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3 Year Old Whines Nonstop

Dr. Laura,

My 3 year old son is driving us crazy. We regularly go to some pretty amazing places - beaches, waterfalls, forests, even kids festivals and that sort of thing. Seems like no matter where we go and what we do, he always has something to "complain" or whine about.

Three year olds often whine, most often out of a feeling of powerlessness. It’s a phase that passes, but there are definitely steps you can take to reduce whining:

1. Make sure to meet his basic needs while still enjoying yourselves as a family. It might be hard for him to appreciate a forest when he’s tired, or a festival if he’s over-stimulated.

2. See things from his point of view.
Maybe he gets carsick on your adventures and he doesn’t know how to express it? (This was true of my own daughter.) Maybe he doesn’t find much to enjoy about a forest, even while you love the hike and the view? Try to understand his perspective even while you point out what you’re loving.

3. Recognize that he's communicating his feelings and let him know you're listening.  He's letting you know he needs your help in some way.  If you can figure out what that is, meeting his needs pre-emptively will help him break the whining habit. He babbles happily when he's happy, right? Well, when he's tired or frustrated, grousing about it feels better to him. He's communicating his emotions to you. So it's best if you intervene positively to interrupt the habit.

First, recognize his feelings and give him a word to use instead of whining: "Oh, you sound frustrated/worn out/bothered/sad right now."  Sometimes just feeling heard is enough to stop whining in its tracks.

Then teach him that he can do something to make him feel better, besides whining: "What could you do to feel better? Want to stop on this bench for a little snuggle? Do you want some help from Mommy? Wouldn’t a drink of water feel delicious right about now?"

4. Since whining is a function of powerlessness, give him as much power as you can in these situations. Ask him what he’d like to do today, rather than just dragging him to a festival.  You may love the idea of an outing, but that doesn't mean he finds it appealing -- maybe he just wants some downtime to play with his trains.  You don't mention what his life is like when you're not on outings, but kids who are in daycare or preschool all week often need to be home on weekends to regroup.  He may also be a person who just needs a lot of downtime because he gets over-stimulated by new situations.  Many little ones find crowds (such as at a festival) overwhelming. Naturally he'll whine if he's always taken on outings when he doesn't feel up to it.

On the other hand, if all he ever wants to do is play with his trains and YOU want to go to a festival occasionally, you're entitled.  The key is balancing everyone's needs so that he gets his need for downtime met before you head out.  Give him some warning and choice about the family plans.  For instance, explain that the family is going to the festival to have fun together, and what draws you to it. (There will be terrific music, and you'll snuggle on a blanket to listen to it, and he can play with his toys on the blanket, and you'll bring some tasty snacks.)  Find a way to give him some choices about it. Does he want to leave now or in an hour? Which tape does he want to listen to in the car? Does he want to bring a toy or book with him in the car? 

5. If he seems to be whining because he's at the end of his rope, he may need your support to simply cry for awhile. Sometimes kids whine because they've built up stress and uncomfortable feelings and they don't know how to let them out. You can find out if this is what he needs by holding him and saying "You seem pretty crabby right now. I wonder if you just need to cry? That's ok, everyone needs to cry sometimes." Don't be surprised if his lip starts quivering. While he cries just hold him and say "You really needed to cry. You'll feel a lot better after you cry. Mommy loves you. Cry as much as you need to." He'll either fall asleep after he cries, or want to snuggle a bit, but I guarantee you he won't be whining.

6. Three year olds need lots of interaction. If you and your husband are talking with each other while you’re on your adventures, he may feel left out of the discussion. Pre-empt whining by giving attention BEFORE he gets demanding. (Anyone who's had to ask a romantic partner "Do you love me?" knows that attention given after you ask can never really fill the need.) The secret is to take the initiative and give attention he hasn’t asked for, often, so he feels your support and connection.

7. Teach your son how to set up win/win situations. Give him alternate tools to whining by teaching him how to ask appropriately for something and negotiate with you. Helping him see that he can get what he wants through reasonable measures will carry over into the rest of his life.

How? “Ok, you want to play with your trucks, and we want to go on an adventure to __________. Let’s take your trucks with us. I promise we’ll find a place there that we can play with your trucks."

8.  Help him find his STRONG voice.  Lawrence Cohen says, "When children whine they are feeling powerless. If we scold them for whining or refuse to listen to them we increase their feelings of powerlessness. If we give in so they will stop whining, we reward that powerlessness. But if we relaxedly, playfully, invite them to use a strong voice, we increase their sense of confidence and competence. And we find a bridge back to close connection."  Start by saying playfully "You don't sound like yourself.  I wonder where your usual strong voice went?"

Express confidence that your child can use his "strong" voice and offer your assistance to help him find it, by making it into a game:  "Hey, where did your strong voice go?  It was here a minute ago.  I LOVE your strong voice!  I'll help you find it.  Help me look.  Is it under the chair?  No...In the toy box?  No....  HEY!  You found it!!  That was your strong voice!! Yay! I love your strong voice! Now, tell me again what you need, in your strong voice."

9. Support him in pulling himself together and talking normally.  The usual advice is to tell your whining child “My ears don’t hear whining. Can you ask me in your regular voice?”  Unfortunately, this increases his feelings of powerlessness, if he perceives it as a scolding. If you've tried everything else and you just don't have the energy to help your child find his strong voice, you can fall back on this strategy, but try to say it warmly and supportively so he has some incentive to find his strong voice. Reward all his efforts in the right direction toward expressing himself positively, even if he doesn't quite pull it off initially.

10.  Be patient. Every year your son will gain more self control and be more able to manage the expression of his moods and feelings.  In the meantime, three year olds are more baby than child, still.  Their frontal cortex is still developing and they can't always hold it together.  That's why three year olds have parents to hold them and give them hope when the world seems so bleak. Your little guy will be twelve and off with his friends most of the time before you know it.  Enjoy meeting his needs now, while you can -- so he knows you're still the go-to person when he feels overwhelmed by the world at age 14.

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kreeeestamama commented on 21-Mar-2011 02:47 PM
Great article!! Thanks - my newly 3yo is definitely a whiner! lol
Claire commented on 26-Sep-2011 05:51 AM
indeed great article thanks I am going insane with my 3 year old!

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