My oldest child never whined, not once, so you can imagine my surprise when my second child exited the womb and promptly began to complain in the most high pitch, overly dramatic WHINE I had ever heard. I was aghast, appalled and quickly developed a headache that lasted several years.
She would whine because she didn’t like her clothes. She would whine when I announced plans for the day. She would whine when I woke her up in the morning and (oh yes, the perfect whiny bookend) when it was time to go to bed at night. She once whined through 3 states on a trip to my parents’ house. So many things in the world were not to her liking and she had found the absolute most grating voice in the world to tell everyone about it.
But it was mostly me who got the brunt of her whine and I was shocked to find the visceral reaction it drew out of me. Like some long forgotten wrong against my ancestors had been hit upon, her whining made me irrationally angry.
I could not even hear what she was saying; my ears processed WHINE and my brain went into ANGER! ANGER! flashing lights mode. How could someone who I loved so much trigger such a red hot response with just a few words?
As with most issues I’ve encountered while parenting, things started to clarify once I realized that, like Jon Snow, I knew nothing. Nothing. A lot of the really excellent parenting advice I’d read in books and blogs recommended that you examine your own emotional reaction first so that’s where I started. Whining, while generally annoying, made me specifically mad as hell. Why? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was because I found whining to be manipulative behavior and there is not much I hate more than being manipulated. There are complex reasons for this deep down in my psyche but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just say that I fancy myself quite smart and I don’t like anyone treating me like I’m not like, for example, someone does when they are manipulating you. When someone whines at you, they are generally making an emotional appeal for you to go against your own rational judgment. I heard it a lot in my former life as a teacher: please, please, pppppllllleeeeeaaasssseeee … give me another chance to complete the project. I know I’ve had all semester but I’ve been so overwhelmed and ppplllleeeaaaasseee….
I hate that crap. It is 100% NOT the way to get me to do something. Ok, but what did that have to do with my daughter’s whining?
Looking at my sweet, chubby cheeked mini-me, it was quite clear that I was assuming a manipulative intent where there was none. My daughter was about 2-3 when she really reached her whining pinnacle and she was not capable of manipulating my emotions to get her way (it took her until about kindergarten to get that one down … #gifted). So my anger was coming from an assumed intent that just simply wasn’t there on her part. Wow, I was already starting to calm the heck down. Now I could really look at her and try in a more detached, less emotional way to figure out what was going on here.
The experts had lots of tips but one central point: kids whine as a reaction to anxiety. That made perfect sense. Yes, that whiny tone sounded like a manipulative adult but imagine for a second that your minor fears had a voice. Not your deep dark fears of abandonment or physical harm, but your little day to day fears … what if no one likes me? What if I can’t complete this assignment at work? What if this party doesn’t go how I’ve planned? Those little fears have a distinct whiny voice.
I think kids have similar inner voices and just haven’t been socialized to quiet them yet, so those voices come flying straight out of their mouths. So when my daughter would whine … “I don’t want to get dressed and go to grandma’s, I don’t want to do it,” I started to hear “I’m scared about this trip and unsure about all the things I have to do to get ready.” “I don’t want to eat my dinner, I don’t want to sit at the table” became “I’m nervous, I get yelled at a lot if I don’t do what I’m supposed to at the table and it’s stressing me out”. Once I could hear the anxiety behind the whine, the way to eliminate it became clear.
Here it is: my magic 4 steps to get your kids to stop whining. All it takes is a bit of time and some patience … things, of course, that are often in short supply so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do this every time. My kids still hear “I’m sorry I cannot talk to you when you sound like that” quite often from me. So, take it as a guide, do what you can and hopefully you’ll get a break in the whine.
1. Kid whines at you. Stop and take a minute to calm yourself down. Angry parent vs whiny kid is a battle that no one wins. Don’t fall into that trap. Treat the whine like a fine vintage and the second you hear it, mellow out.
2. Hear the anxiety behind the whine. No matter how ridiculous the whine may sound, there is some legitimate worry behind it and besides, it’s not your job here to evaluate the anxiety. Just simply hear it.
3. Stop what you’re doing and get down to her level. Make eye contact so she knows you’re listening. Say something like “You sound worried. Are you worried about getting dressed for school?” Give her emotions a name and make your best guess what it’s about. Remember that kids don’t exactly get worried about big things like death or humiliation or loneliness. They operate on a smaller, more specific scale so they really are worried about their shoes, the neighbor’s dog, the complicated series of steps necessary to get into the car every morning.
4. If she starts whining at you again, ask her to take a deep breath. It’s never too early to teach your kids some self-calming techniques and every yoga class I didn’t fall asleep in has assured me that the deep breath is a good one. A deep breath forces the child to relax their chest and throat and it’s physically impossible to make a whine without tension in your chest and throat.
That’s it! The whine is gone! Well, until you’re in the car and can’t make eye contact to calm the kid down. Or until you’re too tired/stressed out/busy to go through the whole dialogue. Or until they reach age 7. My whiner is only 6 and who knows how long this will work?