Why Your Preschooler Whines And Cries And What To Do About It

Baby and Monster are four and three, respectively, which puts them right in that age frame where they whine ABOUT EVERYTHING. They whine when it’s time to go to sleep, they whine when it’s time to wake up, they whine when it’s time to eat, they whine when it’s too soon for them to have another snack. Whining and crying is a daily part of life. Thankfully, I spent several years in the field of human behavior management before I became a daddy, and I picked up a lot of great techniques. Here’s my guide on how to stop your preschooler from whining and crying all the time.

Sad Monster

Evaluate The Situation

Is the crying legit?

First things first. Before you try to put a stop to your preschooler’s whining and crying, you need to find out if your child is legitimately upset about something. Whining and crying can be a sign that they are sad, scared, sick, hurt, tired or even hungry. Run through a quick mental checklist:

  • Have they eaten recently?
  • Are they showing signs of getting sick?
  • Are they physically or emotionally hurt?
  • Are they too cold or too hot or wet?
  • Are they overtired?
  • Has something happened recently to make them sad or scare them?

You may need to ask questions, and your child may not always be able to provide satisfactory answers, depending on their communication level. Trust your instinct.

What do they want?

The reasons for most negative human behaviors fall into one of four broad categories. In the field of behavior management, these are known as behavioral modes. Whether it’s posting social media rants at 3 a.m., leaving passive aggressive notes for your coworkers to get them to clean out the office fridge, lying to your friends to get out of scheduled plans, or grinding your teeth when you’re stressed, they all fall into one of the four behavioral modes.

The same modes function in children. The first three are all common reasons for crying and whining in preschoolers, while the last is less common. They are:

  • Escape
  • Access
  • Attention
  • Self-stimulation

The trick is learning to evaluate which behavioral mode is driving the child’s whining and crying, and responding to it appropriately. This is usually obvious due to context clues — if you ask them to clean up their toys and they immediately start whining and crying, then it’s Escape. If they ask for a sugary treat and you tell them no and they start crying, it’s Access. A particular bout of whining and crying may have more than one reason.

The Four Behavioral Modes

Escape
The child is trying to get out of a situation they don’t want to be in. This could be escaping an environment like laying down for bedtime or escaping a task like putting away their toys. It could be because they don’t want to take necessary medicine, or because they want to be left alone.

Response: Remind the child that they need to participate in the unwanted task if they want to participate in things they like to do later. “You need to eat your dinner if you want to watch TVs before bedtime.” Note that this is NOT the same as offering a bribe — you aren’t offering an extra reward.

Focus first on stopping the whining and crying. Once the child is calm, steer them back to the task they were trying to avoid. This is important. They still need to eat their dinner. They still need to pick up their toys. If you don’t return them to the task, it teaches the child that crying and whining is a good way to get out of doing things they don’t want to do.

Access

The child wants something. It could be a snack, a favorite toy, to see a particular person, or go somewhere. Sometimes Access requests are reasonable, and sometimes they aren’t. Baby once had a fit because she couldn’t go to China, and Monster had one because her toy wand didn’t do real magic.

Sometimes, a child may start crying because they want continued access to something they already have — a toy they don’t want to share with a sibling, or because they don’t want to leave the play space at McDonalds.

Response: Focus on stopping the whining and crying first. Once the child is calm, encourage them to ask for what they want in a normal voice, without whining. If the request is something reasonable they can have, praise them for asking for it properly and then give it to them. If it’s an unreasonable or impossible request, explain why they can’t have it, then quickly distract the child with something else.

Attention

We all know this one. If the child isn’t trying to get out of anything and doesn’t want anything, they may simply be seeking attention. As babies, crying is their primary (and often only) way of getting attention of their adult caregivers. As their verbal skills develop, it takes time and guidance to encourage them to use their words and communicate their needs, rather than merely crying. They may not be able to communicate “I’m lonely!” or “I’m bored!” because their emotional vocabulary isn’t that broad yet, so they turn to crying to get what they need.

Important note: attention is neutral. Praising your child is giving them attention, but so is scolding, arguing, reasoning, or expressing your frustration with them.

Response: We want to encourage positive ways to seek attention (asking for cuddle time or play) while deterring negative ways to seek attention (acting out or whining). First, focus on stopping the whining and crying. Give the child a single firm command to stop, then ignore further whining. If they stop, praise them, then try to guide them towards a fun activity you can do together. If they don’t, try to ignore further whining entirely.

This can be tough, because it means enduring crying, possibly for long periods of time. However, over time the child will learn that not crying earns them positive praise and attention, while crying doesn’t give any attention at all.

Self-stimulation

Self-stimulation is a little harder to explain in the context of whining and crying. This behavioral mode is something the child does simply because it feels good or interesting. Examples in adults include things like clicking a pen or playing with our hair — the action has no real purpose, it’s just something we do because we enjoy it.

Generally, whining and crying isn’t the type of action that provides a self-stimulating function. However, if none of the other behavioral modes seem to be driving the whining and crying, then it may be self-stimulation.

Response: Interrupt the whining and crying and provide a fun distracting task, such as playing a game or watching a fun video. You may need to try several distractions and gently prompt the child to focus on it.

7 More Tricks To Stop Crying and Whining

1. Interrupt Early

I interrupt Baby and Monster the moment they start making that sound. You know the one, that closed-mouth whiny groan that herald the beginning of a whining and crying fit. I tell them explicitly that if they start whining and crying, we won’t do a fun activity we have planned or later, or that they’ll lose access to a toy they enjoy. For example, when I built them a cardboard race car, I told them if they started whining and crying, I would dismantle it and they wouldn’t be able to play any more.

Throughout the day, every time they started showing signs of whining, I gently reminded them about the race car. We got through that whole day without a single whining or crying fit.

2. Provide Choice

Rather than simply telling the child to stop crying, give them the choice between crying or doing something else. “You can stop crying, or you can go lay down in your room.” At ages 3 and 4, children are looking for independence. Giving them a choice allows them to retain that independence.

3. Change Environments

When Monster or Baby starts crying, one of my first steps is to have them come with me to another room. When you have multiple children, one of them whining and crying often leads to the others doing so as well. Separating them helps keep the whining from spreading. Changing environments provides a mental interrupt — you have to think about where you’re going, and that provides a distraction. This is helpful in public, too — take the child to a restroom or outside.

If the whining and crying is fueled by a desire for attention, this also allows you to control the size of the audience and provide the child less attention while the negative behavior persists.

This is even useful if the whining and crying is fueled by a desire to escape a task or environment — just make sure you bring the child back to the task once they’ve calmed down.

4. Don’t Bribe or Beg

Avoid offering your child treats or toys in exchange for stopping. Saying “I’ll give you a cookie if you stop whining” just teaches the child that they can start whining in order to get offered a cookie or other treat.

Instead, tell your child about fun things you’re going to do later in the day. These don’t have to be unique events — they can just be things like telling them that you’re going to put on Moana or Frozen or another fun movie for them after dinner. When they start to whine or cry, remind them of those fun things you’ve been telling them about all day.

If you want to reward your child, do so as a surprise. Give them a treat or toy and explain that they deserves it because they were so good and didn’t whine all day. Don’t do it every time, though — studies show that intermittent rewards are more effective at encouraging good habits than regular rewards.

5. Use a Commanding Tone

When you instruct the child to stop, use a firm tone of voice. We all know this voice. It’s the one your mom uses when she uses your whole name.

Speak clearly and concisely and tell the child exactly what they need to do. “You need to stop crying right now.” Do NOT scream or yell. You don’t even need to speak loudly — a firm, gentle command is vastly more effective than shouting.

6. Control Yourself

Whining and crying is irritating and abrasive and it really gets on your nerves, especially when you’ve had to listen to it for hours or days on end. That’s really what it’s designed to do — babies and small children cry so they can get what they need from adults, and being so annoying gives adults an incentive to make it stop.

But getting yourself worked up over it and becoming increasingly frustrated with your child isn’t helpful. Try not to take your child crying too seriously, and if it starts getting to you too much, try to find a few minutes to clear your head — go to the bathroom, watch something relaxing after they fall asleep, and focus on the good things. Obviously, this is easier if you have a helpful partner who can take over while you collect yourself.

7. Pick Your Battles

You’re not going to be able to stop your child from whining and crying every single time, and you shouldn’t. Whining is a typical part of growth for a three or four year old, and while the techniques above can help, it’s a behavior that largely they just have to grow out of.

Learn to accept it, and find humor in the odd things they decide to pitch a fit about.

Sometimes, whether for your sanity or because you’re sick or overwhelmed, you don’t have the time or patience to carefully respond to a bout of crying, and that’s okay. Just do the best you can, when you can.

Advice From Other Parents

Here’s what the rest of the Internet says about preschooler whining and crying:

What Are Your Tips?

Do you have a whiny preschooler? What things have you tried to curb the whining? What works? What doesn’t?

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