his physical needs being met, yet still feel that his parent has left him.
Whining is often an attempt to reclaim a parent’s focus and support.
When whining is a reaction to the helpless “little” feeling that overtakes the child when he feels left out, he is letting you know how miserable he is. Even though the child’s behavior at this point makes even the most laid-back parent frustrated and miserable too, we can be sure that the child’s frustration with himself is many times greater.
He can’t like himself when he behaves this way and is at a complete loss as to how to make things better.
Ironically, just when you least feel like giving it, he needs his parents’ love and support now more than ever.
How to help
Helping a child overcome this miserable state will not be accomplished easily or quickly.
No matter what the cause of the present struggle, the first step is to re-establish connection with the child. The most immediate and effective method is a hug or a protective arm around him. Tell him you do get angry with him when he whines and complains, but you still love him.
At the same time, tell your child that you know he is unhappy and that you will help him figure out how both of you can feel better in a loving, happy way.
You also need to point out firmly that talking in a whiny voice will not get him what he thinks he wants. He needs to know that you’ll stick to your word but that you will talk with him when he can use his “bigger boy” voice.
Give him a chance to take this in, but stop him if he goes back to the same old behavior. It’s a hard job for him, so try to be patient. Saying “No!” firmly and not giving in will help stop what could become a nasty habit.
Breaking the habit
Later, if you can pinpoint some of the circumstances that seem to bring on whininess, point them out to your child. “It seems you get cranky whenever I’m on the phone,” or “…when it’s time to stop something you’re doing,” or “…when you want something we say you cannot have,” etc.
Make a simple plan of what the child can do for himself when one of these times occurs – something that would help him feel close to you without interrupting or interfering, or that he could do until he can have your full attention or help.
Try to be observant of those times when your child can wait to do or have something he wants, and when he can overcome frustration without complaining.
Express your appreciation for his figuring out things for himself. Let him know how that makes both of you feel better, and how nice it is to be able to have fun together instead of fighting.
Note the times when your responsibilities and needs may make your child feel left out or disconnected from you. Show him that even though you may have to be doing other things or be in other places, you can know what he is doing and you’re thinking of him.