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Why So Whiny - 3 Reasons Your Child is Whining and What You Can Do

Every parent I’ve ever known has experienced the dreaded “whiny-phase” and felt helpless to stop the ear-piercing pleas before losing their minds! Me too! Seriously - times 3 - I’ve been there!

Ever wondered WHY kids whine?

1) Whining is a step up developmentally speaking. See when our tots are smallest they have no real option but to cry when something is unpleasant. Crying is the first step in a long slow progression of communication development. We never lose our old skills but we add on new ones that usually work better. (Though I’m still known to favor a good cry at 33!)

Typically around 18 months, our kiddos hit their first stage of disequilibrium and they may start throwing massive fits or tantrums. This is when their immature prefrontal cortexes can’t keep the emotional brain in check and all the rage and lack of control over their world comes boiling up to the surface in screaming, crying, and hitting. This is the next step up from simply crying because they can truly demonstrate with their whole body the intensity they feel inside and they don’t fall into fits for everything, but for the things that are most unbearable for them. (Hey...I may have also thrown a grown-up fit or two...hmmm)

After that comes whining! Weeee. As they are developing their language skills they are trying to replace the need to cry or scream for things with their fledgling ability to speak and be heard and helped instead. But here’s the thing - we ignore kids - A LOT and we are busy and preoccupied a lot. So the tiny near-whispered “milk” is often passed over and alas, their new skill didn’t work. Well, Mother Nature has a backup plan. Like our infants crying, our toddlers whining is sure to get our attention. There’s no way around it. You can’t not hear whining. It’s designed to hit that part of our brain that drives us into action. Unfortunately, we often assume that our small people have control over their whining and just focus on behavior modification instead of meeting the need under the whining, and then we end up with - you guessed it - more whining. (Or a tantrum if they really need to feel heard.)

The thing is, whining is your child trying to avoid that tantrum. Trying to use their words without letting their emotions take over. They are gripping onto their self-control by their fingertips and using every ounce of willpower they have. That whine is proof of their effort to not dissolve into a fit of tears and rage. See their efforts for what they are. They aren’t trying to annoy you or agitate you. They are trying to grow and develop their novice skills to be more and more like you.

2) When kids whine it is because they have an unmet need. Are they hungry? Thirsty? Fearful? Lacking connection? Feeling tired? Feeling overwhelmed? Lacking choice or control? Lacking a sense of order, belonging, significance? Are they feeling displaced by the birth of a new sibling? What is going on in their world? What do they need that is ramping up that never-fail, must trigger my parent’s brain into action, whine? The biggest one - simply needing to be heard.

Yes, all of the others require a lot of focus and mental energy and when our brain is focused on those there isn’t much mental bandwidth left for language formation, tone regulation, and control of speech. Any of those needs can make whining more likely. And feeling unheard makes whining inevitable.

3) The 3rd reason kids whine is their brain! Volume and tone-regulation are controlled by the prefrontal cortex. These things aren’t essential skills, they are more social niceties. It is annoying to hear whining but it isn’t hurting you or them and truthfully it’s increasing their chance of survival by making sure their needs are noted and attended to. As we’ve discussed before, the prefrontal cortex, and therefore all of the executive functioning skills, do not develop completely until 25/26 years old. Your 3-year-old is only 12% done with that long process!!! (It doesn’t work in a linear fashion like that and percentages are not exact but it paints a very compelling picture if you consider that they should be struggling 88% of the time, doesn’t it!)

The 2nd part of their brain development that will impact whining is disequilibrium. If you’ve read my book, you’ve heard me talk about the halvsies! The brain goes through a growth spurt at 1.5, 2.5, 3.5, 4.5, 5.5 and then spreads out to 7, 9, 11, and on odd years through adolescence which brings its own set of struggles with puberty and hormones. During these periods the child is more dysregulated. Their brain has a lot more work to do behind the scenes and has a lot less focus on the outward behaviors and regulation you expect. This isn’t a “bad” kid, this is a kid doing exactly what nature intended his brain to do. Part of dysregulation - whining! So no, you’re not crazy, and no they aren’t broken. There is more whining and it’s for good reason.

So here are a few things I do to manage whining.

  1. Remind myself this is developmentally appropriate and not an emergency. Get myself regulated with earplugs or flare audio ear inserts or tapping or deep breathing or all of the above.

  2. Get low. At or below eye level makes you the most accessible and least threatening. I open my arms and say, “I’m listening. Tell me.”

  3. I repeat what they want/need in my normal tone of voice so their brains are hearing it the way I wish it sounded, and they are sure they were heard. “Ohhh, you want some milk. Ok, babe. Sure thing.”

  4. I meet the need. With intentional connection.

  5. Rinse and repeat.

When kids trust that they are going to be heard, they don’t need to whine as much. When we are connected and listening, they feel safe enough to try those harder skills of communication. When their needs are met and they feel safe, their body has the best chance at regulation.

If you’re really struggling with this, feel free to set up a call at so you can share your specific family dynamics and we can work through the solutions unique to you and your kids.

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