Pushing people’s buttons with expert precision could very well be a genetic trait I have passed down to my oldest. At 6 years old, she understands that she can needle away at my resolve all day without much of an impact. But to really get a reaction, my smart-as-a-whip girl knows exactly what to do: whine.
My daughter’s whine frazzles every nerve in my body; an automatic, animalistic response, my jaws clench and my muscles tighten. I have such a knee-jerk reaction every single time, that I have developed a practice of responding in my head first before I even allow myself to speak out loud. Does this make me feel unhinged? Yes, though Iris Chen, author and founder of the Untigering Movement, assured me my aggravation is normal.
“Just like an alarm is meant to wake us up or get our attention, whining creates a physical, visceral reaction that’s meant to do the same. If it agitates us, that means it’s working!” Chen said. “It’s disrupting our focus so that we pay attention to our child’s needs and respond appropriately in a timely manner.”
‘Whining is a symptom of an unmet need’
I have often studied my kid in bewilderment, wondering why she chose a high-pitched squeal over her normal, completely delightful tone of voice. Couldn’t we have come to the same conclusion had she simply asked for what she needed, instead of whining about it (and morphing me into a gritted-teeth monster in the process)?
As Danielle Bettmann, a positive parenting coach, told me, whining is often a sign that something else is amiss. “All behavior is a form of communication, and whining may be our child’s way of letting us know they are stressed, hungry, thirsty, tired, or overwhelmed,” she said. “Ultimately, whining is their way of saying, ‘I am not OK and I need your help.’”
I’ll admit, considering what’s at play beneath the surface of my child’s whining didn’t occur to me. I have been so distracted by my discomfort over this tonal shift, that I haven’t thought to dig any deeper. Chen offered me a useful analogy and a much-needed reframe.
“If a fire alarm goes off, we don’t get upset with the fire alarm. We don’t just try to make it stop or figure out ways to remove the batteries,” she said. “We become aware of the issue that triggered the alarm and take steps to resolve it. In the same way, whining can be a wake-up call, a cry for help, a signal that something is wrong.”
How to Respond—and End Whining for Good
I am so conditioned to tense at the first sounds of whining that I appealed to Chen and Bettmann to help me craft a plan. Here’s their advice for navigating those stressful, whiny moments with your child, and putting an end to them once and for all:
Center yourself: Take the time you need to ground yourself in the moment, finding deep, relaxing breaths to shake off any feeling of overwhelming frustration and ensure you have a calm and measured response.
Allow your kid to fall apart: “We all need safe spaces to whine and complain and let out negative emotions and energy sometimes. See if you can offer your child some physical affection and reassurances to help them regulate. Getting down to their eye level, giving eye contact, offering a hug—these are all ways that we can show our kids we are on their side and that they have our full attention,” Chen said.
Play detective: Bettmann encouraged parents to decode their child’s behavior and search for that unmet need. “Detach the circumstance of what they’re whining for and instead ask yourself what they might need,” she said. “You can respond, ‘your voice is showing me you need help right now. Could you use a hug?’” Your little one might be exhausted, overstimulated, or hungry, too.
We all need safe spaces to whine and complain and let out negative emotions and energy.
Validate those feelings: When our children are so upset that they resort to whining, help them feel seen and heard. Bettmann recommended validating your child’s big emotions, using what she termed ‘you statements,’ and putting their frustrations into words. An example of this might be turning to your little one and saying, “You really wanted to play with big brother’s toy.”
Retrain your focus: If whining is a (super aggravating) message that our children need our help and attention, then it stands to reason that we can adjust course before they even need to resort to adopting this voice in the first place. To this end, Chen stressed the importance of ensuring our little ones have plenty of our time and undivided attention throughout their days, and that we’re picking up on their calls for help.
“Notice their cues so you can proactively get them a snack or get them to bed before they start melting down,” Chen said. “There is less need for a child to push that alarm button when the fires have been put out and the flammables removed.”