January 10, 2023

Ep. 82a – Rachel Cram – What To Do With Whining

A parent expresses concern for her 3-year-old’s constant state of aggravation and whininess. Her daughter seems to wake up out of sorts. The parent is trying to be patient but is struggling and feels she and her partner are, “At their wit’s end.” Rachel suggests a point of view for understanding and supporting children when they whine. She also looks at the mom’s question and gives possible cues for why this little girl is whining.

Join us!

Episode Guest

Rachel Cram

Rachel Cram is the founding director of Wind and Tide Education Community which she started in the basement of her White Rock home, January 1987. Wind and Tide is built upon the foundations of whole child development and has grown to include over 160 staff and 35 campus locations across the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

Rachel is also a Mom to 6 fabulous kids, and the host of family360, created by Wind and Tide to provide current conversations with specialists, artists and storytellers, exploring parenting, family and life together.

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Ep. 82a – What To Do With Whining?

Episode summary – A parent expresses concern for her 3-year-olds constant state of aggravation and whininess. Her daughter seems to wake up already out of sorts. The parent is trying to be patient but is struggling and feels she and her partner are, “At their wit’s end.” Rachel suggests a point of view for understanding and supporting children when they whine. She also looks at the mom’s question and gives possible cues for why this little girl is whining. Join us!

Rachel Cram – Welcome to our first family360 Q&A episode. We’re launching a new format with the podcast. Every 4th week we’re going to release a keynote episode, followed by 3 Q&A releases in consecutive weeks, digging deeper into that keynote topic.

Roy Salmond – Our last episode (episode #82) was called Feelings Wooo Feelings: Emotional Development In Kids and if you haven’t listened to it yet, please do, because then you’ll have that reference for the Q&A sessions.

Rachel Cram – Thank you to those who’ve already sent in questions. We’re loving reading them as they come in!

Roy Salmond – “Whining” is a very prominent theme in the questions that have come in so far. For example “What do you do about whining?” And this was a great one, “Is whining an emotion?”

Rachel Cram – So whining is the topic of this episode and we’re reading a question from a parent who gave examples of what’s happening in their home. And the examples create a helpful jump-off point for talking about her concerns. So, Roy why don’t you read the question and we’ll jump right in.

RS – Ok. Here we go. Here’s the question.

We have 3 kids ages 6, 3 and 2. We’re at our wits end with our 3 year old. She seems to be in whiny mood from the moment she gets up to when she goes to bed. We don’t want to be the dismissive or disapproving parents you talked, about but we’re sadly starting to lose our patience.

For example, this morning she was grumpy and crabby right when she got up. She didn’t want to get dressed and she cried and yelled until her dad came in and got her dressed and she whined the whole way through that as well. Then she didn’t want to eat breakfast. She wanted pancakes and I had made eggs. Then she was upset she was not the first child into the car so she cried all the way to her childcare. Once we got there, she chippered up and ran in happily to play.

I spoke to her childcare teacher and she says she is easygoing and happy while she’s there. She’s never seen her whine. I’m glad for that, but it leaves us wondering, could we be doing something differently at home?

So Rachel, what can we do about whining?

RC – Oh, when I read this Roy, I felt for these parents. I’ve been there so many times myself. Whining can be a really aggravating and grating sound. And this parent is saying, “They’re at their wits end.”

I know when my kids whine, it’s difficult to stay calm. It can create such a tension in me of feeling disrespected; like, “My child is whining AT me.”

Infact, we use that phrase don’t we. We don’t just say, “My child is whining.”

We say, “My child is whining at me. They don’t see all I’m doing for them? They aren’t grateful. This child is so hard to please – so hard to satisfy.”

And as soon as a story like that comes into our mind, of course our patience gets thin. But for a 3 year old (and a child of any age really) that’s rarely the story. It’s not about them disrespecting or not appreciating us. They love us! We’re the center of their world at 3 years old. They’re not trying to upset us. They want to be connected to us more than anything else! They’re trying to regulate themselves and so far they haven’t landed.

So, that’s often a good starting point for me. Whining is about my child and their needs and emotions. This is not my failure or a lack of me being respected. So, you want to start right there framing the whining as something that is going on for your child. They’re experiencing an emotion that is stuck trying to get out.

RS – This parent is saying their daughter seems to be grumpy right from the moment she gets up. Assuming they can summon that perspective you just layed out, what next? They say that getting dressed is an issue.

RC – As hard as it is, I’d say, let her be grumpy. Let her complain and whine and try to let it roll off your back. This is not about you, she’s just trying to express her complicated feelings. She doesn’t know how else to do that. So you could say, “Oh honey, you’re having a hard time. Let me know if you want help with getting dressed and I’ll come and help you.”

And then I’m just guessing at this because it’s not in the email, but the child might respond by saying, “No, I don’t want help!”

And then you could say. “Ok, you want to get dressed by yourself. You can do that.”

And then she might keep the upset going and continue with, “I don’t want to get dressed myself.”

And again, as hard as this is, ideally you’re staying calm and connected to her with your whole body. Like in your eyes. It’s so common that when we get a little bit riled by our child our eyes will start to get squinty and darty and looking all over the place in annoyance or frusteration. And your body language can start to shut down. We want to keep open. We want to try and stay relaxed with our eyes, relaxed with our bodies, in an open posture, because a 3 year old can read all of that just like we can read it when people are losing patience with us. And they’re anxiety will escalate if they feel like they’re losing connection with us.

If this is a day when you have nowhere you urgently need to go and getting dressed and eating breakfast can unfold at its own pace, this could be a fabulous moment to be your child’s emotion coach. This could be a time when you remain in those 3 first points we talked about in episode 82. So you’re tuning into her body language and looking for cues behind her whining. Seeing her emotions as an opportunity for connection and validating her feelings.

RS – But in this email, that’s not the case, these parents need to get their child dressed for daycare so they can go to work.

RC – Yeah. So, you need a boundary that will give her some clarity and a plan. So you could say something like, “You don’t want to get your clothes on, but you need to have clothes on.”

So you’re setting a boundary with her behavior. “You, my precious 3 year old,” (remembering that 3 is very little still – she has only been out in this world for 3 years!)

“You, my precious 3 year old, need to get dressed and I’m seeing you need my help so I am going to help you get dressed now.”

So, you set a boundary on her behavior. She does need to get dressed. But you can’t set a boundary on her emotions because you can’t control her emotions and you don’t want to control her emotions.

She might roll on the floor or huff or be upset and frustrated. It’s really okay and normal to have emotions when you’re told to do something you don’t want to do. As parents, we have to get comfortable with our kids not always agreeing with our boundaries. They have a right to disagree and complain in a way that makes sense to their 3 year old developmental level. Having the freedom to disagree is an essential part of a healthy relationship. So getting comfortable with this as parents is important, as is gently and confidently implementing your boundary.
I wouldn’t get angry with her or feel insulted or like this is rude behavior she’s exhibiting, because her behavior is very much a part of being 3 and consistent with her developmental stage. These are big feelings, big emotions she’s working through and you are her big person who can care for her through her big feelings, but you are also going to get her dressed. So you do that. You get her dressed as she wrestles with her emotions. You keep calm and carry on caring for her by getting her dressed when she is too overcome to do it herself.
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RS – Well what breakfast? The parent says the complaining carries on with her not liking what is being served.
RC – In situations like this parent is describing, where it goes on for the whole morning, staying calm and connected gets tougher as time passes. Mornings like this are an emotion-coaching marathon. But if you can catch a second wind after dressing her, keep on with connecting and validating. So, “Humm, you don’t feel like eggs this morning. I get that. This is all there will be. When you’re ready to eat, your food is right here on the table for you.”
Again, this is about letting her feel how she is feeling and not you fixing her feelings. If getting dressed has already required a boundary, enforcing a healthy breakfast to start her day will possibly be too much for her to handle. And unlike putting her clothes on for her, you can’t get food into her stomach without her cooperation.
Keep calm and carry on. If she doesn’t eat, perhaps pop a bit of extra food into her backpack for childcare so she can eat when she’s ready. And let the teacher know she might need to eat when she gets dropped off.
This takes a great summoning of patience. It’s so challenging to have someone raining on our morning parade, especially when we’re putting in so much effort to be kind and understanding and upbeat with our kids. It’s tough.
RS – This parent mentioned the teacher commenting that her daughter never whines at school and it leaves them wondering, “Could we be doing something differently at home?”
I can see a teacher comment like that being appreciated but also a little…
RC – disheartening.
RS – Yeah
RC – Often our kids whine or show the extent of their feelings with us, their parents because we’re the closest to them and their best bet at being safe as they figure all this out.
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RS – So, the child is going through these big emotions – the parent is connecting, validating and looking for cues into what the child is experiencing. From what this email told us, what might be going on for this 3 year old?

RC – Working with what’s in the email a few thoughts come to mind. A cue I’d consider is that being a middle child has its own unique challenges. My first 3 children were of a similar age-spread to this parent’s. When my daughter was 18 months her younger sister was born and that immediately makes the older child seem older than they really are.

As parents, your expectations of your older kids shift when a new baby comes along. So a cue for this parent to consider might be, ‘Does she need a bit more ‘babying’?’ Does this three year old need a bit more babying? Does she need to be dressed in the morning or piggybacked out to the car? That might not be realistic for these parents, but often giving a child what might feel like an extra dose of attention, before they ask for it or whine for it, ends up takes less time and energy than not doing that.

It might not be that though. This Mom’s saying her 3-year-old seems more content when she gets to childcare. That might be a cue to the whining. It may be all the transitions that have to happen in the morning between waking up and getting this little one to childcare is causing her stress.

Transition times are frequently the hardest time in a child’s day. So, perhaps using a chart, and we talk about that in some of our previous episodes, perhaps using a chart that shows her what to expect – her day in a row is what we call that at Wind and Tide – so she knows the flow of the day and can anticipate what will be happening between waking up and getting to her childcare.

RS – Lots of us benefit from a clear routine in our day. That’s why many adults make lists and plan ahead.

RC – Exactly. For kids, their day can feel like it’s coming at them from all directions and they don’t know what’s going to hit them next.

RS – Few of us do well with that level of ambiguity or unpredictability.

RC – Right! Right. Or it could be that this little girl really wants to be in more control of her day. She wouldn’t be able to articulate that of course, but if someone has a temperament that tends to like to be in control and likes to be the one making the decisions, that’s already in you as a child. And a temperament like that can be nurtured into some really important and wonderful, with some beautiful qualities for leadership. So it’s not that you want to quell that. But again, a chart can help with that, especially one she helps to create and gets to check off as she goes along.

So those are some of the cues this little one’s whining might point to. So I hope this gives these parents some encouragement that this is normal. Their little girl is not doing anything wrong. Give her the time and space she needs to grow through this stage.

And give yourselves time and space as well. Parenting is a tough coaching assignment sometimes. And so thank you very much for this question.

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RS – We have two more questions we’re going to address from episode 82 over the next two weeks. We’ve already started on our next episode addressing the question, “What to do when partners parenting styles differ?”

RC – Yeah, we received some very well-articulated questions on that.

RS – But we haven’t finalized our last question for this series yet so there is still time to send yours into rachel@family360podcast.com.

RC – Thanks for listening to family360.

RS – Thank you.


Episode 62