When Whining and Grumpiness Start to Take Over

You have probably heard the phrases terrible twos and threenager and that’s because of the grumpiness, whining, and tantrums associated with this age group. These young children are staring to develop more complex emotions and they just aren’t sure how they are supposed to deal with them. It’s our job to figure out how to teach them good coping mechanisms and keep our cool as we face the wrath that can be inflicted by these sweet and sour monsters.

Setting Boundaries

In this section I will reference several comments made by Doctor Richard West during an interview that was published on the Parenting Magic Facebook page, if you have time to review the video it is packed full of great tips. Make sure that boundaries are clear and that you are not giving in when your child is whining or tantrums; in the video Dr. West describes this as a “drought-resistant” behavior. He states that if your child tantrums for ten minutes and you give in on the eleventh minute then you are essentially teaching your child that they need to tantrum for ten minutes to get what they want. It extends the behavior and makes it more difficult to re-direct your child. He suggests that we remove the support for the behavior and make it less productive. He suggests stepping back and asking what we are doing to support or encourage this behavior. Reacting to the situation and telling the child to stop the behavior can inadvertently act as fuel in these situations. We need to encourage good communication so the child can express their problem without becoming overly emotional.

When my son is testing the boundaries I like to ask him reflective questions such as “have I ever let you get what you wanted because you were whining about it?” This way he recognizes very quickly that this isn’t an effective method and we can talk about the problem instead. Doctor West also suggested making sure we are periodically teaching our child the skill of accepting no for an answer without whining or complaining.

Do Role-Plays

I will often do quick role plays with my son to help him understand how his behavior is impacting others. My son used to get upset and throw a fit when his friends would say goodbye. So we role played different responses in order for him to understand that responding with an outburst when a friend says goodbye may make his friend feel that he is angry with them.

Like most three year olds my son will ask for one thing and then quickly change his mind. We had several situations the last few months when he would ask for something to eat, I would make it, and then he would complain about it. Working through role-plays and helping him to understand that his behavior was making me feel frustrated and unappreciated helped him to change his behavior. Now when I double check that he wants milk in his cereal and not in a cup, something that was an issue previously, he will say “yes and then I will say thanks mom!” I then provide positive reinforcement for him by saying “that is so nice, that makes me feel happy to hear that.”

Find the Root of the Problem

Last Friday my husband was gone for an overnight trip and my three year old was really upset that he couldn’t go too. This emotion he felt from being left behind lead to very grumpy, rude, boundary testing behaviors. I was able to talk my son through his emotions and explain to him that although he was upset about not going on the trip that did not make it okay for him to misbehave. I suggested that we make our own fun and try to have a good time by ourselves.

Is your child sleeping enough? When my children’s sleep schedules are thrown off it causes them to be more whiny and grumpy the next day. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize that their bad behavior is stemming from tiredness and not to get sucked into their trap of negative emotions.

Is it a physical problem? If your child is in some kind of physical discomfort that can express itself as whining, grumpiness, and tantrums. Maybe they are getting their molars; they have an earache, constipation, an upset tummy, or growing pains.

Are they not getting enough positive attention? If a child isn’t receiving enough attention they will act out in order to get it because negative attention is still attention. Try to make sure that you are focusing on positive attention and a few minutes of one-on-one time each day.

Are they frustrated over a problem? My son often tantrums when a problem arises. He becomes very frustrated and has a difficult time processing his emotions. I try not to swoop in and solve the problem for him, instead I encourage him to calmly solve the problem on his own and ask for help if he still needs it. I also follow up with positive reinforcement when he works through a difficult problem on his own. Sometimes I will remind him that although he is frustrated and having a difficult time, complaining and whining won’t help solve the issue. Very rarely he will continue to whine and be frustrated over a toy. I will give him a warning to stop before removing the object for a time.

Is it boredom? Often children will start acting out more if they are bored. You can combat this by changing the activity, go outside and play, go for a walk, have them make cookies with you or see if they want to be your helper.


I love this parenting trick. There are so many applications for giving your child two choices that end in the same outcome. Let’s say your child is not listening well when it’s time to change for bed and he/she starting to whine. You can say something like “do you want to wear your space pajamas or your moose ones?” This way your child is focusing on the choice they get to make instead of fighting you about changing their clothes. When my son is struggling with going back in the house after playing outside I will say “do you want to close the garage or do you want me to do it?” This works well for us because he is always excited to reach up for the button and close the garage and it helps him forget about not wanting to come inside.

Like I said, it’s normal for kids this age to struggle with their emotions, these are new and difficult for them, I mean not even all adults appropriately manage their emotions. It’s important that we teach them that it’s okay to feel frustration, anger, disappointment, etc. but it’s not okay for them to act out and mismanage their feelings.

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