A: This is a situation I think virtually every parent can relate to. Small children can be a rollercoaster of emotion, and sometimes it feels like we're just along for the ride. Incidentally, I've had plenty of occasion to practice addressing this behavior in the past few days, so I really feel like I'm in the trenches with you.
If you think your child is attention seeking, check out this blog post. It goes into detail about what to do when your child wants your attention. If that doesn't seem to fit the bill, read on for some suggestions.
1. Say Yes as Much as Possible & Let Your No Be Your No
Do toddlers truly need to be told "no" 400 times per day? I doubt it. Sometimes we reject our children’s ideas or suggestions without thought. Sometimes it's because it will make a mess or we know it won't work. Sometimes it’s because we have a list of arbitrary rules in our head that we’ve never actually examined for relevance. But when we can say yes, we ought to. Children learn by trying and exploring. The less we can stand in the way of that, the better.
Clearly there are times when we have to tell our children no, and it’s important that we don’t shy away from that either. When we’ve made an effort to say yes as much as possible, our no will hold more weight, and we’ll be confident that we are giving it for a good reason.
Some parents struggle with setting limits because they want to avoid the whining or meltdown it might induce. As a result, they say yes when it really isn't in their child's best interest or respond with a no and then quickly cave. These are issues we need to address in order to create healthy boundaries for our children.
2. Wish Fulfillment
My son loves this and usually picks up where I leave off, “Yeah, I’ll have a whole room just for cheddar bunnies! I’ll eat cheddar bunnies at every meal! I’ll have a cheddar bunny bed!” Dr. Markham explains why this approach can help, “Imagining that our wish is fulfilled actually satisfies us for the moment, meaning our brain actually looks satisfied on a brain scan!”
3. Let it Be
Yesterday, however, was a different story. He demanded a cookie after skipping lunch because his stomach hurt. I told him no, and he brought it up many more times over the course of the afternoon. I answered him the first few times he asked, and by the fourth time I let him know I understood he wanted a treat but that I’d given my answer and wouldn’t continue to discuss it. It didn’t stop him from asking, but I didn’t waste my energy having the same conversation endlessly.
If your child’s whining and crying is a strategy for trying out getting what she wants, let her try it out! Kids will experiment with all kinds of skills and strategies over the course of their lives. It’s how they learn what’s effective and what’s not.
The good news is that you don't have to do anything about it. They can feel how they feel, and we don’t need to change, fix, or stop it. Once we’ve held a limit with compassion and respect, we can just wait or go about our business. We don’t have to drop everything, nor does our energy have to match theirs. We can calmly say, "Sweetie, you're welcome to take as long as you want to have your feelings about that, and when you're done I’ll be here."
4. Be Playful
We had a period where my son would yell, “You’re a bad mama!” each time I had to set a limit. The first ten times or so, I calmly explained why this was unacceptable. Eventually I realized that was getting me nowhere. Instead I started saying, “Someone call the police, we’ve got a bad mama on our hands!” This response would make him giggle, and the whole thing would be over. After a couple more times, he stopped saying it altogether. When he saw that I didn’t take it seriously, he stopped using that approach.
In this scenario, because it’s bedtime, a playful response might sound something like, “YAWN, your crying is lulling me to sleep. I’m just going to lie down here and...SNORE.” Kids respond to silliness, and it diffuses the tension that whining can induce in us.
Some children naturally move on more easily and some have laser focus. Both qualities have their advantages and disadvantages. If you have a child who isn’t quick to let things go it can certainly feel more exhausting, but just remember that this is a skill which will serve her well throughout her life.