Help. I'm really struggling with my four-year-old's whining

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock  

Question:

I'm a stay-at-home mom of three kids (5, 4 and 2). I'm really struggling with my 4-year-old's whining. He's in preschool for three hours a day, four days a week, but when he's home, he's constantly whining about wanting to watch TV or wanting to play with someone.

When my 5-year-old gets home from kindergarten, the 4-year-old will follow him around wanting to play, but my kindergartner is still adjusting to his full-day schedule and wants time to play on his own - which leads to a lot of fighting. I do play with the 4-year-old when I can, but I also have to care for my high-maintenance 2-year-old and make meals, do laundry, etc.

If it's a playmate he's after, I'll usually tell him I'll play after I'm done with X, Y or Z, but lately it's TV he wants (we have a two-hour-per-day screen-time limit that I usually save for strategic times such as making dinner). So, he'll whine, "I want to watch another show," a hundred times before I end up sending him to his room. There has to be a better way to address this, right?

Answer:

You, my friend, are in the thick of it. If you aren't chasing the 2-year-old, you are helping your 5-year-old transition into "big kid school," and in the middle of this is a whiny 4-year-old who needs something, but what?

When it comes to whining, it helps to think of it as a language. Your son is trying to tell you something, as annoying as it can sound. Our parental instinct is to shut it down and preserve peace at all costs, but to really cut down on the whining, we need to understand why he is doing it.

As I was reading your note, I thought of Alfred Adler, an Austrian doctor and psychotherapist from the early 1900s, who created an entire study around personality development, with a particular interest in birth order. Adler posits that when you are born in your family (first, middle, last, only) helps create a set of traits that lasts a lifetime. For instance, firstborn children are typically leaders, perfectionists, organized, people-pleasing and reliable. Last-born children tend to be sensitive, risk-takers and the life of the party. The middle children have the biggest variation of personality traits, and this is because they are playing catch-up to the older child while also feeling supplanted by the baby of the family. But middle children seem to share the personality traits of being attention-seeking and competitive.

Although I am not ready to rest every parenting issue you have at Adler's doorstep, I do think his ideas provide food for thought. For instance, you are witnessing your 4-year-old desperately trying to play with his big brother but being rejected. The 2-year-old is running you ragged (as toddlers do), taking all of your time and attention.

So, it is clear that your middle child is between a rock and a hard place.But other than jostling for his place in the family, why is he whining? One reason is that whining works! Children's brains (as well as ours) thrive on getting attention. And this attention can be good or bad.

Every time he whines for more TV and pushes and pushes, and every time you lose your patience and send him to his room, his brain says, "When I whine, Mom pays attention to me." And even though it makes no sense to us, a child would rather be yelled at than ignored. That's how powerful belonging and connections are.

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However, this is unconscious in the child's mind. Your 4-year-old is not mature enough to plan these behaviors; he is simply doing what feels right, even though it hurts both of you.

So, how can you help your son whine less?

  • Accept that you're in charge, not the 4-year-old.

We cannot place the burden of change upon the shoulders of a child this immature.

  • Set aside special time.

Special time is, essentially, playing with your son (no tech, please) for a discrete amount of time (10 to 30 minutes is perfect). Either of you can choose the activity. For special time to work best, try to adhere to a schedule. The more routine this time becomes, the more your son will begin to trust that you will keep up your end of the bargain. As the special times add up, you will begin to see him relax. You are filling up his attention cup and - this is important to understand - he didn't need to chase you for the attention. You are offering your attention with joy, regularity and structure.

  • Stop sending him to his room.

If connection is the problem, distance doesn't provide any resolution. I know he is boiling your blood, but you need to find a way to say your "no" to TV once and then not speak about it again. Don't offer other choices (unless he seems genuinely open to them), don't ask him to stop whining, don't threaten him and don't reward him for stopping; just wait it out. I know what I am asking is difficult, but it is the fastest way to extinguish the whining. Again, this will work only if you are upping the special time, snuggling, laughing, playing and positive attention.

  • Finally, do you need help?

You are in a pretty intense period in parenting, and a mother's helper could be a godsend. Please zoom out, look at your most stressful hours and ask yourself: "How can I bring some ease to these scenarios?" There are always support options. We mothers were never meant to go it alone.

Good luck.

Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.

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