Whining? Focus on the Positive

This seems like a small tip, but it can have a big impact. So often when I hear parents correcting their child’s unpleasant tone, they say, “stop whining,” or, “no whining,” or, “I can’t hear that whiney voice!” If anything, this reminds the child to whine. The golden rule here is, ‘what you focus on, you get more of.’ Focus your language on whining and that whiney voice, and you’ll get more whining.

You’ll be more effective if you change your words and focus on the positive. It’s better to say things like, “use your nice voice,” or, “find your big voice,” or, “I can hear you when you find your regular voice.”

This is true of positive directions in general. Let’s say your child is grabbing toys a lot. If you give negative directions like, “no grabbing,” or, “stop grabbing,” you are reminding them to grab, sending the message that grabbing gets attention. Your child has to be able to turn your language around and figure out an opposite behavior. It’s better to give positive directions such as, “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn,” or, “find something to trade.”

Stop the Whining!

It costs children nothing to whine all afternoon. If you try to ignore it, they will outlast you. They will outlast you because whining requires so little effort on their part. You will break before they will stop whining and when you break, however you do it, you are likely reinforcing their whining.

First, fix the situational conditions. If they whine because they are hungry, feed them earlier. If they whine because they are tired, change their nap schedule. If you don’t know why they whine, chart it for a while. You might get to the end of the week and realize you need to shuffle things around.

If children are always whining when you are on the phone, get them settled into an activity before you make a call. You might realize they are always whining over buying things. If that is the case, address the problem before you shop. Be proactive. You might explain there will be no extras. When one of my girls asked for an item, we added it to a “birthday wish list” I kept in my purse. You can also distract children by giving them a scavenger hunt for the necessary items on your shopping list. Look for the triggers and then avoid or fix them.

There is a whining trap when children are young. When they are two years old, and they whine when asking for a cookie, we think, “oh, it’s just a cookie,” “she’s only two,” or, “wow! She used her words to ask for something.” In any case, we often let the whining go. When the child is a year older and continues to whine, we find it incredibly annoying. Unfortunately, we’ve already told the child that whining is an acceptable behavior. It’s better to address whining as it starts.

Whenever your child asks for something in a nice voice, catch them being good. Notice and describe that voice that you like. You might say, “hey, that was a lovely way to ask,” or, “what a grown up voice. That sounded nice.” It doesn’t matter whether your answer to their question is “yes” or “no.”  It does matter that you take the time to reinforce the voice you want to hear more of.

Staying ahead of the whine means you respond more promptly to a child’s normal tone of voice.  This might seem difficult, but realize that a child is probably not whining on her first request; she is whining on her third or fourth request. Answer her on her first. Not allowing children to escalate means once they do start whining, intervene on their first sentence not their fourth. If they continue, they are just practicing whining.

Never reinforce whining. Intermittent reinforcement works the same for whining as it does for tantrumming. If you give in to whining every tenth time because you are tired, busy or it’s just a cookie, you are more strongly reinforcing whining than if you gave in every time right away. Again, I am not saying to give in; I am saying to be consistent and never give in.

To curb whining, there is a series of steps you can take. The steps are logical negative consequences that gradually get more intense. They add a cost to the whining behavior. These are the same steps whether you have a two-year-old who is just starting to whine or a six-year-old who is whining out of habit. The only difference is that younger children require more time to practice each step.

The first step is to have them consistently fix their voice. The next time a child comes to you with a whiney voice asking, “can I haaaave a cooookieeee?” you say, “oh!  I can’t hear that voice. Try again with a nice voice.” Most six year olds know what you mean, and they restate in a nicer tone, “can I have a cookie, please?” Most two and three year olds have no idea what you mean. For them, at least initially, you have to model the language you want by adding in a cheery tone, “you could say, ‘cookie please?’” Even the younger ones should be able to restate after being given a model. When they do restate in a nice voice, catch the good behavior. Say, “wow! that sounded lovely, that was the voice I was listening for.” And, then “yes” or “no” to the request, or just continue the conversation. It’s not if you ask in a nice voice that answer is yes, it’s if you ask in a nice voice, I can hear you and answer. If you only have them fix when the answer is “yes” you are intermittently reinforcing by sometimes participating with the whining voice.

I want parents to stay at this step until their children really get it. When the parent says, “I can’t hear…,” children should to be able to fix their voice right away and come up with the better language on their own. For six year olds, this should only take a few weeks.  For two and three year olds, it can take months. This is fine. It is a far better practice to have children continually fixing their voices rather than practicing the whining.

Once children completely understand that the whiney voice won’t be heard, and they can fully come up with the improved tone when directed to do so, parents can increase the cost through a delay or repetition. To use a delay and increase the cost, parents can say, “you know that’s a voice that I can’t hear. You’ll need to find another way to say it. From now on, when I hear that voice you can fix it, but in a minute.” This increases the cost of whining. When the child whines, there is now a delay before his request can even be heard. For this tactic to work, parents must be consistent. Every time there is whining, no matter how inconvenient, parents must follow through with the delay. Intermittent reinforcement makes parenting harder.

So when children whine, parents might say, “oh! I can’t hear that voice. Try again in a  minute.” Be prepared that, at first children will fix their voice immediately and expect you to respond. When you remind them of the delay, they may get frustrated. They may tantrum. They may follow you around the house asking in a nice tone for the several minutes they are supposed to be waiting. Don’t be caught off guard.

The alternative would be to use repetition. The parent can say, “you know that voice that I can’t hear. Starting today, you’ll need to find two nice ways to say it.” A few weeks later three nice ways. So when the child whines, and you have them fix, follow it with, “that’s one nice way. What’s another nice way?” Children don’t want to ask in two nice ways, and the answer might still be “no.” Children are also getting a lot of practice at the nicer voice.

When you increase the cost, most whining stops. That can be the end of this process for most families. Actually, the first step may be the end of this process for families. There is nothing that says you have to increase the cost. Whining may not be so problematic; you may always have them fix their voice without a delay. In my house, whining is a bit more problematic. I spend most of my mornings with families and their young children. My husband has an exhausting job. We are on the go. By the time we are all home, there isn’t much energy left to manage whining. We increased the cost again. When my kids reached six years old, they’d had a great deal of practice at each step before we increased the cost. In our house and beyond six years old, if you whine, the answer is no. As much as I might want to, I can’t. That voice means the answer is no. When whining becomes a completely ineffective behavior, children basically stop. When my children do whine, I know it is time for them to lie down and rest; they are at the end of their rope. I would never do this with a younger child, and it’s not fair to start there even with an eight-year-old. To be fair, all children start at step one.

Whining Between Siblings

Dear Dr. Rene,
I have three sons: ages seven years, five years and two months. We hear a fair amount of whining from the seven-year-old. We respond the way you suggest, “I can’t understand that voice. I’ll be ready to hear your regular voice in a few minutes. Please wait.” The tricky part is that the seven-year-old will still whine to get what he wants from the five-year-old, and the five-year-old usually gives in. How do we stop whining between siblings and peers?
Mom of three

Dear Jodie,
Some of this is inevitable. Children bicker and whine and argue with their siblings out of range of you and there is little that can be done.

When you are present, you might take a more active role in coaching them to curb each other. This would mean stepping in and moderating the conversation, “johnney, did you hear the way your brother asked? It would be nice for all our family members to hear things in a pleasant way.” Then turn to whiner and say, “Johnney doesn’t like being spoken to that way. Can you find a nicer way to say that?” If everytime you can intervene and have them fix their voice and practice the better way, the whining should lessen. You might remind them over breakfast that the goal for the day is pleasant voices for all. You might have a nickel jar and anyone who whines at any time has to add a nickel. You might make it a competition, when anyone whines challenge who can come up with the highest number of nice ways to ask and let them practice.

I hope this helps.
Dr. Rene

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