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Why preschoolers whine
Your preschooler relies on adults for almost everything – food, drink, love, you name it. He has to get an adult's attention to obtain the things he needs, and that can be a challenge. Whining is the sound of a child who feels powerless and is pitching his request in higher and higher tones so someone will pay attention to him.
"Children do what works, and a whiner is looking for a response – any response," says Jane Nelsen, coauthor of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. So if a positive response isn't forthcoming, a negative one will do just fine.
That's why it's so important to help your preschooler learn to express himself in an acceptable matter. After all, the more results he gets from whining, the more likely he is to perceive it as an effective way to communicate.
What to do about whining
Define it. Make sure your preschooler knows what you're talking about: Adults often assume that children know what whining is and realize how awful it sounds, but that's not necessarily the case.
Point out whining when you hear it and ask your child to use her regular voice instead. If she has trouble hearing the difference, let her know how it sounds (without making fun of her). Use dolls to demonstrate or role-play an exchange between a whiny child and her exasperated parent.
Some experts suggest recording your child, both in mid-whine and during normal conversation. When the two of you are in a good mood, play it back and talk about what you hear.
Explain that whining sounds annoying and makes people stop listening. Practice using regular and unacceptable voices together – hearing you at your whiniest will probably elicit a good laugh from your preschooler.
Acknowledge your child's need for attention. Preschoolers sometimes resort to whining when they've tried and failed to get their parent's ear.
That's why it often comes up when you're trying to talk with a friend, balance your checkbook, or follow a complicated recipe. In short, any time you're focusing on something else and your preschooler needs (or thinks he needs) your help is prime time for whining.
Whenever your child asks for something in a pleasant way, try to respond immediately. Of course, you don't want to encourage your preschooler to "need" you every time you strike up a conversation with someone, so say something like: "If you need to tell me something very important, you may politely interrupt me without whining."
If you can't do what he wants right then, take a second to acknowledge his request and give him a ballpark estimate of when you'll be able to help him. ("Honey, I know you need help with your puzzle. Hang on for two minutes and then I can sit down with you.") Then do your best to follow through when you said you would.
Make sure the wait is realistic: You can expect your preschooler to be patient for as many minutes as he is old (three minutes if he's 3 years old, for example). Don't just say "later," which is vague – and meaningless to an impatient preschooler.
You can also set a timer and tell him you'll be able to give him your full attention after hears the "ding." And remember to praise him when he manages to wait patiently.
Show her a better way to address the problem. Sometimes kids whine because they can't express their feelings, so help your preschooler identify her emotions.
For instance, you might say, "I can see that you're upset. Is it because I can't take you to the park right now?" This will get a conversation going.
Whether or not her demand is reasonable, it's important to let your preschooler know when her way of asking just won't cut it. Say something like, "I can't understand you when you talk like that. Please use your normal voice and I'll be happy to listen to what you're saying." Keep your tone and facial expression neutral – getting upset will only feed the fire.
Some preschoolers respond better to visual cues. Try holding your hands over your ears and wincing in mock pain to signal that you hear whining.
Avoid triggers. Kids often get cranky and whiny when they're hungry or tired. Taking a hungry preschooler grocery shopping before dinner and expecting him to understand that cookies will spoil his appetite is like putting a new toy on the table and telling him he can't play with it until his birthday. Feed him before you go, or pack some healthy snacks he can eat on the way or in the store.
Likewise, life will be easier for both of you if you can avoid dragging him on errands – or even on fun outings, for that matter – at the end of a long day.
Respond consistently. Don't put your foot down one minute and give in to whining the next. Say or do the same thing every time, and don't give in. "Picture yourself as a Las Vegas slot machine," says veteran mom Lisa Levi. "Your child pulls the lever and pulls the lever again. One win – even after 12 losses – will show her that a slot machine is a good bet for making money, and that's not what you want her to learn."
As important as responding consistently to a whine is acknowledging a switch in tone: When your child does use her normal voice, respond immediately so she learns that this is what works. Don't feel obligated to give her what she wants just because he asks without whining, but be empathetic and appreciative of the request. "Thanks for asking so nicely to play longer, but it's still time for bed."
Stay connected. You want your child to know he can have your attention without whining for it. Be sure to carve out regular time to read a story together, play a game, or just talk.
And thank him when he remembers to ask nicely. When he sees that other methods of voicing his needs get better results – and that whining doesn't – the whines will taper off.
Don't react when whining goes into overdrive. Keep your cool no matter what. Don't blow up or give in –even if it gets you immediate relief from that annoying whine, you'll pay in the long run by hearing more of it. And the last thing you want your preschooler to learn is that whining is a good way to get what she wants.