If your child habitually whines or pouts, it's important for parents to withdraw attention from the child when either behavior occurs. Not only are whining and pouting irritating and unbecoming, they don't help children communicate effectively. If a child whines because she isn't first in line, or pouts because he doesn't have the coolest team shirt to wear, peers will scoff and teachers will just ignore it. In fact, most whiners and pouters quickly realize that it's only with mom or dad that pouting and whining is an effective attention-getting technique.
How does whining and pouting begin? Toddlers who haven't acquired language skills use gestures, facial expressions and vocal intonations to communicate their wants and needs. Two forms of such nonverbal communication include whining and pouting. It's normal and natural for parents to pay attention to their toddlers' use of nonverbal communication to tell parents of their needs, wants or feelings of disappointment, frustration, or sadness.
When toddlers do so, parents need to put the feelings into words: "You're disappointed I won't read you another story tonight." "You're frustrated, you want all the trucks. You don't want to share even one with your cousin." "You're sad because your friend has a new toy and you don't."
When parents put a toddler's body language into words, as language develops, the child learns to use words rather than whining and pouting.
Some parents, unfortunately, continue to focus on the whining and pouting child beyond the time when the child actually could be using words to communicate. Worse yet, some parents reinforce the behavior by reading the extra story, not expecting the child to share or buying a new toy. And whining or pouting becomes embedded in child's communication repertoire.
It then continues into the preschool years and sometimes even into the school years. By then these behaviors have become habitual and tough, though not impossible, to break.
If you find yourself controlled by your child's whining or pouting, there only is one way to eliminate it. You must ignore it. You must say to your child in a matter-of-fact tone, "I can't talk to you when you whine." Or, "I can't talk or look at you as long as you're pouting." Or, "I can't understand you when you whine; I don't know what you're trying to tell me," then turn and walk in the opposite direction.
Or, "If you need to pout, go in your bedroom and do so," and then escort your child to his bedroom.
When you take a strong stance against this behavior, understand, your child will be furious. For years you've been paying attention and indulging your child and now you're changing your response to these behaviors. Children feel safe when life is familiar and predictable; withdrawing your attention for these behaviors will throw your child into a whirlwind of irritating antics to bring you back to your old way of responding to whining and pouting.
It's best to warn your child ahead of time that you no longer will be responding to whining and pouting. Practice with your child to find and use her regular voice. It takes from three days to three weeks to change a child's whining and pouting ways. By doing so you're doing your child a favor by allowing him the opportunity to learn more effective ways to communicate.
Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at email@example.com or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.