From the December 2019 issue

Why Do Kids Whine, and What Can You Do About It?

No, it's not just to annoy parents (well, not on purpose). So why do kids whine? Learn about what drives it – and how to stop a whiner in his or her tracks.

Illustration by Brent Mossner

Everyone’s seen it: a child at the grocery store picks up a special treat and says, in a voice that could shatter glass, “I want it!”

A child’s whine is “developmentally normal,” says Larissa Niec, the director of the Center for Children, Families and Communities at Central Michigan University and a parent-child interaction therapy master trainer. She admits that just because it’s normal, though, doesn’t mean it’s not a pain to hear.

In fact, research says a child’s whine is actually more effective than crying at diverting attention away from whatever the parent was doing to instead focus on the child. And Niec says there’s an evolutionary reason for that.

“As infants, we’re born with the drive to keep our caregivers close,” she says. “It’s a way of kids expressing distress signals – it’s saying, ‘I need something!'”

What causes it?

There are a few reasons why a child might be whining. The first, as Niec explained, is a natural instinct to gain mom or dad’s attention by any means necessary. Another reason may be that the child isn’t old enough to express what he or she needs in “polite” words.

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“In younger children, there’s lower development in language skills, and the child may be trying to form a more complex idea than they can express in words,” she says.

From the ages of about 1 to 2 1/2, Niec says whining is often the result of kids not having the words to express their needs. But in older children – from roughly 2 to 5 – it’s a learned behavior that can be changed.

It’s also more likely to happen when the child might be tired or sick, since that’s when a child especially needs your attention, she adds.

Niec adds that whining never really stops, though. “Whining is developmentally normal, and frankly, I still whine sometimes when I’m tired and sick!”

Wipe out whining

First, Niec cautions parents that what classifies as a whine is “highly subjective.”

“Some people might call it whining, others might not,” she says. “If a child says ‘I don’t feel good’ or ‘I need something’ to a parent who is overstressed or overworked, it’s more likely that that parent will think that the child is whining.

“Take a step back and listen to the underlying thing here, and check yourself – ask, ‘Do I have tolerance?'” she says.

True whining could also be confused as a speech articulation issue, she says. If that’s the case, and you’re unsure, ask a specialist.

Once you’ve decided a child really is whining, it’s time to curb the behavior.

If the child is begging for something using a whining tone, Niec says to use a “when/then” sentence, for example: “When you say that politely, then I’ll be able to help you.”

She says the best thing to do to prevent whining is to start early and to reward good behavior instead of punishing bad behavior.

“No child is whining 100 percent of the time,” she says. “When the child asks for something politely, tell him, ‘Thank you for using your polite words.'”

Niec says that problematic behavior, like extreme whining, often starts in infancy. When parents don’t provide attention to infants unless they’re whining or crying, it teaches the infant that in order to have their needs met, they must use (what we see as) negative behavior.

“Whining is really annoying, but that’s why it works!” she says.

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