Whining, Ages 6 to 12

How can I get my child to stop whining?

A school-age child who whines can be a serious nuisance and may earn a reputation as a complainer at school. Ending the habit isn't easy. Find the patience and resolution to help your child by reminding yourself how important it is for him to behave in likable and effective ways. You have two main tasks: to firmly refuse to give in to his needling and to teach him how to communicate effectively. Try these tips:

  • Help your child find a voice. Make it clear that he must use his regular voice, not a whiny voice, to tell you things. Whatever the situation, his normal tone should be pleasant. So should yours. Role-play with your child if necessary so that you can both practice expressing your needs calmly.
  • Be polite. You, your child, and other family members should get in the habit of using "please" and "thank you" in everyday conversation. "Helping" words set a respectful tone in a family, and they make it easier for your child to request instead of demand.
  • Encourage your child to say it in full. It's hard to whine in complete sentences; no one can keep up that annoying drone. Forming sentences is also a good way for your child to tell you what he needs and get results, as in, "Mom, I'm tired, and I don't want to shop anymore. Can we go?"
  • Write it down. Try using brief "contracts" to make plans or settle disagreements. Suppose your child wants to go rollerskating; you said you'd take him to the park on Saturday, but by Wednesday he's already pleading to set off. Write out a one-sentence agreement on when and where you'll go, and add that any further pestering from him will nullify the contract. (Make sure you follow through, or this won't work.)
  • Avoid edicts, and find solutions. Say your child wants an expensive new computer game. You said no; now he's whining. What should you do? Allow your child to buy the game -- with his allowance. If that won't cover it, offer to pay him for doing a few extra chores around the house. Encourage your child to find constructive ways to reach his goals.

Why is my child whining?

There are several possible reasons. His whining could arise from a genuine need that's not being met. Think about whether your expectations for your child's behavior are reasonable: How tough can a first or second grader really be? If your child lapses into bellyaching at the end of a long school day, his tone of voice may be telling you that he's hungry and spent. Like toddlers and preschoolers, school-age children need to be well rested and well fed in order to be on their best behavior. Add a late-afternoon snack to your child's backpack, or let him rest a bit before tackling his homework.

A school-age child who whines could also have an emotional or developmental problem that's hampering his academic or athletic performance. If your child whimpers that he hates school or doesn't want to go to his Little League practice, he may be hinting that something else is wrong. Your pediatrician can help you assess your child for these types of problems.

Finally, some older children whine simply because they have perfected the art of irritating people into giving them what they want. Unfortunately, this manipulative behavior is the true cost of the "peace and quiet" that parents secure by repeatedly giving in to a fussing toddler or preschooler.

Should I ignore my child's whining?

If it's manipulative, yes. If your child gripes and moans so you'll bend your rules on what he can have and do, you need not only to stop giving in but to stop paying attention to anything he says this way. Tell him that you're interested in what he has to say but he's using the wrong tone. If necessary, give him a time-out so that he can compose himself.

However, ignoring is not enough. You need to promote good behavior as well. When your child requests something politely instead of whining, point it out. "Thank you for asking so nicely," you can say, "I really appreciate that." Positive reinforcement helps your child recognize when he's expressing himself in a constructive way.

When should I seek professional help?

If your child's whining becomes so frequent or so annoying that it interferes with his ability to perform in school or participate in family activities, he may be experiencing emotional or cognitive difficulties. Your pediatrician can help you assess the problem or refer you to a family counselor, child therapist, or other mental health professional.

References

Frances L. Ilg, M.D., Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D, Sidney M. Baker, M.D., Child Behavior: The classic child care manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development. HarperPerennial 1992.

American Academy of Pediatrics, HealthyChildren.org. Gradeschool. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/Pages/default.aspx

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