Matteo started whining from the minivan’s back seat, “Moooooommy….”
“Yes, Matteo?” Carmen calmly asked in response. She let out a heavy sigh. They had barely left the driveway and had an hour of driving left until they reached their destination.
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“Mooooooommy!” Matteo repeated in a high-pitched voice.
“Stop whining, please.” Carmen impatiently huffed.
This went on for several minutes. Carmen attempted to ignore the whining, hoping it would stop, but it continued, and he began screaming. Carmen felt her blood pressure rise as she gripped the steering wheel. She felt helpless, irritable, and overwhelmed.
I can’t handle another minute of this, she thought to herself before she finally snapped, “Matteo! Stop whining and use your words!”
Despite this, the whinings didn’t stop, and his behaviour continued to escalate.
Have you ever been in a situation like this?
Many parents can relate to this experience and the feelings that often come with it. Whining is a common trigger for parents, and knowing how to tackle the whining phase can feel challenging.
This blog is intended to help parents who want to understand why their child may be whining and learn strategies that will offer their child new, more effective ways to communicate.
Why ‘Use Your Words’ Doesn’t Work
Whining behaviour is a common phase children go through as they grow up, most often seen in the toddler and preschool-aged years. This high-pitched tone is a young child’s form of communicating frustration or a desire for something. Whether it’s the need for closeness or comfort or simply the desire for a break from a busy environment, whining serves to help children communicate their needs.
Whining can also be a way to release some big feelings; it’s a way to vent their feelings when they don’t yet have the emotional regulation skills to express themselves more appropriately.
Your child’s lack of emotional regulation skills is why common phrases like ‘use your words’ or ‘calm down’ aren’t effective. If your child doesn’t have the words to express themselves or the tools to cope with their feelings, they will resort to whining. Even if your child has the language to express their needs, they can’t access the words they need when having emotional outbursts. The part of the brain where language is stored goes offline when big emotions happen.
On a deeper level, if a child is whining as a signal that they’re craving closeness or comfort, phases like this won’t satiate this need; if they’re whining to get your attention and bring you close to them, simply being told to “use your words” won’t meet the need for connection, closeness, or comfort.
Why Children Continue to Whine
If whining is successfully meeting a child’s need for food, comfort, or solving a problem, why would they stop?
If a child isn’t taught other communication skills, how would they know to behave differently?
This is why our response to whining is so important. How we respond to whining can reinforce this behaviour so, over time, it becomes a habit.
Common responses to whining might include:
- Giving into the demands.
- Ignoring the whining.
- Telling a child, “Use your words!”
- Telling a child to stop whining or calm down.
These responses aren’t effective because:
- Giving in signals to a child that whining is an effective way to communicate.
- Ignoring whining can make children want to get louder in an effort to be heard.
- ‘Use your words’ doesn’t teach your child the words to use in place of whining.
- ‘Calm down’ doesn’t teach your child how to cope with their feelings.
If a child is whining, and this behaviour isn’t working to get their needs met, it can result in bigger behaviours. For example, when Carmen ignored Matteo’s whining, he started screaming (because whining wasn’t working to get his needs met!
When we reflect on our responses, it can put a child’s behaviour into perspective. They’re not whining to be bad, annoying, or manipulative; they’re whining because it’s working to meet their needs! So, it makes sense that they will continue to whine in the future. When we shift the response, we can begin to see a shift in whining behaviours.
If this perspective is helpful, check out our blog, The Ultimate Guide to Aggressive, Lying, Whining, and Defiant Behaviors in Children, for a child’s five most common needs.
Identify What Triggers Your Child’s Whining
It’s important for caregivers to get curious about their child’s behaviour. What need is whining serving to meet for your child?
To get curious, tracking common themes and patterns can be helpful. This can help you determine what triggers your child’s whining.
Consider these two questions:
- When does the whining typically occur?
- What happens before the whining?
Whining is a signal. When we get curious about the triggers, we can start to see the needs they’re trying to communicate with you. Whining might be their way of saying:
- “Today felt overwhelming. I need a break, but I don’t know how to tell you this!”
- “I really missed you today, and I need you to see me right now!”
- “I’m hungry and can’t control my body when it feels like this!”
When Carmen got curious about Matteo’s whining, she noticed he had sensory needs that weren’t being met:
- Matteo was an active child, so being in a car seat made his body feel restless, and whining was the only way he knew how to communicate his discomfort.
- Her son usually started whining in the late morning, right before lunch; he could have been whining to communicate that he was hungry.
Once whining triggers have been identified, you can start to proactively support your child by anticipating their needs.
Anticipate Your Child’s Needs
Proactively support your child by predicting their needs and meeting those needs before the whining can happen. Keep reading for a few examples to demonstrate what this can look like.
Example 1: You notice that your child always whines for more stories at bedtime because they want to spend more time with you.
Instead of: “Stop whining! It’s time to go to bed.”
Try this: “I know you’ll want to read another book, so I brought an extra one!”
Example 2: You notice that your child starts to whine when they get home from school because they are overstimulated and hungry.
Instead of: Waiting for your child to start whining to give them a snack.
Try this: Set up a calming corner with snacks and quiet activities for your child to retreat to after school.
Getting curious, identifying triggers, and anticipating your child’s needs in advance can effectively reduce whining (or eliminate the need for whining)!
When Carmen started planning rest stops and packing snacks into the car, she noticed whining behaviours rarely occurred. Her son didn’t need to whine to meet his sensory needs because she had anticipated his needs.
Teach Your Child New Ways to Communicate
Teaching children more effective ways to communicate requires repeated demonstrations from caregivers. Children will look to you to know how to interact with their world and get their needs met. This means we can encourage effective communication simply through our everyday interactions.
There are many ways to model effective communication to your child. Here are three examples Carmen used with Matteo:
Narrating how you meet your needs: “I notice that I get snappy when I’m hungry. That’s why I pack some granola bars in the car.”
Narrating your observations and offering new language: “I’ve noticed that you sound frustrated when we have to travel. If you need a break today during the drive to Nana’s house, you can say: ‘Mom, can we stop for a break?’”
Teaching new ways to communicate needs using gestures: “I’ll check in with you throughout the car ride – if you give me a wink, I’ll know this means you need a break.”
As triggering as whining can be, it’s important to remember that it makes sense from a developmental perspective, and it’s a really common phase for toddlers and preschoolers.
Children can learn more effective ways to communicate their needs with support and guidance from caregivers.
Check out our online Parenting Little Kids course for more tools and strategies to end whining, tantrums, hitting, and other challenging behaviour!