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Childhood Behavioral Concerns: How to Stop Whining in Its Tracks

I love so many things about my children, but there are definitely some things I could live without. Whining is one of those things.

Every time I hear one of my kids say, “I want some candyyyyyyyyyy,” with a nasally voice, I feel my skin crawl.

It’s just such an ungrateful, entitled way to talk. Or it’s a dramatization of undesirable circumstances.

Either way, it raises my blood pressure.

So about six months ago, I decided we were done with whining. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get it to stop, but I knew my sanity needed it to happen.

The first thing I did was decide what the function of their behavior is.

There are four functions of behavior, and they’re the root of all decisions made by a person. They are seeking attention, escape/avoidance, sensory input, and seeking access to tangibles.

Whenever a person behaves in a certain way, they’re motivated by one of those four things.

When I get up for work each day, I’m motivated by seeking access to tangibles (a paycheck) and by seeking attention (recognition for my work). When I’m kind to people, it’s avoidance of conflict and again seeking attention (recognition for my attitude). When I get grumpy with my husband and say something grouchy to him, I’m either motivated by by seeking attention (negative attention to prove a point) or escape/avoidance (escaping admission of fault).

All behaviors are motivated by those things, and kids are no exception.

For my kids, when they were whining, they were motivated by all four of the functions of behavior, at various times.

When they wanted a piece of candy, they were seeking access to tangibles. When they were whining because they were sleepy, they were usually seeking sensory input without even realizing it. When they were whining because I asked them to clean their room, they were trying to escape/avoid something. When they were whining while I was on the phone, they were seeking attention.

Only you can determine what their function of behavior is, but the response to each of them can have a very common, very useful, thread.

When they’re seeking attention, remove your attention from them. Teach them that they cannot get your attention that way. Eye contact is reinforcing, talking to them is reinforcing, and huffing at them is reinforcing. Don’t give them any of it.

When they’re trying to escape or avoid something, try setting a timer for them and tell them that they need to be started on whatever they’re avoiding before the timer starts beeping or they’ll get double the expectation. (Make sure this is age appropriate for what they’re capable of.)

When they’re getting sensory input out of whining, replace that good feeling they’re getting with something even better. Give them a nap, or food, or a break, or whatever it is they actually need.

When they’re seeking access to something by whining (such as candy or a toy), remove the access from the item entirely and stop having conversations about it. Move on to something different and wait patiently for them to move on, as well. Once they stop whining, they can start regaining access to that item.

You never need to yell. You don’t need to show them that you’re overwhelmed. In fact, most of the time, showing children your emotional status just teaches them that they are responsible for your emotional well-being.

You only need to be consistent, calm, and dedicated to the expectation you’ve spoken.

The one common thread that all of these approaches need to have is that the whining should NEVER get the child what he or she is seeking.

(Note: Sensory input can get complicated, but try to keep it simple. Don’t let them get their input from the whining. Help them get it from something healthier.)

If you give in and give them what they’re seeking, even once, they’ll learn that it works. It might not work every time, but it will probably work often enough that it’s worth trying.

For them to understand that it’s not going to work, and that it’s not worth their effort, it has to NOT work enough times that they think all hope is lost.

After an extinction burst (when you first try this new technique, their behavior will get worse for the first few times), they’ll finally start to understand that they need to change their tactic. Then they’ll start trying something new, which will hopefully be what you’ve guided them into (e.g. getting your attention by other means).

Make your plan ahead of time! What are you going to do the next time one of your children starts whining?

Have a plan for each of the motives, and try to think through which scenarios are motivated by which of the functions. Be as prepared as you can, and then when the moment arrives, take your time reacting so that you can do it correctly.

You can succeed!!

Childhood Behavioral Concerns: How to Stop Whining in Its Tracks

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2018). Childhood Behavioral Concerns: How to Stop Whining in Its Tracks. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Feb 2018
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