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If you surveyed parents and asked them to name those things that annoy them most about their children, kids whining would be at or near the top of the list. It’s one of those “little things” that shouldn’t really bother us, yet somehow does. Like nails on a chalkboard, a child’s whining grates at our very soul. As Meghan Walbert writes on, “There are few sounds on Earth more annoying than the sound of a child whining.”

Why children whine
Whining is likely an instinctual reflex hardwired into children. The fact that it annoys us adults is no accident. Like a child’s crying, it’s designed to get our attention. So kids resort to whining whenever they want their pleas to have more impact, much in the same way we adults turn into mumbling Telletubbies making goo-goo and gaga noises whenever interacting with a baby.

Sometimes a child’s whining is an authentic expression of what they’re feeling. They whine when they’re tired, hungry, cranky, or just plain feeling bad. A whine is a lot like a low-key cry; a middle ground when they’re feeling discontent or somehow off but haven’t yet reached the point of full-blown tears.

At other times a child’s whining is a way to manipulate you into giving them what they want, or a ploy for seeking attention. It’s probably not a conscious decision on their part, but they resort to it whenever they want their pleas to have more impact. Just like yelling is an instinctual response to feeling angry, whining can be the natural response whenever a child needs to grab mommy’s attention.

It helps to be able to distinguish authentic whines from the manipulative kind and adjust your responses accordingly. There are a few ways you can tell the difference: If they go from normal speech to whining in a heartbeat, and then can switch back to normal just as suddenly again, then they’re probably whining as a strategic ploy, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it. Or if whining shows up whenever they want something or in response to you telling them no, that’s another surefire sign.

If, on the other hand, they seem to get whiny at certain times of the day, or if they’re obviously cranky or emotional, then a whiny voice is probably something stirred up because they feel bad inside and want you to comfort them and make it better.

How to get kids to stop whining
Simply telling kids to “stop wining” isn’t very effective. For one, it dismisses their emotions, so if a child’s whining is of the authentic variety, you’ve just added to the reservoir of bad feelings that lead to whining in the first place. Second, it’s not informative. “Stop whining” doesn’t tell them what they should be doing or explain why their behavior is a problem.

1. Don’t make fun of your child. Many parents respond to whining by mimicking their child in a mocking way. This isn’t helpful in any situation. It is okay to mimic them if you’re trying to explain why their tone of voice annoys you, or if they don’t seem to understand what you mean by whining. But this should be done ONLY as part of a broader dialogue on the subject, and never in a diminutive way. Once kids are clear on what whining entails, mocking them accomplishes nothing.

2. Explain why their whining bothers you: “It irritates me when you use a whiny, high-pitched voice like that. It’s a sound I find really annoying, and I prefer you talk in a normal voice.”

3. Whenever a child starts whining, advise them that they’re using a whiny voice right now, and ask that they fix it if they want you to continue to listen. If they continue to whine, act as though you didn’t hear them and behave as though they are invisible to you. This technique requires a bit of patience, but it’s effective.

4. If a child’s whining seems authentic, start by offering empathy: “I can hear by the sound of your voice that you’re not as happy as you’d like to be. Am I right, love? Maybe you’d like to tell Daddy all about it.” Avoid insinuating that a child is tired or hungry or cranky, which only serves to irritate them, even if it’s true. Combine this with gestures of physical affection, such as a long embrace, stroking their hair or shoulders, etc. Often times a bit of comfort like this will blast the whine right out of them. If they continue, gently remind them: “Even if you’re feeling lousy right now, I still expect you to talk in your big girl voice.”

5. One of the most effective ways to deal with whining is the “try again” strategy, especially if you suspect a child’s whining is a ploy for attention. Tell kids that you don’t listen when they talk like that, and make them say it again, this time without whining. Refuse to entertain their dialogue until they say it successfully without whining. Not only does this educate the child about expected behavior, but it’s an effective logical consequence that punishes a child for whining by making them have to repeat themselves. With enough repetitions, they’ll figure out it’s easier just to skip the whining, and you’ll have broken them of this habit.

6. Start a “Whine Jar”
I’m sure you’ve heard of the “swear Jar,” where kids are forced to place a quarter or dollar in the jar each time they swear. You can do a similar thing with whining. Because whining kids are most likely to be young, implement deal in reverse. Place a couple dollars in dimes in the jar at the beginning of the week, and instead of depositing money in each time they whine, have them take a coin out and give it to you. Whatever money they have left at the end of the week is theirs to keep. It’s a good way to change their tune.

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Keep in mind that whining is a habit and like all habits, change is not going to happen overnight. But if you stick to these techniques and stay persistent, you’ll put a stop to the whining in no time at all.

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