Meet the Need: Powerlessness

This blog entry is dedicated to my oldest son, age 21, who, until he was about 3, would, just as often as not, merely point and grunt for what he wanted, compelling his older sisters to carry him around until he got whatever it was that caught his eye. The sisters knew his language and responded swiftly to meet his need, giggling at how only they understood him. Why use words when you have sisters? I have to tell you, grunting wasn’t as much fun for me to hear, though, and I was happy when he outgrew this quirky little stage. But for our children who come from histories of loss, grunting or whining to express a need can be a symptom of deeper issues instead of, ‘I’m just too pampered to be bothered by words…”

Whiny children are overwhelmed children because they lack the internal resources to cope with what life is currently throwing at them. As much as we might think, they are really not whining to drive us crazy. They whine because they are on overdrive and can’t do better in the moment.

Prevention is always something to look at. A good way to prevent whining is to prevent their systems from getting overwhelmed in the first place. Make sure they aren’t hungry or in need of a protein-rich snack. Check if they are thirsty. Be a detective to identify the unique unique body signals your child demonstrates just before they are get overwhelmed, and notice if there are specific times of the day, or specific events that typically precede the whiny response. If you can identify specific situations or events, you may want to take a break from them for a little time, while you help your child work out their voice.

Give Your Child Voice to Feel Powerful:

There is a Catch 22 with whining because it is often due to feeling powerless that a child whines. So, if we are verbally harsh with them for whining, send them away from us, or we ignore their behavior in hopes it will go away without attention, this only increases their feelings of powerlessness, leading to more distress for them, not improved behavior. That is kind of an intense sentence. But then, this whining cycle is also intense.

The antidote is giving them more power.

Remember, you are really sharing power with your child, not giving up your power. Power sharing can come in the form of letting your child know he/she is heard even if you cannot give them what they want. “I know you wanted to go to the park today and you are so sad it is raining. It is hard when your plans get changed suddenly isn’t it?”

Your child will also experience power when you encourage a strong voice, such as “let me hear your big boy voice’ or, ‘let me hear your strong voice’. This lets them know you value what they have to say. Some parents have had success creating their own scripts to say to their child in the whiny moment, which they have taught to and practiced with their child at an earlier time, such as during family night.  Using a favorite toy, “Can you show me Stuffy’s ‘weak voice’?” (whining). “Can you show me Stuffy’s strong voice?” (asking with words). If you make a game with this during moments of calm, your child will have the language to understand what you are expecting of them in the hard moment.

Your child will love your playfulness and exaggerations when you ‘help’ the stuffed toy look for his voice “I wonder where Stuffy’s strong voice went? It was here just a minutes ago! Is it under the table? The chair? Hiding in the toy box?” After the toy finds its strong voice, practice asking for things in a strong voice.

You can then playfully use these same questions to your child when they first start whining. Playful correction keeps connection at the forefront and disarms their moments of distress.

Preemptive Connection:

Whiny children may feel alone in their powerlessness. We are created to connect. When something disrupts their connection with you (whether real or imagined) this feeling can easily overwhelm them with feelings of loss they cannot manage in healthy ways. Sometimes all it takes is your momentary attention directed at little sister, or them not getting something they want, to set them off spiraling into aloneness and despair.

Pre-emptive connection means you seek out connecting moments with your child before the need arises; you fill their ‘connection tank’ before it runs dry. This means you don’t wait for your child to ‘ask’ (which will usually be through whining or maladaptive behavior of some kind, which many parents call ‘attention-seeking behavior”) before you offer to snuggle, cuddle, or the teenager-equivalent milkshake run to McDonalds. You can build in connection rituals throughout the day and evening that your child can count on, to keep their tank full.

But you can also connect with your child at the first sign your child needs you, before behaviors really escalate. “Hey son, you look like you might need some one-on-one time with me, let’s go spend some time together.” No, this is not rewarding bad behavior, it’s meeting their immense needs for connection with you.

Be Aware of Parent Triggers:

The sound of whining can create anxiety in parents, not unlike scraping fingernails on a chalkboard. Be mindful of what’s triggering you, so that you can remain calm to be there for them in their need. A whiny child is a needy child. When we see whining as an indicator of a need instead of willful behavior, we can respond with compassion and connection. Don’t feel like you have to solve every problem (that just sets us up for failure) –  just let them know you are there for them. “I hear you. You are important. “

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