QUESTION: My 5-year-old daughter’s whining puts me totally over the edge. How can I better handle this annoying behavior?

ANSWER: I get it! Whining is so hard to take. It’s super triggering and brings us straight to our “downstairs” brain where we have less (if any) self-control, which is ironic because that’s what we want to be modeling here!


A few things I often share with parents that may help:

  1. This is typical behavior. However, it’s also good to know that a whining child is actually a more regulated child than a tantruming child—this is why you start seeing more whining behavior as your child gets past toddlerhood and preschool. Whining is actually a sign that she is trying—and succeeding—at regulating her emotional system. That doesn’t fix the problem, but reframing can take a little of the bite out of it.
  2. Try to see the whining as a signal that your child is unsteady and in need of connection/support. Your responses to the behavior can be twofold—first is to address the need in the moment with as much compassion as you can muster while noting the needs:

“I heard you ask for a snack in your whining voice. That voice is so hard for me to listen to, but I know it means you’re struggling. Come here for a hug and then let’s get a snack.”

This is counterintuitive because behaviorism says to ignore the behavior (and not the child but that’s a common misconception), but if you are incapable of doing that, or it’s just not working….then a new approach is warranted. Second is to do some preventive connecting: 5-10 minutes a day: set a timer for Special Time and let her lead the play without your intervention or back leading. Just delight in whatever she’s doing and beam her with love. This is preventive medicine. It will feel like a long time and you’ll realize how much you usually lead the play (ask me how I know!).

3. Lastly, is to try bringing some humor and silliness—again counterintuitive—but when we are upset, tense, or tight about a behavior it tends to make our kids less flexible. Again, ironic as it’s not what we want! It might look like taking a deep breath and relaxing your shoulders from your ears and saying:

“Oh no! It’s Whiny McWhinerson again! Why are you back? You must be in need of 14 elbow kisses—that’s what the McWhinersons ALWAYS NEED! Sheesh, come here and give me your elbow.”

It seems a little silly, but moving to a playful approach conveys that you are able to handle her dysregulation AND hopefully gets her laughing which is another way to help her offload the tensions that are driving her to whine in the first place.

Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and the recently launched Raising Humans With Heart. Her writing has also been featured in The Huffington Post. Sarah is a human development nerd who brings over 30 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Reach out for parenting support via her “Get In Touch” page.