Young child whining

Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hey, we’re back for another Beyond the Sessions. I have Dr. Rebecca Hershberg here. Thanks so much for being here.

Dr. Rebecca (00:51):

My pleasure. I love these.

Dr. Sarah (00:54):

Me too. Emily’s not going to, Emily’s going to have to listen to this episode and catch up on our chitchat, but so we got this question from a listener and she wanted to know how do we encourage better responses to conversations or questions, particularly when my two and a half year old is having big feelings and she responds with a whiny baby voice rather than clear responses, we usually ask for her to say it again in her big girl voice or without whining so we can help her. So I kind of feel like there’s two questions here. One is how do we encourage more sophisticated and mature communication from our kids? And the other one that’s kind of not exactly explicitly being asked, but I think is kind of embedded in here is like what’s appropriate for a two and a half year old in terms of whining and how do we redirect it? Do we redirect it?

Dr. Rebecca (01:51):

Yeah, I mean, the part that caught my attention, I agree with you that there’s two questions, but it’s the listener was saying when her two and a half is having big feelings and wines, which I think is a really different question than when my, let’s say two and a half year old just walks into the kitchen and starts whining. I think there’s different circumstances, and frankly, if my two and a half year old or frankly seven year old needs to whine in order to be able to have a conversation about big feelings and the content is appropriate to the conversation and they’re able to actually tolerate the conversation, I’m not going to focus on the whining. I feel like that’s a win. Frankly, I might focus on the whining if it’s like they’re begging for another, I mean, not focus on the whining, but think of the whining as a thing. If it’s out of the blue and I’m trying to do something and I’ve told them to wait and they start whining. I guess I should say that I just think whining and how you manage it and deal with it is different depending on the context of the whining and the age of the kid. Two and a half is so young.

Dr. Sarah (03:03):

Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I think there’s a lot of shades of gray when it comes to whining kind of like is when it comes to crying. When we talk about infancy and crying, we often will, I mean, I’m assuming you do this too, but I’ll often help parents remember that crying is communication and sometimes we have to understand that context is going to inform how we interpret the cry. Because if the only thing a child can do to communicate something is cry, then not all cries are going to be communicating the same thing and then require from us the exact same response. Some cries are protest cries and sometimes cries are, help me, I’m freaking out cries and we’re going to respond to those differently. And I kind of think a whine is an evolution of that kind of more primitive child, infant like communication.

Dr. Rebecca (04:00):

Yeah, no, I think that’s a great point. And the question becomes in a given situation, is it more important that I respond to the content or is it more important that I respond to the manner of speaking and the answer to that meaning? Meaning if they’re whining or not whining. So if my child is having really big feelings about something and they say it in a whine, but the content is really important. I’m sad.

Dr. Sarah (04:26):

Yeah. I could hear my kid right now being like, they were so mean at school and I didn’t like it. And it’s like, oh, the tone is awful.

Dr. Rebecca (04:37):

I got stuck because I was trying to think of a two and a half year old.

Dr. Sarah (04:39):

Right, I’ve got a five, six and a four year old. So the content’s a little bit different, but they still whine, which it’s important to note that was my six year old, I was imitating for sure.

Dr. Rebecca (04:50):

If a two year old is just like mis sad, who cares how they’re saying it? It’s like, oh sweetie, what’s going on? Or I’m right here, let’s have a hug, or Yeah, I think we’re saying the same thing over and over again. It’s that’s a response to content. Whereas I’m just trying to think of a scenario with a two and a half year old where I would ever actively respond to whining. And I think the only response, I mean typically because I have a lot of clients who talk to me about whining, and as you’ve just said, my seven and frankly nine-year-olds still whine my husband. Wines feel wine, right? Life is hard, but I tend to just ignore it. The whining part of it, I mean, it’s very rare that I encourage parents to hone in on the whining in particular. I certainly think what this listener said is fine. I can’t understand what you’re saying. Let’s use your big girl voice or your strong voice. But more often than not, I think whining tends to go away if you just don’t really pay a lot of attention to it.

Dr. Sarah (06:02):

Yeah. I also think I have two thoughts. One is I think I’m more quick to respond to whining if I need it to stop. So I’m also mindful of my own bandwidth for tolerating it and how much stimulation I can take a really unpleasant stimulation. And if you’re just kind of fried and that if your child continues to whine in their communication to you, you’re eventually going to snap, then I think it is worth saying like, Hey, I really that sound, it’s hard for me to understand you. I’d be willing much more interested in encouraging a parent to correct it then if it’s in the service of their own regulation, because that’s legit, right? We don’t always have to focus exclusively on our child’s regulation needs. We also have to think about ours because if we just wait until we lose it, because the whining is just increasingly grading, that’s not good for anybody either.


So that’s one thought I have about just whose needs are you going to actually pay attention to and acknowledge and vocalize. I don’t like that sound that bugs my ears. I would love to help you, but can you say it in a different way? Sometimes I’ll also just say, I’ll kind of realize if they’re whining, they’re low resourced in that moment from a regulation and energetic resources standpoint. So usually I’m not going to ask much of them to do more work. Can you say that again, right? I just kind of jump over that and get to the point of, I think what you’re trying to say is, will you get me that cup and I’ll just get it for you.

Dr. Rebecca (07:43):

I was about to say, I model, what if my child is like, oh, I don’t want to set the table. I’ll say something like, Hey mom, I’m really tired today. I wonder, is there any way that you could please set the table for me? And then I’ll say, well, I’d be delighted to. Thanks for asking so nicely and get the message. Because in a moment like that, they’re not going to say the whole point is that they’re too whiny to even get off the couch, let alone rephrase something in a mature way. I think when it comes to the ignoring, I’m thinking about a client that I have recently where whining has become, and maybe this isn’t the listener situation, but an actual issue. This kid is whining a lot and we sort of did an analysis of it from a behavioral perspective, and this child is getting a lot of attention for whining, even in the form of mom being like, oh my gosh, stop whining. I hate that noise. I hate that noise. Oh, stop.


More attention than the child gets when they don’t whine. And so we talked about a very behavioral approach of ignoring it or either just fully ignoring it or saying, I can’t hear that voice right now. And then the second the child stops whining, turn around, big smile, oh my gosh, I love that grownup voice, or, I love that strong voice so much. I’d be delighted to get your cup or modulating the attention around it. Because as we know with kids, sometimes even if they’re getting our goat and they’re irritating us, that’s still reinforcing for them. And so they’ll do something more and more depending on the age and personality and context and all of that.

Dr. Sarah (09:19):

And I would think too, if we’re thinking it might be something that’s being unintentionally reinforced by a parent through negative attention one way, there’s sort of two things when we talk about active ignoring. I feel like there’s a lot of different ways people do it, and I feel like some are better than others. In my personal opinion. I don’t recommend parents. I don’t suggest to parents to ignore the child when they’re whining. And I think sometimes that gets missed. I just ignore the tone. So I’ll respond to the content or maybe even prompt them with a different way of saying it, but I’m responding to the content or the kid or maybe the feeling underneath it, but I’m not, I’m ignoring the whining package that it comes in. And I think that’s a big difference between parents sometimes interpreting that to just say, ignore the child, go flat, go absent, because I don’t actually think that teaches anything.

Dr. Rebecca (10:24):

Yeah, that’s interesting. And to me, I do think that actually ignoring, and it depends on your kid. So I have a child, I think I’ve talked on here who has various diagnoses that have been shown to respond really well with decades of research to active ignoring. But to me, the really important distinction is that it’s always with kindness. So it’s never like, you know what? I hate that tone of voice I’m not paying attention to. It’s a very like, oh, we’ve talked about this. I know you can say that in a strong voice. I’m going to walk over here and start making my own breakfast, and I know as soon as you whatever. And again, maybe the whining is not a great example for this, but a lot of times I feel like parents are unintentionally reinforcing whining with this idea that you can never ignore your kid. It’s sort of like, I’m right here. I’m addressing the feeling over and over and over again. Meanwhile, they’re not emptying the dishwasher or returning emails or things that they have to do. And it’s okay to say, I know you’re having big feelings right now. Happy to help you when you’re ready, adore you. You’re my son and my coon, but I’m going to go unload the dishwasher.

Dr. Sarah (11:41):

I totally agree with you, and I would call, maybe we’re getting into semantics, but to me there’s a distinction between ignoring and disengaging. I think there’s some way in which you are informing the kid, Hey, we talked about this. I don’t like it when you talk to me that way, and I’m not going to respond right now. If you want to talk to me in a different voice later, I’m totally here. I’m going to go finish this. I’m going to unload the dishwasher, or I’m going to be in the kitchen finishing up there. You come find me if you need me.

Dr. Rebecca (12:13):

Yeah. That’s semantics. I think you’re right. I think that is disengagement. I think the ignoring is about the behavior. So if my son is talking to me about something while jumping up and down on the couch and he knows how much I really don’t want him to jump up and down on the couch, I might respond to what he’s talking about without even commenting on the couch because it’s in part to get my goat, and then he’ll stop on his own again. It’s probably worth another episode. I mean, I think ignoring much like timeouts is one of those catchphrases that people have visceral responses to and it has a lot of nuance and it gets misunderstood a lot. And maybe it does sometimes mean disengaging. I think it’s probably elaborating on, but may not be what this listener’s question was about.

Dr. Sarah (12:59):

Totally. And if people, just because you brought up timeouts, and I think there’s so many layers to this, and I think how we respond to all these kinds of challenging behaviors, it’s all connected, it’s all interconnected. If people are interested in more information about timeouts, I do have a free guide that I created that talks about, because I have this pet peeve, I dunno if you feel this way, Rebecca, I’d be really curious, and I know we’re off the question, but I have this pet peeve of people talking about timeouts being evidence-based or timeouts being damaging to your child and nobody having the same definition of an actual what a timeout looks like. We’re not operationalizing it. We’re not having a standard definition. And so I actually wrote a guide that talks about when people do research and in a research setting, do a timeout to study it, what does it actually look like because it’s very operationalized because you have to repeat it the same way every single time to study it. And so when we talk about what that kind of a timeout looks like versus what a lot of parents do for timeouts, because it’s just kind of make up your own rules, we’re oftentimes talking about really different things. So I wrote this whole thing kind of explaining the difference of what is an actual timeout, what are the benefits, what are the cons, and also alternatives that I think are really effective discipline strategies. So if you want that, I’ll put it in the show notes, but it’s drsarahbren.com/timeout.

Dr. Rebecca (14:34):

Great. I haven’t seen that, but I’m sure I would agree with all of it. I have some in my book. I also try to, a lot of this also, again, it’s so misunderstood and so misapplied and so much is about just people thinking they’re talking about the same thing when they’re not.

Dr. Sarah (14:51):

But to go back specifically to this question about, because I think there’s this other question. So if your kid at a two and a half, I think we’re going to expect a lot of wine as distress intolerance. You’ve hit your max, you can’t handle it anymore. So we’re going to have a lot more, we’re going to expect it more from a two and a half year old than we would from a six year old or a nine year old, but it’s going to happen even for those older kids, it’s going to happen a lot more for a two and a half year old. So we also just want to have realistic expectations. Two and a half year old going to whine a lot. But I think to her other question is how do we encourage a a teach alternative ways of communicating? I would go ahead and say, not when your kid’s whining, not in the moment, because we talk about this a lot and in general on this podcast is like when you want to teach a skill, when you want to discipline for considering discipline, a form of teaching.

Dr. Rebecca (15:53):


Dr. Sarah (15:53):

You got to do it when the child has the resources to learn and when they’re whining, they’re definitely showing you. They just don’t, they don’t have the energy for it.

Dr. Rebecca (16:03):

Yeah. I think the only strategy to use in that moment, if any, is modeling, as you said, saying, I think you’re trying to say, mommy, mommy, will you please get this cup? I think that sometimes can sink in, but I agree that it’s generally not the time. And I think especially with a two and a half year old didactic teaching in general is not going to be effective. And basically you encourage better conversational skills with your child by having great conversations in your home and talking to them as if they are eager and curious and excited to learn. And then the learning happens. It’s not by sitting down and being like, here’s how you respond to questions.

Dr. Sarah (16:48):

Yeah. Yeah. And I think that, yeah, so I’m hoping this is helpful. Every episode, I feel like sometimes we answer questions by creating more questions, so I hope that this feels like it gives you enough to go off of. And if you still have more questions, whether I’m speaking to the list, the person who wrote the question, but kind of anybody send us more follow-ups because we love doing these shorty episodes and kind of getting into the weeds on stuff, but sometimes it just digs up more questions and it’s nice to layer these episodes from one to the next. So thank you so much, Rebecca, for coming on. I love having you.

Dr. Rebecca (17:29):

Love it. Love it. Thank you.

Dr. Sarah (17:32):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

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147. BTS: What are practical tips for dealing with whining kids?