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How to Discourage Whining

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Dear Elizabeth,
I have a 2-year-old daughter who whines a lot. I’ve tried to help her stop this behavior, but I haven’t succeeded yet. What advice can you give me?
Francisco Bejar
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
Host
  • Children whine to get attention
  • Ignore whining & never give in
  • When your kids are communicating appropriately, give them undivided attention
  • Be consistent
Expert Advice
Cynthia Whitham
Cynthia Whitham
UCLA Parenting Program
Why Children Whine
Children communicate through speech and they’re trying to get what they want or what they need, and that’s all well and good, but sometimes parents aren’t listening. So children audition different voices to find out what voice the adult will respond to. They ask themselves, “How am I going to get the response I really want? How am I going to get that cookie?” So, they test out different voices: “I want a cookie.” or “I want a cookie!” or “I WANT A COOKIE!’ They try it out – it’s a natural part of their development.

A big factor that can play into whining is a child’s frustration. They’re trying to get something but they may not have the verbal skills yet to find the right word to ask for what they want. This can lead to frustration. When they’re frustrated, their voices may become more screechy, whinier, as they try to get the correct words to express what they want. So I think it’s natural and the key will be how parents respond to it, as to whether or not it becomes a chronic problem.

How to Discourage Whining
The most important thing I have to say to parents about whining, if they remember one thing, it’s to remember to ignore the whining, but not the child. Tell the child, "I need you to use a clear voice so I can understand what you want."

Parents can actually avoid or help their child stop whining pretty simply. The first thing they need to do is to have a phrase to describe what voice they want instead. "I need to hear you ask me in your regular voice, or clear voice, etc." Also, remember to acknowledge your child when they aren't whining. "I like that nice clear voice you're using!" If a parent starts to praise, give positive attention, and acknowledge a really great voice, then the child has less need to whine.

Adults need to pay attention to the child once they’ve seen that the child is using the better voice or that their child has stormed off and then come back and asked in a nicer voice. But there’s also something I have to warn parents about. When you start to ignore behavior, it will get worse at first. So, ‘I want a cookie!’ may escalate to screaming: “I WANT A COOKIE! I WANT A COOKIE!” It’s got to get higher because the child has to keep on trying. It’s worked in the past, so I’ve got to keep ratcheting it up. So when you start to ignore behavior, the parent needs to remember that when the whining is getting worse, that’s actually a good sign because that means the ignoring is working. The child is getting frustrated and still wants to keep whining, but at some point that escalation will actually peak and break and then decline. So parents shouldn’t be discouraged when they get an increase in the behavior very briefly. Two or three incidents and pretty soon the child is going to realize, “Mom and Dad aren’t listening to me. When I whine, if I really want a cookie, I’m going to have to figure out I need to use that clear voice or that big boy voice or that big girl voice.”

Be Consistent
It’s very important for a parent to be consistent. It’s important that they do it the same way each time. They need to respond to the whining the same way each time, because if they’re switching things back and forth, there’s a real possibility the whining will increase rather than decrease.

What to Avoid Doing
When a parent gets frustrated or angry and raises their voice, this actually makes the whining worse. It’s sort of like a payoff. It’s not like the child is getting what he or she wants, but the child is getting a huge amount of attention and getting very dramatic attention from his or her parent. Even though it doesn’t make sense, we know that this kind of negative attention actually does what we call “reinforce” or “lock in” the behavior.
Child Care Provider Comments
Ashlee Durr
Ashlee Durr
Cares for her niece and nephews
When I am dealing with a whining child, I encourage them to use their words. If they lack the ability to express themselves, the words need to be modeled for them. Give them undivided attention and let them know they are heard.

To reinforce proper behavior, I tell the children when they’ve done a great job and that I’m glad they are using their words properly. It makes them want to continue the good behavior.
Silvia Fischer
Silvia Fischer
Grandmother of 20-month-old
My grandson seems to whine the most when he has just woken up and he’s tired and disoriented. I am consistent in letting him know what I want from him. Sometimes he whines again, but I ignore it. It reinforces the idea that he’s not going to get what he wants by whining.
Alec Colchico
Alec Colchico
Preschool Teacher
My son whines quite a bit, especially when he's tired. It's very difficult to hear. I really try not to give in. I try to be consistent with him. If we're at the grocery store, and he really wants something, I’ll say, “You know what? We didn't come to the grocery store for that today. Sorry.” Then the whining will stop.
Parent Comments
Laura Hernandez and Alex Fabela
Laura Hernandez and Alex Fabela
Parents of a 2-year-old & 3-year-old
Both of our daughters started whining right around the age of two. They did it the most when they wanted something (to go outside, or a cookie, etc) or when they’re hungry or tired.

Laura: To try to discourage them from whining, I will ask them what they need. I’ll try to find out why they’re whining. I try to understand them and give them what they want.

Alex: I am much more mellow than Laura. My daughters are like my little princesses, so I give in to their whining and give them everything they want. Even my family tells me that I’m always giving in to what they want!

Activities That Encourage Patience Featured Activity:
Activities That Encourage Patience
How to Discourage Whining Featured Video:
How to Discourage Whining
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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