Why kids whine - and what you can do about it

"She whines when she doesn't get her way, particularly when I've asked her to stop doing an activity she is enjoying"
"She whines when she doesn't get her way, particularly when I've asked her to stop doing an activity she is enjoying" 

Most parents would probably agree that whining is one of the most irritating sounds known to mankind.

Somewhere between a cry and a complaint, it is a high-pitched protest, guaranteed to provoke your stress hormones – or, as family and parenting consultant Abi Gold puts it, “Whining can be incessant, loud, manipulative, and interrupt otherwise enjoyable experiences.”

Despite the “unattractive and disruptive” nature of whining, parents feel compelled to respond to it – but as much as it may feel like it at times, children are not merely whining to irritate their parents.

“Some children whine because they are genuinely upset and need it to be acknowledged, or to be comforted,” explains Gold. “They don't necessarily have the capacity to express their feelings in a coherent or calm way, so they use what they know, or what they can do, to attract attention and indicate that something isn't right.”

Stay-at-home dad Mark Longman* has identified some of the triggers that cause his four-year-old daughter Jessica to whine. “She whines when she doesn’t get her way, particularly when I’ve asked her to stop doing an activity she is enjoying, when her younger sister is getting a lot of attention, and when she is overtired,” he says.

Longman says that although he tries to acknowledge Jessica’s feelings, he avoids ‘giving in’ to her whining. “My concern is that if she comes to believe that whining works as a way of getting what she wants, she will do it more often … But I try to cut her a bit of slack in the hope she will develop better ways of expressing herself as she grows older.”

Lynn Jenkins, psychologist and author of Best Start, says that compassion and understanding are good tools to combat whining. Jenkins suggests parents should try to consciously choose to think empathic thoughts. 

“When your young child is whining, your thought process could be something like this: ‘Aaarrgghh, she's whining again. Whining does my head in! But she's only little and she hasn't really got the capability to do it on purpose. She's trying to tell me she's feeling out of sorts and needs me’,” Jenkins explains.  

Another way of parenting with empathy is to simply acknowledge that there are feelings behind the whining.

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“Try to take time for them when they are emotional and acknowledge that they are upset. Over time children will develop a 'knowing' that their parent values them enough to try to help them and to try to understand; that they are important, and that their parent is genuinely interested in them,” says Jenkins.   

This ‘knowing’ is an important investment for the future; if children see their parents as being ‘emotionally safe’ they are more likely to confide in them when they are feeling worried or anxious about something.

“When it comes to our relationship with our kids and their social/emotional development, it’s about playing the long game, not the short game,” says Jenkins.   

“It's like we have to prove, over time, that we can be trustworthy, dependable and respectful, by the way they experience our handling of the things they bring to us. Whining is something they bring to us. Yes, it is one of the most challenging to deal with, but it is something nonetheless.”

While parenting with empathy sounds like a good approach in theory, does it work in practice? Mum of two Jenny Harris* thinks so. “I find the times when my children whine most are when I'm occupied with chores or making dinner. If I’m able to respond with empathy and connect with them, we’re able to move past the whining pretty quickly.

“It is hard to be empathetic all the time, especially when I'm tired or have PMT and both my kids are whining at the same time,” she says. “But as they grow I see them treating others with empathy and I know that however hard it is, it's worth it.” 

*Names have been changed.