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.
Here are some strategies to help kids express their dissatisfaction in healthier, more positive ways.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download the FREE Our Gratitude Tree. Take this opportunity to rethink gratitude and authentically teach children to appreciate what they have. Use this activity to jumpstart conversations and actions around appreciation for one another and how grateful you are to have each other as a family.
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 them 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 or calm voice inside everyone. How does that voice sound? Practice asking for things with a calm voice. The one that sounds 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.
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 their 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 them.
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.
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 the 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.
Don't forget to download the FREE Our Gratitude Tree to help authentically teach children to appreciate what they have and how grateful you are to have each other as a family.
6. Respond Playfully
Playfulness and silliness come naturally to kids. Even during their toughest moments.
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, the 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!
Write your child an encouraging message using one of our growth mindset notes. Share something positive you've noticed about them!
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 get to hang out with you while we’re waiting. Is there anything good about this you can think of?”
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 responsibility for making it better!
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!