Responding To The Whining Child


I’m going to venture out on a limb here and speculate that all moms hate whining. I really can’t be the only one. It’s probably the one irritant that can make our mama brows furrow and simultaneously our nostrils flair with impressive rigidity. Thinking back, I can recall from an early age, my mother frequently saying, “you want some cheese with that whine?” As a mother of three now, I find a lot of humor in that line.

Like most mamas, I’ve been forced to navigate the whining waters on many occasions and realized that there are a lot of ineffective ways to manage this challenge.  Ironically, many of my anti-whining ah-ha moments have stemmed from a mom face-palm to my inner psychotherapist. Let me break it down for you:

Child, is there is an actual need?!

In psychology, assessment is the first step in problem-solving. When it comes to parenting, determining whether or not a whine is an earnest call for help is your first step in maintaining your emotional sanity. Poopy diaper whine? Valid. ‘I’m bored’ whine? Keep reading…

Speaking of validation…address it and (briskly) move on

One therapy tool that I love is the gift of validation. Everyone wants to be heard, including our kids (as much as we occasionally attempt to tune them out). Validation is simple, and incredibly useful. When your child begins to whine, attempt to label the emotion or challenge that he or she is facing, acknowledge that it’s difficult, and move on.

User beware, there is a fine line to validation. Too much can be reinforcing and too little can teeter on ignoring the very real (and difficult) emotions that your young one may be experiencing in that moment. Use phrases like, “wow, you sound really tired right now,” or “it’s hard to feel this way but we have to find a way to work through this”. Yes, mamas do have to dig deep to find the grace to use this tool, but trust me, it’s harder to whine when you’re feeling validated!

Use humor

In the psychotherapy world, we call it Opposite Action, in parenting, I call it the last resort. You’re tired of hearing the whine and your child is annoyingly disgruntled about something. Yet, believe it or not, you’re in a sweet spot. Your child is not yet fully angered, tired, or frustrated which means this is the perfect time to turn an edgy mood into a hilarious fit of giggles. My favorite ways to respond to the whining child is to say (in a silly voice of course), “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak whine!” and look excessively bewildered (eyes crossed is a nice touch). Another great response is to repeat what the child is saying, in a goofy accent. This course of action requires you to set aside your grown-up pants for a hot second and be utterly ridiculous. Goodbye whine, hello laughing child.

Try an activity menu

The root of most whining is boredom. Despite the buckets of toys and books at their disposal, the whining child is usually interested in guidance for activities. Cue learning opportunity! Excitedly share with your child that this downtime is an excellent opportunity for creativity, gently push your child to think outside the box. Create an activity menu and encourage your child to use it when the boredom whines begin. It could have pictures of activities, fun challenges (i.e. what can you build with blocks, paper, and play doh?), or even a scavenger hunt.

Drive a hard bargain

If your child’s whining is a request for something, an easy and effective way to dismiss the tone is by bargaining. Part of this is prompting him or her to repeat the question in an age-appropriate way. For example, if your 4 year-old child is whining about wanting a cup of milk, respond with, “If you can ask in a four year-old voice, I would be more than happy to help you with that!” Whining about getting out the door? Offer encouragement to get ready independently and offer the first one to the door (ready) the reward of choosing music for the car ride.

When all else fails…

Take a moment for yourself, however you like to relax. It may help the whining to sound a little better…and no, I can’t guarantee that any of these strategies will work on your husband.

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Hello, I'm Heather! Born and raised in New Hampshire, I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to raise our four tiny humans, alongside my husband in the beautiful Seacoast community. As a mental health therapist by trade, and full-time mama by life, I find balance in helping my kids to explore the world through deliciously messy play, connecting with other families in the area, having a good belly laugh, and enjoying a strong cup of coffee. My passions include pouring my heart into writing, getting lost in watercolor painting, spending time along the ocean, and discovering new recipes to cook up for my family. When I'm not chasing after my kids or digging in our garden, I work to educate and share about essential oils use for mental health and holistic wellness.