My Preschooler's Whining Is Making Me Crazy!

Filed under: Opinions, Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers

Dear AdviceMama,

I have a 4-year-old son. What do you recommend when he whines? It drives me crazy, but when I try to get him to stop, he just does it more!

Driven Crazy Mom

Dear Driven Crazy Mom,

I feel for you. While parents find many behaviors annoying -- such as hitting or talking back- - there's something about whining that gets under our skin like nothing else can. A child's plaintive, repetitive whimpers can make even the most easy-going parents lose their patience. Here's my advice:

I have a section in my book -- "If Whining is the Answer, What is the Question?" -- where I explore this issue the way you might on "Jeopardy." To put an end to whining, you have to figure out how it is serving the child, and address that need -- or "question" -- in a healthier way.

I recently worked with Lydia*, whose 5-year old, Daisy*, was a chronic whiner. When I watched the two interacting in my office, I saw right away how their dynamic made whining a logical behavior choice for this little girl.

As Lydia and I spoke, Daisy told her mother she was bored. Mom responded by saying she had warned her we'd be talking for a while, and had suggested her daughter bring a few of her favorite toys, which Daisy had refused to do.

Daisy -- a shy little girl -- didn't know what to do with herself, and didn't yet feel comfortable asking to play with the many toys in my office. The easiest "fix" was her mother's attention, and she knew from experience how to get it. She whimpered, flopped on the floor and repeatedly invoked her mommy's name with a desperate moan.

Lydia found it impossible to resist. She scolded Daisy, threatened to withdraw her offer of a trip to the park, and told the little girl her whining was "driving me crazy!"

In other words, Daisy's whining got her the thing she needed: her mother's undivided, focused attention.

Now, the truth is, that isn't exactly what Daisy wanted. What she really wanted was something interesting to do, and she felt too timid to explore the fun things in my office (as she would eventually do with great enthusiasm.) The whining gave Daisy a bit of temporary relief from her feelings of restlessness.

I asked Mom to look for the root of her daughter's behavior so she could understand why it made perfect sense that Daisy had gotten into the habit of whining to get her needs met. I also encouraged her to make sure she didn't reward her daughter by giving her attention -- even negative attention -- when Daisy persisted in demanding it.

I invited Lydia to give me specific reasons that would explain or justify Daisy's whining. She admitted that Daisy tended to whine when she was unstimulated. With nothing to engage her curious mind and a temperament that made her uncomfortable exploring new environments on her own, she whined to find relief from her boredom.

While I don't think parents should establish themselves as their child's source of non-stop fun, Daisy was going to be in a new place (my office) where her mom would be distracted by conversation with a strange lady, leaving the girl to wiggle and squirm. It was a foreseeable problem Mom could have prevented by better planning. I suggested Lydia be more pro-active, bringing along toys in novel situations so her daughter would have something to do until she felt brave enough to explore a new environment her own.

When I asked Lydia to think about any patterns to her daughter's whining-time of day, circumstance or setting, she said one predictable time was about a half an hour before dinner, when Daisy claimed she was "starving." I suggested Lydia give her daughter a protein snack to tide her over, rather than rigidly ignoring her hunger by making her wait till Daddy got home. I also encouraged her to involve her daughter in dinner-making to give her a healthier way to engage with Mommy.

Rather than looking for ways to punish your children for whining, uncover for the payoff they get and address it before they resort to misbehavior to get their needs met. Be the captain of the ship who steers clear of rough waters, rather than scrambles to cope with problems once his ship is in the middle of the storm.

If whining is the answer, look for the question or the child's need, address it in advance and things will undoubtedly improve.

Yours in parenting support,

* Not their real names

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.