A whining child can show relentless persistence and stamina, can wear away at our will to hold our ground, and maintain our boundaries and temper. We may lose confidence and second guess ourselves: Am I doing something wrong? Am I being too rigid? Maybe I can put off my shower for an hour and play blocks. Why not ice cream for breakfast?  Anything to stop the whining. Janet answers questions from some whine-weary parents, explains the why behind the whine, and how we can help our children (and ourselves!).

Transcript of “Whining”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to talk about whining. Fun fact about whining—well, actually, there’s nothing fun about whining, let’s be honest. But it’s interesting that I guess children whine in every language. So if your child is whining, you’re definitely not alone, no matter where you live. It’s all over the world. And we love it, right? No, we don’t. I have some specific questions, very short questions, that I received on Instagram about whining, but I want to cover it a little more broadly at first and offer some perspective. Because what really matters in this and all situations with children is our perspective on it. How we’re perceiving whining, in this case. What it means, our role in it, that will dictate how we respond.

When we work on perceptions and really consider them, maybe daydream about them, or as I sometimes recommend, see movies in your head about these situations from that perspective, then we’re free. We don’t need to try to chase down different strategies and get scripts and memorize them. We can come into the situation with confidence as ourselves, and deal.

Why is whining so obnoxious? Why is it so challenging for us? I believe the main reason is that it’s easy for us to be under the impression that we’re supposed to do something about whining, we’re supposed to fix it. This is a problem in our face, right? And it even sounds like it, it sounds like a siren. It’s an emergency siren, we’ve got to make it stop! We’ve got to rush to please them if we can, or get mad at them because they’re demanding of us. But this is what I’ve found with myself and with the parents that I’ve worked with: When we respond to every whine, trying to answer to it in some way, it’s going to deplete us. Because whining isn’t meant to be responded to as a problem. It’s really more under the category of other feelings that children have that we’re working on allowing.

So as much as we feel like we have to do something about whining, we actually don’t. It’s just this harmless way that kids—and maybe all of us sometimes, I whine still sometimes. I hate admitting that, but it’s true. It’s a way that we express ourselves when we’re a little tired or physically uncomfortable and we’re trying to talk through that. Like, we’re hungry or we’re achy or we’re annoyed. And we’re not quite upset enough to cry, we’re not quite angry enough to yell. We’re in this in-between place, this uncomfortable whining zone. We’re in the whine country.

Probably if we could fully connect with what we’re feeling and express it more strongly, like cry or yell or scream, we’d probably feel a lot better. Which is why I consider whining a kind of constipated expression of emotion. Often it does end up becoming a cry or a tantrum, but it’s just not quite there, it’s in-between. And it’s also not our job to try to make it into a cry or a tantrum, we have no responsibility there. That will happen naturally when we hold our reasonable boundaries, or it won’t happen if it doesn’t need to at that time. So we just have to do us. We don’t have to take on all these responsibilities that don’t belong to us, like fixing whining or helping children express it more fully.

And it’s this perspective on whining—and on all children’s feelings and behaviors and our role in them—that will support us and guide us, with practice. And that practice could be daydreaming about it or seeing movies in our head where we’re changing the story to what’s really happening now. This perspective will free us to be ourselves with our child, which makes everything a lot easier and clearer.

Don’t worry, I’m also going to give examples of what we can say and do when kids are whining as well. But first, maybe consider one of these ideas. These are imagery-type things that might help. Imagine putting that sound on mute. Or hearing it, but letting it blow by you, letting it go. Like, Okay, yes, this does sound like a siren, but it’s actually not an alarm that we need to heed. It’s a safe siren, like somebody else’s car alarm going off. It’s annoying, but that’s not our problem. The same with whining. It’s not our job to fix or to be intimidated or angered by. And when we do imagine this, let’s say that the sound is on mute, and we look at our child’s face, we’ll notice they look kind of weary, right? That’s what whining is, it’s a weary expression. So with these kinds of thoughts in mind and just what works for you, find something that does, but know that it’s not our responsibility. It’s just something that’s happening around us, with these people that we really love, of course. It’s not threatening, it’s not urgent.

Now, from that place of letting this go, rather than getting caught up in the whining and then whining ourselves, maybe, we want to come from that place when we’re responding with, I’m not intimidated by this. I don’t need to be annoyed by it. It’s just this place that my child has gone, for whatever reason, that’s not my fault. And from there, I’m going to respond. Maybe we ask, “Could you tell me that in your usual voice? I’d love to try to help you.” Holding my own. I’m not responding out of a reaction to the whining. Or maybe we just go ahead and we do what our child is asking. If they’re whining about, “I need this” or “I want that,” if we would’ve gotten them that anyway, we go ahead and do it. Not in a rush, because we’re not trying to fix this, but we do it at the same pace that we do anyway, holding ourselves separate from our child’s feelings.

And then maybe, or maybe not, we comment, “Sounds like you’re having a rough one today, huh? Sorry, babe.” Holding my center, holding my own, not succumbing to that whiny energy or getting stoked by it in any way. Maybe I acknowledge if my child is whining in response to my boundary: “You don’t like it when I say no to playing. I totally get that.” I’m letting go and I’m not getting infected, so that then there’s going to be an epidemic in my house because now I’m infected, and my response of annoyance is going to feed into my child whining.

We’re going to be annoyed sometimes as parents, there’s nothing wrong with that! I’m only sharing about this on a practical level, because we want to lessen whining as much as possible, right? So that we don’t have to try to do all this work around it. Again, I hope this doesn’t end up being like work, because when we master the perspectives, it won’t be. It won’t be our favorite part of the day, but it won’t be hard work or confusing work.

I reached out on Instagram for questions, and here are some that came in about whining:

The whining can trigger me so much. How can I help him use his normal voice? He’s four.

And interestingly, two of these questions are about four-year-olds and one of them is about a three-year-old. But it occurred to me reading these, it reminded me, Oh my goodness, we go through the crying stage and the tantrum stages, and then we think we’re out of the woods, and now we’ve got to deal with whining. And children can whine much younger, of course, but I mean, Does this ever end? we might want to think. That’s why our perspective on emotions, the earlier we can get this or at least start working on it and practicing it, the easier it’s going to be for us. Because it does take a lot of practice. It takes mental practice, it takes actual practice in the situation. I’ve met very few people who just naturally have this ability to see every kind of expression of feelings as positive and healthy and not my job to fix. It’s just not in anyone’s makeup that I know of. So, practice, practice, practice, practice.

How can I help my four-year-old use his normal voice? I can not be reactive to the whining. I can ask that question that I asked earlier from a place of not being bothered by this, if possible. I can ask, “Can you tell me that in your typical voice? It’s hard for me to understand what you want.” And I really want to understand. Maybe that’s a subtext, but that’s where we’re rising above and being this polite superhero instead of letting ourselves get dragged down into the immature space our child is in.

That’s all I would do, is suggest that it would work better for me to hear you speak in your regular voice. But if I do understand what he’s saying, I’m not going to get into, Well, I’m not going to answer you unless you do that. Because that’s just a little bit stooping into engaging in an unnecessary battle of wills: Do it my way or I’m not going to help you.

Second question:

My four-year-old constantly whines, makes every single “no” a huge battle.

This is an interesting one, because it’s an example of how easy it is for us to get caught up in a battle with our child. A battle takes two parties, right? So what are we battling when we get into a battle with our child? Usually we’re battling their feelings, because we want them to accept what we say without whining about it, without screaming about it or yelling about it or getting aggressive about it. We want them to say, “Okay, you’re right.” Because probably what we’re asking them to do, the boundary we’re setting, is very, very reasonable. I mean, most of us are not asking unreasonable things of our child. And yet they’re still whining and asking us again and again, and we’re trying to convince them that they should do it our way. That’s how we get into a battle.

And it’s easy to get into a battle, but we don’t want to do that. Because even if we did think it was a good idea to have a battle, we’re not going to win that battle, because our child is showing us that they’re not in a place of being able to accept something reasonable. They’re showing us that maybe they had to whine anyway, they had some feelings about their day and this is where it’s coming out. So our chance of getting what we want, which is a child who just accepts without complaining or whining, is very low.

We don’t want to waste our energy on fruitless efforts. So this is where I would try to see beyond, and try to recognize feelings as involuntary things that our child just needs to express, and which aren’t our problem to fix, aren’t our responsibility. Our responsibility is ourselves as leaders, to be fair and be kind and be respectful and empathize when we can. But mostly to accept that when we’re in conflict with our child because of a boundary that we need to set or that we want to set, they need to be allowed to feel however they need to feel about that and share that without us trying to push back on it. So our responsibility: Have the priorities, see beyond now into what’s good for our child, say no when we need to say no. So if it’s about food, we’re not going to give them things that aren’t healthy for them.

And on their side, they need to sometimes have a very rough time accepting the boundary. Because, as we often talk about here, those feelings they have, those objections they have, are venting. More often than not, they’re not even about that particular boundary. That boundary is what sets them off and actually helps them to express things they need to express. Trying to see that dynamic as positive, even, can help us to not get into battles with a four-year-old or a child of any age or any other person, for that matter. To be in disagreement is very healthy for our child and for us. To know that we can be in disagreement with love, that’s something we can teach children. That we love them enough to say no. So whining, this child’s whining, constantly, this isn’t an obstacle in our way or anything we need to push back on. It’s just something that needs to flow by.

And here’s one more:

Three-year-old refuses to play alone. Cue whining. We’ve tried everything.

This is a common issue that we have, right? There’s a couple elements here. One is how we define “playing alone.” We have no power to make our child play alone, zero. We only have power to remove ourselves from play when we need to or want to. And that is something we should do, I believe. So we’re not giving children those messages that, Yeah, sometimes I’m kind of pretending I’m okay with things I’m not okay with. It’s just not positive modeling, and it wears us down and makes us feel awful. So our child can refuse to play alone, that needs to be up to them, but we’re not going to play with them right then.

What that also means is that they need the option—and usually this is part of the transition into them being able to free themselves up to play alone. There’s usually this transition of whining or complaining or begging us or saying they can’t possibly do it themselves. These situations seldom look like I’m saying, “No, I’m not going to play right now,” and now my child goes off happily and plays alone. It doesn’t work that way. The way it works is the more conviction we have and comfort we have in these boundaries, the quicker our child adjusts. But if we’re feeling uncomfortable about it or unsure or we feel like, I want to see them playing now, instead of them complaining and whining for a few days about it, then it’s going to take longer. Because we’re not comfortable.

With any boundary, our child’s comfort is relative to ours and dependent on ours. That’s again why perspective matters so much. Me seeing this boundary as actually something that will free my child, after a very messy transition where there’s likely going to be a lot of whining and complaining. And that’s going to be their first version, or their sometimes version. They’ll go back to it, maybe on days when they’re just not feeling that great, this will be a way that they release that. Their version is to whine, to try to hold on, to check, Is she going to hold the boundary or is she going to be uncomfortable and melt? A part of me really needs her to hold the boundary. But I’m not even aware of that myself as a child, I’m just trying to lean on something here that’s solid.

So try to understand this whining as a form of playing alone. It’s just not this image that we have of it. Sometimes when children have gated-in play areas when they’re younger, a child will go up to the gate when the parent is two feet away on the other side doing something in the kitchen that they need to do, and the child sounds so desperate that they need us right there with them. But there we are, two feet away, acknowledging, “You don’t want me to be over here doing this right now.” What’s going on there? Is our child abandoned? Did we do something wrong? Are they unable to play alone? All of those thoughts are going to go through our mind, until we make peace with the idea that this is part of their transition to playing alone. This is the way they’re occupying themselves right now. And it’s perfectly valid, as long as we’re kind and accepting and empathetic about it.

I understand how challenging that is, because we all want our kids to be happy. And especially when it’s about not having our attention, it’s so easy to feel like we’re doing something wrong. We’re not, and I wish there was something in my power to say to help you believe that. I know what’s helped me is to value more than anything being a leader. Because my child can’t do that job, they need me to. It’s too much to ask to have my child making these decisions and controlling me. Boundaries are one of the highest forms of love, even, because they allow children to be children, that are freed up to cry and play and have feelings and be themselves. I had to understand that it was more loving for me to be honest and authentic and clear and have conviction in my leadership and the decisions I had to make than it was to do something else that maybe felt more loving in the moment. Defining love for our child, that’s something to think about too, to daydream about. What is real love? What does it mean to us, and what do we believe it means to a child? Those are all things to reflect on.

In the meantime, thank you so much for listening. I hope some of this helps.

And because it’s summer now and, I don’t know, I’m just feeling like shaking things up a little bit, I would love to hear from you about what you want from this podcast. Would you like there to be more guests? Would you like more consultations with parents that I do in the podcast? Would you like certain topics that you don’t feel I’ve covered anywhere? If you wouldn’t mind sending me a message, you can send it either on Instagram in a message, or maybe Facebook in a message even, or I guess on iTunes or Spotify in a review, and use the heading “More” so that I’ll notice it. I would love to hear what you want more of, if you don’t mind taking the time.

Again, I want to thank you and make sure you know that I believe in you, I know you can do this. For much more detail and a very deep dive into all of this stuff, to really be able to internalize what it feels like to have strong boundaries from this relational perspective, please check out my No Bad Kids Master Course at nobadkidscourse.com, and consider if that might be for you. Also, all of the resources on my website, free for you to read, and the podcast. You’ll get this perspective, if it sounds good to you. It’s certainly saved me.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

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