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Parenting Help: How to Help a Child Stop Whining

Updated on April 4, 2013

Parenting help: Whiny kids are often easily frustrated

Mooommm this soup is coooold. I don’t liiike it. Moooommmm these shoes don’t feel gooood. Moooommm Josh keeps looking at me fuuunnnny. If you are parent who has a whiny complaining child you're probably at your wits end trying to refrain from criticizing them, yelling at them, or even telling them to just be quiet or shut up. Or you may have already done all of the above. A lot of parents whine and complain about this all the time. Well, maybe not but I had to put that in there anyway.

It would be nice if all children had a happy sunny disposition that allowed them to see unicorns and rainbows in every experience they have in life but this is often not the case. Some children have a very low tolerance for frustration. There are a number of theories about this that suggest they are physiologically different from other children. It has been suggested that there may be problems for some children in terms of proceeding information in the frontal cortex. Some children can become easily over stimulated and this causes discomfort for them. There have also been suggestions of other causal factors related to blood flow in the brain, dysfunction in the left hemisphere, and low levels of certain chemicals in the brain.

Prenting help for Whining kids: Common causes

However, the parenting help that most parents want relates more to how can I manage my complaining child and keep from losing my sanity. It may not be a surprise that many parents have a low frustration tolerance for their child’s low frustration tolerance. Some experts have suggested there may be a genetic link but it is just as likely that the problems relate to the environment and how we manage the behavior problems of our children. There are definitely some things we can do as parents to help deal with the whining and complaining behavior itself.

The first thing to do is track the behavior and see if there are any patterns in terms of what your child complains about and when they are complaining. If they happen to complain about the same things over and over maybe these are things that can be changed. For example, I worked with a child who was always removing certain items of clothing that he felt were uncomfortable. His mother didn’t notice this as a big problem until he went to school. It turned out that he was uncomfortable wearing certain synthetic fabrics and was also bothered by clothing labels. When the school made him keep his clothes on he would often whine and complain about being itchy and uncomfortable. Sometimes parents need to listen for specific complaints and make adjustments if necessary.

A child may also complain at certain times of the day. This may have as much to do with how much sleep they are getting and the foods they are eating. Diet and sleep can make a big difference in a child’s disposition. Having a good bed time routine might help alleviate a child’s negative affect. Children also often do not get enough exercise these days. Their brains are over stimulated but their bodies are not. Changing a child’s environment and encouraging activity can make a big difference in how a child interacts with others.

Parenting help for whining kids: Underlying causes

A child who frequently shows negative emotions may also be externalizing an internal problem that they are unable to resolve on their own. If a child was not a difficult baby and only recently developed the habit of whining and complaining it is likely the cause is not physiological. I once worked with a boy who had a real strong Eeyore type of personality. He already believed he was a social outcast and this affected his disposition. The more he moaned and whined the more it isolated and separated him from his peers and also from the adults in his life. These types of behaviors can become part of a cycle that becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

If we have a child who has recently become a bit of a gloomy Gus we might want to take some time when things are quiet to ask our child about what is happening with friends, school, visits to see their other parent (in cases of divorce), etc. We want to allow the child to lead and not give him reasons for his negative disposition. We just want to know if there are some underlying issues that maybe need to be addressed. Issues at school often mean we have to teach our kids better social skills and explain to them how to make friends and keep them. While we might think this is something our children should know inherently this is often not the case. If we are having a tough time with our child’s attitude odds are it may be affecting other parts of their life.

Parenting help for whining kids: Stop reinforcing it

The parenting help most parents ask for is help in changing the unwanted behavior. While part of the process may be changing our own expectations, it can still be of value to help our children learn to manage their complaints. The first step is to make sure they are getting enough attention and encouragement when they are playing or eating or getting ready for bed without fuss or complaint. As parents we need to ask ourselves if we are acknowledging the times when they are cooperative and not whining. Children will seek out negative attention in a lot of different ways if this is the attention they are used to getting. Negative attention is still better than nothing. While we want the to stop whining we may be unintentionally encouraging the whining behavior. We need to get them to use their words properly to explain when their is a problem so that we can hear them. It is better to ignore the whining than to keep responding with criticism or demands to stop whining.

As parents we don’t always realize that we are in a negative dynamic with our kids. Our negative interactions with our children can greatly affect the feelings and emotions they are experiencing. If they are unhappy in one part of their life and their interactions are generally negative, this will likely affect how they feel about other areas of their life. They will therefore complain more and more about different things, which only further reinforces negative responses from others. As parents, we need to sometimes look at ourselves and how we may be reinforcing the unwanted behaviour.

Parenting help for whining kids: Talk about it

The type of parenting help that I have noticed often makes a big difference in helping kids stop whining is for parents to find ways to openly discuss the behavior with the child in a productive manner. What does this mean exactly?  It means that we need to find a time and place where our child is in a good head space and broach the subject then. Odds are that our child is not very aware of how is behavior is perceived by others. Often the complaints just flow out like water, with great ease and little effort. As parents we may feel our child is intentionally annoying us but this usually isn’t the case. Our kids will benefit if we can find a way to discuss the behavior in an even and non confrontational way.

Parenting help for whining kids: A few more useful tips

In the past when I have worked with children who needed to learn to stop whining I have usually taken them to a place they liked for a snack or treat they really liked. I would spend time talking to them about the good things in their life. This might mean talking about their favorite pet, maybe discussing how neat and tidy they were, or finding something else positive to mention before talking about the problem. This conversation needs to be neutral and we need to model patience and acceptance when talking to children about something like unwanted behavior.

When we do get to the subject of whining and complaining there are a few important messages the child needs to hear.

1. We understand that the child may not know that their complaining and whining is a problem

2. Let them know that we are on their side and we just want them to know that how they are dealing with some of the things they don’t like is a mistake.

3. It helps if we ask them if they would rather get along well with people or have people not like the way they act. Most kids will look at you like your crazy but we need to hear them say they would rather be liked

4. We need to let them know this mistaken behavior can affect how others see them and that complaining and whining is not a very likable trait in others.

5. We need to have them agree that they will make an effort to stop and think before automatically complaining.

6. We can have an agreement in place that when they complain we will give them a hand signal to remind them that they are complaining or whining

7. Have them agree to replace their complaints with questions or possible solutions for the things that are bothering them. For example, mommy can we warm up my soup a little before I eat it, or Daddy can you help me loosen the laces on my shoes a little please.

We want to end by letting them know we can fix this behavior together and recapitulating the things we mentioned we were proud of them for when the discussion first began. The whole purpose of this scenario is not to necessarily tell the child that their complaints are not valid but to help them realize the impact their complaining may have on how others interact with them and to let them know they are often capable of finding solutions on their own. Kids often need a feedback loop to see when they are making a mistake. The better we are able to do this without criticizing and further reinforcing the negative cycle the better. Let them know that whining is not acceptable and doesn't work for you but at the same time try to help them find a better way of communicating their needs.


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    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 6 years ago from The Great White North

      Thanks for the comment. Metaphor is a very powerful way to communicate with kids, and stories are always helpful. Teaching through play by using toys or puppets is also a good way to help kids learn. Thanks again.

    • profile image

      Sherrill S. Cannon 6 years ago

      As a former teacher and grandmother of nine I offer the following suggestion: Frequently it helps for children to be read fun-stories that illustrate the unpleasantness of bad behavior and ways to correct it. For instance, sometimes children don’t understand how annoying the sound of whining can be. "Peter and the Whimper-Whineys" by Sherrill S. Cannon is a story of a little rabbit who does nothing but whine. This rhyming book should be read with alternating normal voice and whining voice, according to the character speaking. Children learn that Whimper-Whineyland is not a fun place to be, not just for all the whining and crying that goes on but for all the other bad behavior and unpleasant character traits exemplified!!! I hope that this book might help your child as well as it has helped my children and grandchildren. (The book can be found on amazon where there is the read-inside-the-book feature, as well as on barnes&noble.)

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 6 years ago from The Great White North

      Thanks for the great feedback. I hope others find this useful. I always feel bad for parents who seem to get those judgmental stares in public places as their child is whining and moaning about what they want or don't want or whatever else is wrong with the world at that moment.

    • U Neek profile image

      U Neek 6 years ago from Georgia, USA

      I wish I had had this article when my youngest was stuck in whine mode. You have really clarified the reasons for whining and how to address the issues with great tips for resolving them. Well written!