Why do my kids keep whining?

December 4, 2012
By: Noël Janis-Norton
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Macaroni Kid Reader Asks:
Why do my kids keep whining when I’ve answered their questions? I have three kids under age 5 and they all do it! For example, my daughter always seems to be hungry, so she’ll whine and say, “I’m hungry!” I tell her that dinner will be ready in half an hour but she keeps whining and I keep reassuring her. I’m losing it!

Noel Janis-Norton

This is a very common scenario so you are not alone! It’s puzzling to try and understand why our kids keep whining when we’ve given them answers to whatever they are whining about. You didn’t give in to the whining and hand her a snack, so it seems like the whining wasn’t rewarded. So why does it continue?

Here’s the reason why. The reward your daughter is looking for is for you to answer her and to give the whining attention. As long as the whining works to get to keep answering her, she (and your other kids) will keep doing it. You need a more effective strategy for how to respond to whining.

Whenever your kids have some strong emotion, it can often come out in the form of annoying behavior like whining. They whine and then we naturally answer with logic, reasoning, explaining, justifying, etc.

There’s a pretty simple reason why responding with logic and reasons doesn’t work, and it actually has to do with brain science. When our kids have some big emotion, their ‘emotional’ right brain takes over. We usually respond to the emotional outbursts with logic and reason, which are left brain characteristics. The bottom line is that these two sides of the brains can’t work together in that moment. Kids can’t respond to left brain logic when they’re in the grip of right brain emotions. However, when you learn a specific way to acknowledge the emotions, the two sides of the brain can work together. This reduces the behavior sooner than you might imagine.

The most effective way to respond is by using a technique I’ve shared in earlier columns, and it’s called ‘Reflective Listening’. Just imagine what your child might be feeling, taking your best guess, and reflect that feeling back in words. For example, when your daughter says, “I’m hungry!”, you could say, “You sound really frustrated that dinner isn’t ready yet. I bet you wish we were already eating!”

In this example you do two things. One is you guess at the feeling and give it a name, i.e., frustrated and even express what she might wish. I’m going to give you two tips to help you successfully use this strategy. Notice that I didn’t start the Reflective Listening sentence with “I know you’re frustrated…”. The goal is to imagine or guess at the feeling. Saying ‘I know’ isn’t a guess. It can come across as sounding bossy. The truth is that we don’t know exactly how she is feeling, so we have to use tentative words like ‘you sound…’ or ‘maybe you’re feeling…’ or ‘you probably wish that…’. Imagining how she feels shows that you care about how she’s feeling and that you are on her side. This helps defuse her upset feelings. The other tip is to leave out the word ‘but’. We often want to say, “You sound really frustrated that dinner isn’t ready yet, but what did I tell you about whining?” When we follow up our Reflective Listening sentences with ‘but’, it pretty much hits the delete button on the effectiveness of the strategy! Just imagine how your child feels and make sure your facial expressions show that you care.

Now I’m not suggesting this is a magic wand that will solve all the whining, but it’s far more effective and will definitely reduce the whining. Reasoning and explaining will get you more whining.

If you’d like more tips about how to help reduce whining, anger and frustration as well as to know how to help your child become a first-time listener, I’m currently leading a LIVE 5-week Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting Course for one hour each week, and all you need is a phone to be able to attend. Today is the third class in the series and you can just download any classes you may have missed and join in for the rest. Here’s a link if you’d like to know how to participate and to learn more practical strategies that will help your kids become first-time listeners.

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1) TJ said:
Are you KIDDING?? Reflective WHAT?? No way. When my kids whined at me, i said, simply, "I can't understand Whine Talking".. whine again? I would say, "I can't understand Whine Talking" .. eventually they would just say what the were whining, i'd answer and that would be that!
1 year, 6 months ago

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