A Real Solution for Annoying Behaviors (Part 2)

At the heart of a child’s misbehavior is a need that is begging to be addressed. If the need goes unanswered, the unwanted behavior will continue. Think of it this way, a whining child is like a pulled hamstring, ignoring or trying to muscle through the pain will only make matters worse. But take time to figure out and calmly treat the underlying issue, and you’re on the way to real results with long term effects.

Yes, that’s right. Calmly treating the underlying issue is critical to success. And that holds true for the emotions of both parent and child. I’ll be writing about techniques to master this incredibly difficult practice in later posts, but here’s something to know for now. Recent brain research actually shows that when a child’s brain is bombarded with negative emotion, it’s not able to receive logical direction and information. Therefore, in order to turn the thinking side of your child’s brain ON, loving connection must be made first. Please try to keep this in mind as you read this intervention for whining.

As I wrote about in Part 1 of this series, the first step to finding a lasting solution is to answer the question: What is this behavior trying to tell me? Like interrupting, whining is an attention seeking behavior. It’s basically saying, “Look at me. Give me what I want…pleeeeease!”

The second step involves looking for the need behind the behavior, and this can be tricky. But like a detective, the more clues you uncover, the easier it is to solve the mystery. In parenting presentations over the years, I’ve shared 6 Key Questions that have helped parents get to the root of the problem.

  1. When did the behavior begin?
  2. Where does it occur?
  3. When does it occur?
  4. With whom does the behavior occur?
  5. What are the common factors in the environment?
  6. Are there certain foods or medicines that may be triggering the behavior?

It’s always a good idea to seek the professional opinion of a pediatrician, counselor or specialist if problems persist, get worse or are causing significant problems for your child or family. And if your gut instinct says, “Something isn’t right,” listen to it. The Momma Instinct is wise and should not be ignored. When in doubt, ask. Early detection and intervention are worth their weight in gold!

Let’s look at an imaginary example of a mom and her 4 year old daughter who whines.

Sally Sue is a bright, persistent preschooler who is masterful at getting her way. Her big blue eyes typically melt her mom and dad into giving her what she wants, and when that doesn’t work, she resorts to whining. Whining sends a jolt of electricity down the spines of her parents, causing them to either yell at Sally Sue or crater to her demands. The whining is getting more piercing, and little Sally Sue’s parents are frazzled.

Looking at the 6 Key Questions, Sally’s parents find:

  1. The whining occurs several times a week. It began about 6 months ago, right around the time her baby brother was born.
  2. Whining seems to be worse at home, but it can happen anywhere.
  3. The whining is worst when Sally is tired or really wants her way. It peaks late afternoon, just before dinner.
  4. Mom asked Sally’s preschool teachers and volunteers at Sunday School if she whines when she is in class. They all said “no” and shared that she is very cooperative and respectful. She does whine occasionally with Grandma, but the behavior is mostly with Mom and Dad.
  5. Whining is worst when baby brother has cried a lot (he has colic), or when mom or dad seem the most tired or stressed (still up during the night with the baby). It also spiked when Sally had an ear infection a few weeks ago.
  6. Sally does not seem to have any food sensitivities, and she does not take any medication, but her parents are now on the look-out for foods that may trigger a change in her mood or energy, just in case.

The Results:

Putting all the pieces together, a pattern emerges. The whining began when baby brother was born, and it’s used almost exclusively around family, particularly Mom and Dad. It’s worst at late afternoon, when Sally Sue is tired or when she is sick. (This makes sense because needy behaviors tend to flare up when kids are not feeling their best). And it’s most evident when the rest of the family is very tired or stressed. With this specific information, Mom and Dad can hone in on the need: it sounds like Sally Sue’s whines are an expression of the stress and insecurity she may be feeling about sharing her world and her parents with a baby. (Particularly a baby who’s fussy and needs extra attention for his sensitive tummy).

My Possible Solutions:

To help fill Sally’s need for attention, create a special ritual with Sally Sue that gives her one-on-one time with each parent To help her avoid Whine Country in the late afternoon, look more carefully at specific needs that may be undetected. Could she be hungry? A small healthy snack earlier in the afternoon could do wonders. Is she extra tired or wired? A quiet time of reading, snuggling with stuffed animals, or listening to soft music may be the key. And to help her get better adjusted to being a big sister and gain an appreciation for her little brother, mom and dad could get her more involved with the baby. Some ideas:

  • Ask her to help give Baby a bath.
  • Ask her to pick out Baby’s clothes.
  • Have Sally Sue select the cute little baby food jars at the grocery store.
  • Ask Sally how she would like to help. Suggest reading to Baby, gently holding up sensory toys for baby to look at, singing quietly, telling Baby made up stories. (The more positive, engaging interaction they have, the better chance for a strong connection to develop).

If Sally Sue resorts to whining, try intervening with this strategy:

Kneel down to her level and gently say, “It sounds like you really want something, and I’d like to help. Whining hurts my ears. I’m happy to talk to you when you use your regular voice.” (* If you ask her to use her “big girl words” or “grown up voice”, this could backfire if she’s trying to get attention by acting like a baby. After all, it’s working for the baby brother).

This may be enough to stop the whining. But if she continues, announce that you are in a Whine Free zone (not to be confused with a Free Wine Zone). Invite her to whine all she wants in her bedroom, and when she’s ready to come back to the room you are in, you’ll be there to give her a hug.

If She Needs Help Getting to Her Room:

  • Lead her while calmly reassuring her that she is not in trouble.
  • Remind her that you are just helping her to her room where she”s free to get all of her whines out.
  • Let her know how you’ll be waiting with a big hug when she returns to the Whine Free Zone.

Remember, by connecting patiently with her during this stressful transition, her brain can be receptive to what you are saying. Once her emotions take over, it becomes almost impossible to get a point across.  Don’t be surprised if, when you get to her room, she asks for a cuddle, falls asleep or begins to cry. This is confirmation that she did need that quiet, down time. And in her room, she’s feeling safe to” just be.” Offer to sit with her a while so that she can see you care.


Life with a newborn can be exhausting, and it can stay that way for many months. Contending with the whining of an older sibling doesn’t make matters any easier. But taking time to recognize the need behind the whine (or other difficult behavior) and filling the need at its core will pay off solidly in the future.

Question: I encourage you to look at a challenging or annoying behavior that you may be facing with your child and try to apply the 6 Key Questions. Does that help you find the need behind the behavior? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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