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7 Powerful Ways to Respond When Your Child Complains

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Complaining and whining are two of the most frustrating things parents face. They are also completely normal. In fact, the average adult complains 30 times a day or 9 minutes total!

Kids complain for lots of good reasons: to blow off steam, to connect with us, and because they feel powerless. Other times, the complaints might mask an underlying emotion that needs to be released.

Whatever the cause, complaining and whining are opportunities to help our kids find better ways to express their feelings, and shift to a more positive mindset.

While it’s normal to vent sometimes, frequent complaining is not a healthy option.

Repeated complaining rewires your brain….Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you.
- Dr. Travis Bradberry

A study at Stanford University showed that complaining shrinks the hippocampus, an area of the brain necessary for problem-solving and emotion regulation.

Here are some strategies to help kids express their dissatisfaction in healthier, more positive ways.

7 Powerful Ways to Respond When Your Child Complains

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1. Define it

Kids may not understand what complaining or whining even is. Requests to “stop whining” are unlikely to work until we teach how it looks like and sounds.

  • Use your phone to record your child during a whining episode (you can ask their permission first). Explain that your purpose is to help him/her learn and not to tease or make anyone feel bad. Then record him saying something positive. Ask to compare the two recordings and how they feel to listen to.
  • Model a whining voice yourself. Ask them, “Do you like mommy’s sour voice or would you rather hear my normal voice? Which one makes you want to do what I ask?”
  • Discuss the nice voice or strong voice inside everyone. How does that voice sound? Practice asking for things with a strong voice. The one that sounds calm, clear, and steady versus high-pitched and whiny.
  • Praise the nice/strong voice every time you hear it. Remember to praise their efforts to use that voice.

For more examples on how to effectively praise your children, refer to The Ultimate Guide to Praising Your Kids (part of the Growth Mindset Printables Kit).

growth mindset praise

2. Listen and Validate

    Active listening is the kind of listening that makes kids (and adults) feel heard. Rather than simply hearing their words, it requires parents to give our full attention. Making eye contact, not interrupting, and accepting without judging are key aspects of this communication technique.

    It’s tempting to shut down complaining or offer reasons why a complaint is wrong. Remember that most feelings pass quickly if we let them, and blocking the expression of dissatisfaction can make them stick around.

    Instead of trying to negate his negativity, listen to it and let it go. When your child is critical of something and then you’re critical of him being critical, it just adds to the cycle.
    - Debbie Pincus, therapist 

    One powerful way to listen and validate is through the “I hear you...AND” method. If your child whines because a sudden rainstorm ruins her pool time, you might say, “I hear that’s not what you wanted...AND we have no control over the weather.” Kids complaining about the dinner menu you worked hard on? “I hear you say this food is yucky...AND I feel differently.”

    I hear you and method

    3. Give a Choice

      Kids often complain when they feel powerless. Providing a choice about what should happen next restores their control. When your kids start to complain, clarify what they would like to happen as a result. You can say, “It sounds like you’re frustrated right now. Do you need to vent or do you want to make a plan?”

      Kids just need to blow off steam sometimes, and listening to them vent might be enough.

      Just as you like to gripe to your partner about a bad day at work or a stressful exchange with another mom, {kids} need to express themselves too.
      - Dr. Rene Hackney, developmental psychologist

      To determine if they want to switch from complaining to problem-solving mode, we can ask, “Should we think about what we can do to fix this situation?” Help them identify a goal and consider their next steps.

      Use the 5-Step Problem Solving printable cards to teach your kids the key steps to this process (available in the Growth Mindset Activity Kit).

      activity kit problem solving plan parents guide big life journal

      4. Rephrase and Reframe

        It’s easy to see complaining children as difficult or ungrateful and to react accordingly. This technique helps us reconnect with their greatness and gives them (and us) a better perspective.

        Parent coach Sandy Blackard suggests rephrasing complaints as a “want” or a “wish. Here are some common complaints and how to reframe.

        When your child says...

        - she hates her stuff

        Say, “You want a different toy” (Hidden message: You are a child who knows her likes and dislikes)

          - he’s bored

          Say, “You wish this was more interesting” (Hidden message: You are a child who likes interesting things)  

            - you’re not the boss

            Say, “You want to be in charge” (Hidden message: You are a child who appreciates independence)

              If we hear complaints as messages of our child’s underlying strengths, they are much easier to address. 

              When your child says...

              5. Set Limits

                One way to deal with whining and complaining is to give a time limit. Dr. Laura Markham suggests the following script:

                “Ok, there's been so much complaining (or loud screeching)! This is your last chance to complain (screech) for the rest of the day. I'm setting the timer and putting on my earphones. I want you to complain (screech) as loud as you can for the next three minutes. You only have three minutes so make the most of them. After that, we're all back to normal inside voices. 1, 2, 3, GO!”

                A simpler version may be:

                • “You have two more minutes to talk about this, and then we’re going to talk about something different.”
                • You can say one more negative thing, but then I want to hear 5 positive things that happened today.”

                Another option could be to set aside a daily “complaint time”. This is ideal for kids who whine frequently and need greater limits.

                • Schedule a time, maybe 10 minutes after dinner, where they can complain about everything bothering them.
                • If complaints happen at other times of day, simply remind them it’s not the official complaint time. Provide a journal for those moments when they just need to get it out.

                positive in each day

                6. Respond Playfully

                Playfulness and silliness come naturally to kids. Even during their toughest moments.

                When you know that your kid has big emotions brewing and really needs to get them out, laughter is a great tool. Responding playfully to minor upsets shows a child that you are there, you are listening, and that everything is safe.
                - Dr. Yasmeen Almahdy

                Here are some ideas on how you can respond playfully to your kid’s complaints:

                • Have kids say the opposite of what they feel. If he whines about going to school, ask him to say, “I like school and I want to go” 5 times in a row! Does she hate sharing toys with her brother? ”Sharing is my very favorite thing!” Pretty soon, you may be laughing together.
                • Once kids know about their “strong voice” and how to use it, playfully offer to find it when it disappears. Dr. Laura Markham suggests saying, “Hey, where did your strong voice go? It was here a minute ago...Help me look. Is it under the chair? No...In the toy box? No...HEY! You found it! Now let me hear you use it!”
                • Books provide another direct route to silliness (and perspective). The You Wouldn’t Want to Be series by Salariya Publishing tells kids why life as an American Colonist, a Polar Explorer, or on Apollo 13, (among many others) was not all it’s cracked up to be. If fiction is more their thing, another fun, offbeat book is Monsters Eat Whiny Children by Bruce Eric Kaplan. Luckily, the monsters themselves are so busy whining and complaining the kids are able to escape with an important lesson!

                Be the Calm

                7. Find the Good

                Gratitude is the opposite of complaining. When we focus on what we’re thankful for rather than things we’re dissatisfied with, we feel happier. Our bodies are healthier too. Studies show that the stress hormone cortisol is reduced by up to 23% when we shift attention to our good fortune.

                When your child complains, empathize and then help them notice the positive. It might sound like:

                “I hate standing in this long line too. Sometimes when I have to do stuff I don’t like, I try to think about the good parts. Like all the good treats in our cart we can eat when we get home, or getting to hang out with you while we’re waiting. Is there anything good about this you can think of?”

                To help your children practice gratitude, have them complete our 7-Day Gratitude Challenge (part of the Challenges Kit). You will see a big difference in your kids’ attitude by the end of the challenge!   

                gratitude challenge printables

                In moments of dissatisfaction, we can empower kids with several key questions:

                • What can you learn from this?
                • How would you like things to be?
                • How can you take it there?

                Instead of complaining or blaming outside forces, show kids that the power for change is inside them. They can take the responsibility for making it better!

                RECAP

                Complaining and whining are natural responses. But aside from being tough to listen to, they are not the healthiest options. Start by comparing your child’s whining voice to their “strong” voice, and give it practice. When kids complain more frequently, simply listening and validating their words is the first step in shifting their mindset.

                Brainstorm things to be grateful for during undesirable moments, and lighten tensions by finding their (and your) silly side. Before you (both) know it, you’ll be focused on the good again!

                growth mindset printables

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                3 comments

                • Great article, thank you! I especially loved the part about asking the child “are you wanting to vent or do you want to make a plan.” Such a good tip!
                  Oh -I tried to pin a couple images but it said the Pinterest URL was empty. Just a heads up! :) Thanks for all you do!

                  Leila
                • Thank you for this article! This might be one of the most helpful set of teaching methods and printables yet! When we learn to see our children’s mistakes and whining as them seeking guidance and just learning to express themselves, it deflates the annoyance and helps the parent reconnect and in tune into what their child is really trying to tell them. Every parent should know and be able to practice these before their kids become toddlers!

                  Nancy
                • I’m trying to download the jar of awesome printable but when I put in my details it tells me I have already joined. I can’t find the printable anywhere else on the above blog? Thanks

                  Bridget

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