Whining

I have an 18-month old son who whines a lot. I don’t know what I’ve done to make him this way. Sometimes I have to neglect things that I have to do around the house because he won’t stop whining and follows me around the house everywhere I go. It just drives me crazy. Is there anything that I can’t do to teach him not to whine?

We parents often tend to be busy and preoccupied, and kids wouldn’t get much attention if it were just up to us. We know in theory that they needs lots of love and attention, but in practice we’re busy juggling our jobs and our household chores, and we hope our kids will sit still and amuse themselves until we’re ready to do things with them. But our kids need to interact with us for their emotional security and for their development, so young children have some built-in behaviours that are designed to get their parents’ attention. In less “developed” societies, young children go everywhere with their mothers, and play around them as they plant and till the fields or sell in the market. In ours, they’re supposed to “behave” while we get important things done. But this doesn’t meet their needs.
That whining tone that drives us up the wall is there for a purpose, to get us to interact with our children. So, before we work on how to get them not to whine, let’s acknowledge their need to spend time with us, playing, “helping,” going places, and just being part of our lives. We need to build these things into our day. Allow more time to interact with your son while you do your everyday chores. Let him hold a dust cloth and help dust, or a small broom and help sweep. Sit him on the counter when you cook and let him stir things, or give him plastic containers to play with on the floor beside you. If you simply must do something in which he can’t participate, provide him with a video or an interesting toy. But don’t expect it to hold his interest very long; an 18-month-old’s attention span is about five minutes.

When you have to do things involving your son, like changing his diaper or getting him dressed or ready for bed, allow lots of time and make it enjoyable and fun for him, talking with him and playing with him. He will only be this young for a very short time, and when it’s gone you can never get that time back again. It’s our patience and positive attitude during these interactions that shapes our relationship with our children, so be patient and positive, and allow lots of time for him to get distracted.

If you do have all these times to give your son positive attention, his need to whine for your attention should be reduced. Then you can do something about the whining. You don’t say how much vocabulary your son has, and 18-month-olds vary in how well they can express themselves. Some of his whining may come from his frustration in finding the right words to tell you what he needs. Stop what you’re doing, pay attention to him, and ask him what he needs. Help him find the right words to tell you what it is, and praise him for telling you clearly. Respond by giving him what he needs. If he whines again, look at him, and say “Tell me in words.” Again, help him find the right words to express his needs. As he learns the words to express his needs, his whining may be reduced.

What about a three- or four-year-old who whines? This may be a habit left over from the time before he could clearly express his needs in words. Again, you need to make sure the child gets plenty of positive attention and opportunities to participate in your life. Then say “Tell me in words. When you whine, I don’t know what you want.” Keep repeating this message, and each time he tells you clearly what he needs, pay attention to that need. If he whines a lot, examine yourself to make sure he gets enough opportunities to interact with people. At this age, kids need other kids to play with some of the time, and you may need to arrange such opportunities to take the heat off you.

What if your child is whining for ice cream right before dinner? Give a positive response “Sure, right after you finish your dinner.” And make a mental note that he probably needs to be fed earlier. Each time a child whines, analyze the situation to see what is your child’s genuine need, and then find a way to meet that need, while encouraging your child to figure out what he needs and ask for it clearly in words.

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