What’s Behind Whining?

What’s Behind Whining?

What’s behind whining? My answer, in a word, is powerlessness.

If you think about it, children who are confident they can get what they want, ask; children who think asking won’t work, whine

They have to because by nature, children are driven to communicate what they want, whether they can have it or not. This is explained by the first premise of Language of Listening®:

Everything children do and say is a communication, and they must continue to communicate until they are heard.

When parents react by trying to stop or control the whining itself rather than hearing and validating the communication behind it, children get stuck in the whining cycle. They whine, don’t get heard, believe they can’t get what they want, feel powerless, continue to communicate weakly in a whine, don’t get heard… Children whose first response is crying or whining when anything is not what they expected or wanted are stuck in this cycle. 

Here’s how to break the whining cycle:

Two of the many whining examples parents have shared with me are a 6½-year-old boy who whined over getting a small cup of nuts instead of the big can that he wanted, and a 2 ½-year-old girl whining to mommy for attention. Given that both children expected a “no,” you might even say that continuing to communicate what they wanted even as a whine was actually pretty brave! At the very least it shows persistence.

So rather than ignoring whining, or trying to stop it by fixing the problem the child is whining about, my first suggestion (as always) is to SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS) so the child feels heard:

SWYS: “Sounds like you don’t think you can have what you want.”

SAYing WHAT YOU SEE opens communication. With the older child, an authentic comment like that might get a response like this:

Child: “I NEVER get what I want!”

“Never” is very real to children, because that’s how it feels. Recognizing that would help you understand the child’s overwhelming feelings of disappointment that are showing up as big upsets over little things like the small size of the cup of nuts.

Trying to convince a child that, in fact, he gets what he wants most of the time would feel like a contradiction to him and could result in an escalation to tears or tantrum. Instead, SAYing WHAT YOU SEE the child feeling and thinking would lead you straight to what he wants.

If what he wants cannot be provided or is off limits, you can validate what he wants even further by granting his wish in fantasy like this:

SWYS: “You never get what you want! No wonder you are so sad!”


CAN DO (wishes): “You wish you could have the whole can of nuts all to yourself…two cans…no, three cans…how about a whole swimming pool full of nuts that were all yours?!! You’d really like that, wading around and getting them stuck between your toes…”

Granting children’s wishes in fantasy gives children permission to want what they want whether they can have it or not, and shows you really understand. When the child finally feels heard, you can take the next step and empower him by engaging him in a real problem solving exercise starting with what he wants. Depending on your boundary it might sound like this:

CAN DO: “Hmmm. So you still want your own can of nuts. There must be some way you can have your own can and still eat only a cup at snack time.”

Then see what he comes up with. It could be as simple as making the full can “his” by putting his name on it and still preparing the same serving size as before; or as creative as getting a gumball machine that releases a small amount of nuts at a time so he can serve himself with your supervision. Where there’s one way, there are a hundred ways.

With the younger child, the mom went on to say that the 2 ½-year-old has a 9-month old sister who needs a lot of attention.* When seen in that context the 2 ½-year-old’s cries for attention become clear — she is communicating a real need for connection.

SAYing WHAT YOU SEE to her to let her know you understand might sound like this:

SWYS: “You want me to play (sit with you, read a book with you, etc.) right now, and you think I will say no.”

If that draws a nod or firmer asking like, “Mommy play now?” and you can stop and play now, say, “Yes,” to let her know asking can work, then follow through to help her meet her need for connection.

If you can’t stop at that moment, tell her when you can. If she is not aware that she has patience, you can use this as an opportunity for Success Training and pick a short time that you think she can succeed in waiting. Describe when in terms of physical actions (not abstract time) as in “When I finish folding these towels,” and invite her to help you complete the task to meet her need for connection then add the STRENGTH to point out her success:

CAN DO: “You want me to stop and play NOW! Yes! I can do that when these three towels are folded. Must be some way I can do that really fast! Here, you can hold this end to help me, or you can watch and say, “Go Mommy!” to cheer me on. Let’s see how fast we can do this…”


STRENGTH: “There, that worked! You waited, I’m done, and now we can play!”

CAN DOs tell children you are on their side, and STRENGTHs meet their need for power.

If your child can’t wait and bursts into tears instead, you can continue folding but be prepared to SAY WHAT YOU SEE to facilitate her feelings as she moves through sad, disappointed, frustrated, etc. Be sure to match her energy as you say what she feels until you are done with your task, and she has worked through her feelings and starts to calm herself down. Then you can add the STRENGTH: 

STRENGTH: “You cried until those tears were all out. You calmed yourself down! And now the towels are done, and I can play! Crying helped you wait.”

In both these cases, showing the child she waited successfully (tears or not) is the goal of the Success Training. Pointing out how crying actually works for her is a bonus. 

If instead of crying, your child jumps straight from the whine to dumping your already folded clothes on the floor, you can use Success Training to help her see she likes to help. To do that, you can respond like this:

SWYS: “You just dumped the folded clothes, and that’s not OK with me. I’m feeling grumpy now. This is my frowny face.” (Exaggerating your true emotion rather than fighting it, can help you stay calm.)


CAN DO: “Hmm. You still want to play, AND I want to get these done. Must be some way we can do both…”

The best solution for meeting the child’s and your need for connection and power together would be to play a game that engages her to help you complete your folding. For example you could create a challenge and an opportunity for success by asking the child to find all the red socks and bring them to you, then the white shirts, then the blue towels, etc. When she does, you can cheer her on and at the end name the STRENGTH:

STRENGTH: “You helped me sort all those clothes. That smile tells me you like to help! Now we can play…”

In summary, regardless of the child’s age or what they are whining about:

1. Get the child heard by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE,

2. Offer a CAN DO or grant their wishes in fantasy,

3. Point out any STRENGTHs that show up.

These three simple coaching skills empower children and help them break the whining cycle. 

* Hint: When a younger sibling is introduced to the family, to head off power struggles and disconnection before they start, make sure you establish extra time alone with the older child. Setting aside short bursts of regularly scheduled one-on-one playtime that the older child can count on will reduce the demand for your attention at other times. A regular schedule is important because knowing when helps children wait.

You can find out more about our simple 3-part coaching approach in our book, Say What You See for Parents and Teachers. You can buy it here, or if you just can’t wait, you can read it online here for free!

Or if videos are more your speed, you can check out our online Basic Coaching Skills Course, which is full of clips that you can watch on your own time to learn how to step from controlling your child to coaching your child and gain more hugs, more respect, and more cooperation as a result.

1 Comment

  1. Kate |

    Changing perspective does change everything. Realizing that whining is powerlessness and a child needs to be heard and understood required me a step away from reacting. Our son was sharing his disappointment that he’s not in honors Spanish, he’s not in honors English and that that he thinks he is “dumb”. He truly was expressing his powerlessness.

    The your response, “Sounds like you don’t think you can have what you want”. Nails it on the head. With empathy I did say something to the effect of…”You feel sad and disappointed because you want to be in all honors classes”.

    There was something like an emotional sigh of relief in room.

    I am celebrating that I walked away from old reactive patterns, I used sincere listening, I used SWYS and there were benefits gained.

    I wish I could have gone into acknowledging the wish. Later when a hard math homework assignment concept was mastered, I did say, “You stuck with this and kept trying, and trying, that shows your determination”.

    This post reinforced my commitment to use SWYS to respect wherever it is that our son is at. For me, finding the CAN DO And Strength are the hard part. Your post provides hope and enlightenment in how I can to get to the CAN DO and Strengths.

    Thank you for the amazing resources on your site. You are healing children and families.

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