Question: My 4-year-old son is a whiner. Ever since he was about two he begs and moans until he gets exactly what he wants. What can I do to make this stop?
Answer: Whining is definitely one of the most annoying behaviors in children’s repertoires. It is at the top of the Parent Torture Scale. But keep in mind; it is not annoying to children in any way. It actually feels good to the child doing it and it can be enormously persuasive. You’ll see what I mean about it feeling good, if you take yourself to a private place and do your very best Eeyore imitation (moan about your boss or some irritating habit of your spouse’s). It feels good to twist your voice in those silly contortions. In your son’s case, there are also two huge bonuses of getting what he wants and bugging his mother. The only way to stop the whining is to end its effectiveness. When it no longer serves a purpose, it will end.
First, you will need some strategies to change your emotional reaction to the whining. Children gain false power by “pushing buttons” and, once they know they will get a reaction, they “must” try it. How can you not react to deliberate provocations? You can try silently counting “big, blue elephants”, as in “1 big, blue elephant”, “2 big blue elephants”, etc. You can sing (in your head) your favorite song from 1998. You can write your grocery list. You can do anything that changes the emotional reaction that inevitably reinforces your son’s whining behavior. Once you are past the reactive moment and sure that you are calm, explain to your son that you will not listen to him while he is using that tone of voice. Now, because he has effectively gotten what he wants for two years using whining, he will not believe you are serious. The whining will escalate, the length of whining-time will get longer, and you may see new attention getting behaviors to emphasize the whining. You will stay calm because you know that it’s coming. You may choose to leave the room or send him to his room to get it all out of his system. (This is not intended to be a punishment “time-out but rather a very pragmatic separation.)
Do not, under any circumstances, respond to the content of his message until he is speaking in an appropriate tone. When he is speaking in a calm voice, you can listen to his message. Of course, the calm voice does not guarantee that he will get what he wants. And so, you can help him find appropriate ways to express frustration. Start by verbalizing the feelings: “I see you really want to stay up late tonight” or “You look really disappointed about ________” or “It makes you angry when I say you can’t do something”. Depending on his personality, it might be helpful to talk about the anger or to give him other outlets for his emotions. Together you may discover some new compromises. (He can stay up a half hour later on Friday nights or he can choose what he wears to school tomorrow.) Or, he can draw a picture of what makes him really mad. He can also take out his play dough and squish all of his frustration into it. Children need guidance to understand their feelings and constructive ways to express negative emotions.
You can feel comfortable setting limits for your son. It’s your job to say “no” sometimes. His emotional growth depends on predictable rules and routines that make him feel safe, secure, and loved. Just be sure to plan some stress relief time for yourself!
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.