Whining is designed to set off your internal alarm, expedite any feelings on our behalf of frustration, annoyance and intolerance, and if we are having a bad day…
totally send us over the edge.
If it is so annoying, then why do little ones do it?
- Quite simply, it gets our attention. By design is it annoying, so we focus on it, speak to it, and spotlight it. For little ones, negative attention is still attention and the more frustrated we get, the more likely we are to give in. It gets your attention and it draws you closer to them.
- It sets off your internal alarm, inducing a response of stress in our bodies, leading you to some form of response or action.
- Whining is a form of communication.
- Whining is also a way to exert their own power and means to control a situation, that they feel out of control in.
- It is actually in a strange way a compliment, they only whine when they feel comfortable and safe with their caregivers, they feel like you will support them, keep them safe, and love them even when they are annoying!
How Do We Look At It Differently Then?
- Whining is a way for the little ones to send us a message, they are trying to communicate a need, want, emotion, or distress signal to us. They have been wired to learn that this response will in turn result in an immediate response from us, that then by doing it they hope that we will resolve the root of their whining.
- What we need to try to do, is to see it as a way to connect, an opportunity to understand the root of this response on their behalf. Try:
“Mommy can’t understand you when you use this voice, when you are ready to use your beautiful voice, we can figure out together what you need.” Express that you are there for them, but make it clear that this is your boundary and that you are not engaging in this interaction as it is.
- In my experience, it is less about the toy, the ice cream, or the friend, but a means for them to release their frustration or express a need – I’m tired, I’m angry, I’m overwhelmed, I’m hungry, I need attention – I’m telling you I am not coping, and I need comfort from you, not distance.
- If they are at the stage of whining, caving, and giving them the ice cream is going to have two negative results. One – if I whine, I get what I want, therefore I will carry on whining in the future.
Two – It isn’t about the ice cream, so caving in and giving them what they want, isn’t even going to solve the root of the whining, only a short-term reprieve – they are still feeling this -> I’m tired, I’m angry, I’m overwhelmed, I’m hungry, I need attention – I’m telling you I am not coping, and I need comfort from you, not distance. So now we are just left with a double negative result.
What Can We Do To Manage This Response?
- Stay calm! Don’t label the behaviour or your little one as a whiner, labels validate negative behaviour and bring down a child’s self-worth. It also only makes the whining worse, as now they are even more upset and unregulated.
- Spotlight positive behaviour, in other words, requests they make in the non-whining voice and when they handle your “no” well. Try:
“Great job for asking me for yoghurt in such a lovely voice”
“Thank you for understanding why I said no”
“Thank you for being so kind and polite to mommy”
“Mommy’s ears are so happy with your beautiful voice you are using”
- As always with little ones, boundary-pushing, a need for independence, and power struggles are always at play – maintain your boundaries but allow room for choice that lets them feel they have a part in the outcome of their request, whilst validating their needs / wants. Try:
“Ice cream IS delicious, so I can understand why you feel like it. But it is almost supper time, so I am afraid you can’t have ice cream now as it will make your tummy too full before your yummy dinner. But you can choose a treat for after dinner, would you like a yoghurt or a choccy biscuit?”
“I know you don’t feel like being in the car seat right now, it’s hot and you’re tired, Daddy feels the same way! But I need to keep you there, to keep you safe because I never want anything to happen to you. We will be home soon; would you like to have a banana or some strawberries as your snack when we get home?”
- Remember that little ones always want a boundary upheld, it is what keeps them feeling safe and loved. What they really always want is a place of safety to offload negative, irrational feelings that they don’t understand – they are at the end of the day not emotionally regulated if they are at the stage of whining. We need to provide a safe space to release pent-up emotions, whilst modelling positive behaviour and scaffolding them to emotional regulation. Try:
“I completely understand why you are upset; you were having so much fun at your play date. But it is time to go home, it is late, and it is almost dinner time. Daddy loves you very much, and you are safe and loved. I am here for you, even when you want to cry and feel angry”
I hope this helps to provide you with the confidence to empower your beautiful tiny tot. Remember these are just my own thoughts, learnings, understanding and practical tips I apply and feel work best, everyone is different, and you need to do what is right for you and your tot.
Amy Stevens, more affectionately known as Teacher Amy is a qualified foundation phase and early childhood development teacher. Her mornings involve running a Little Oaks Nursery School in Constantia, and in the afternoons she offers one-on-one academic support sessions for ages 4-10 and toddler group play sessions for ages 1-3.