Sunday, September 26, 2010

What to do With a Whiny Youngster

This morning Kiddo and I got up early to let Joe sleep in a bit. It was pleasant; my boy was in Thoughtful Three Year old mode and sat working on pattern blocks while I fed Gus, our huge gray cat. Kiddo called me over to show me a flower he'd made with the blocks and then went to rummage through a basket of lacing beads for a string, knocking it over and sending beads onto the floor. Kiddo grabbed up the string and began to walk away. I gently reminded him that the beads needed to be put away. Instantly, Thoughtful Kiddo disappeared, bodysnatched by my other child, Whiny Kiddo.

Perhaps you haven't met Whiny Kiddo, so let me introduce you. Whiny Kiddo is who appears when Thoughtful Kiddo is tired, hungry, taxed-out, maxed-out, wanting all the attention in the room, a bit stressed with his new preschool and aftercare routine just because it's change. So when things get tough, many of those frustrated feelings come to the fore. They are overwhelming and sometimes, I have real tenderness and empathy. At other times, however, I find Whiny Kiddo to be very, very annoying.

These are the times that having a few pat answers can help, especially when I'm tired and Kiddo's near tears, trying to negotiate his way. This seems to happen most during transition times or when my attention needs to be elsewhere, making dinner or shopping or getting ready for preschool or bed. It's easy to get sucked into these seemingly-reasonable negotiating sessions because if it's going to make him stop crying, it's worth it, right?

While giving them what they want in the moment may be a quick fix, when it comes to the long term, the answer is Not Really. Parents often mean well when they acquiesce, and there are certainly some times for a little give and take. However, we are the adults and need to be in charge. Our kids need us to be firm; they count on having something to push against that doesn't always give way. Despite their tears, kids take comfort in the belief that we know what's best for them and plan on sticking with it. Heck, if we don't, who does?!

We all have to be benevolent bosses of our families--that's beyond dispute. And we know our best bosses work less from on high--they act more as a strong leader who supports their team on the playing field. Mom's team, however, can sometimes be whiny and want a lot, both materially and willfully, so it's great to have some quick, consistent deferral answers which provide structure and help our families stay in balance.

1. "Let me think about this for a few minutes, please." This one is great for buying time, and is often the first phrase I grab when I can't give an instant "Yes". Taking a few minutes to check in with what everyone needs: yourself, your child and your family or those around you is a valuable time-saver. Sometimes, you'll find yourself giving saying "I've thought about it and yes, it's fine ..." and at other times you can offer

2. a "Yes and Here's When" answer. When the request is perfectly reasonable but must be delayed, deciding when it can be fulfilled and then giving them this information is preferable to giving a "no" answer. Kids often don't hear beyond yes or no, so having a positive answer and then more definition can help to keep things light. For some children, this will be enough. For others, there may be more persistence to have their request granted immediately, and then you can reaffirm your decision while helping them move on by giving two positive directions--

3. "It's a good idea, so let's write it down so that we remember. Right now, this is what I have for you." Doing something concrete to acknowledge their desires while providing clear boundaries about what's happening in the moment can help some kids let go of their need to persist. Writing down notes feels good for kids if we are sure to follow through with them. When you are ready to do the desired activity, bring the note to their attention, read it again, and then do what it says. When we do this, children learn to trust this deferral technique as an experience which promises a positive outcome, and we stay consistent with what we've said we're going to be doing in this moment, which our children need from us.

Sometimes, in some moments, some of these techniques may not be employable--say, in the middle of a busy grocery store or traffic. Three year olds might be able to 'write' their idea on a Magna Doodle in the backseat, but there are just times when they are going to nag our ears off no matter how we empathize or positively promise "later". There are times at the store when they get a case of the GimmeGimmes and begin to nag. At this point, I usually like to ask the child a more reflective question

4. "I notice that you keep asking me about this. Do you think that if you keep asking, I'm going to change my mind?" At this point, the child is clued in to the fact that I understand what their intention is, and is listening and interested, which is what I want. (I have had several children of different ages give me a "yes" answer to this question, by the way.) Then I conclude with this simple statement:

5."I've been very clear with you that we are not (doing/buying) this right now and I'm not changing my mind. I'm all done talking about it. You can talk about it, but I'm all done."  Then, let this statement guide your parental actions. While the child is whining or nagging, ignore ignore ignore as best you can. Point out other interesting things to notice; if the conversation reverts back to whining, just reaffirm your statement  just once--"I said I was all done talking about this" and become mute on the subject for the rest of the time; don't get sucked into reminding them you are all done repeatedly, because it keeps the conversation going. We may have to use this phrase many, many times before our kids will learn to drop it sooner than later, but it's worth every bit of practice, and it helps us keep our authority with our children without being overly controlling.

Kids have the right to their desires, opinions and feelings, as do we all. The ignoring tactic doesn't completely ignore the child, it is an active ignoring, so we are actually listening for when the conversation turns around and then we can move forward with them, pleasantly. This also affirms to the child that they themselves are not really being slighted inasmuch as we are setting some boundaries around certain actions which we find unpleasant. We are actually giving a social context to the behavior-- people generally don't like to engage with others who whine, nag and complain.

We all want what's best for our kids, and it's hard to know what that might be in the moment. Taking a few minutes to decide what we need to happen, to choose how we want to defer their request if need be, and to think of the bigger picture gives us a chance to be better prepared for the upset, the meltdowns and the nagging. I'm not trying to be overly simplistic by the way--there are about a million variables here--but I think these techniques help us to be stronger as parents by giving us room to think, to predict, and to be an authoritative parent who is reliable and consistent. Our children appreciate flexibility on our end, and they also need us to say what we mean the first time. Waffling and giving in to whining actually makes them feel less secure, because they do want us to be firm and predictable. So, when in doubt, just ask them for a minute before answering. They'll learn to know that you respect them enough to give their desires due consideration before making a decision, and they'll learn to trust that you mean what you say.

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