What is your child REALLY telling you when they whinge?

whingy upset boy

Whinging is one of the most frustrating parts of parenting – the sound is enough to make us want to cry. But what is the best way to deal with it?

whingy moaning crying child
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irritated grumpy angry child
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I was talking to my neighbour outside my house at the peak of a stressful lockdown, when she lovingly joked that if her son didn’t stop whinging all the time she was going to murder him. This got me thinking about whinging and whining in children – why do they do it? Are they just trying to wind us up? Are children naturally whiny? Come to think of it, are humans in general naturally whiny?

I believe the answers are no. Everyone has good days and bad days, and in all honesty if you listened to me on some occasions I can guarantee you would think I was a total whinger (obviously, that would be rare… *cough*). But people who are happy and have their needs met are not usually whiny, and this is no different for children. Of course, younger children or those with less developed communication skills are likely to spend a larger proportion of their time crying and moaning, as they are unable to express their needs effectively in any other way: this is how they ensure their survival in the form of a reaction from their caregiver. Yet why would a child of an age you would not expect to whine – those children who can talk and communicate fairly well – continue to whine?

What is a whining child trying to tell us?

unhappy whining sulking child
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Behaviour is always communicating something. I believe that whining is a symptom of an unmet need: one that a child either can’t, won’t or feel they shouldn’t express, or possibly doesn’t even recognise in themselves. It could be something internal such as a bad thought they haven’t expressed, and environmental factor which is agitating them, or a build up of excess energy.

Here are some of the things I believe your child may be trying to communicate if they are spending a lot of time in a whiny or moany state:

sad miserable unhappy child
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  1. I’m bored’. This one is likely to be quite obvious, but you’d be surprised what boredom drives children to do – from hitting their brother for no reason, to shouting about the smallest of things. You can usually spot this fairly easily, but at the same time it is not always apparent: for example, you may believe your child has a lot of toys to play with, but they may feel overwhelmed with choice or unable to find their favourite toy. Boredom can be really great for children’s creativity and imagination, but too much can cause children to be whingy. You could try suggesting some activities for your child to complete, or have a ‘boredom jar’ with written down ideas of things to keep your child entertained – they may not even do the activity they pull out (or may do the 5th suggestion), but even the act of going to the jar gives them something to do and may just spark their inspiration.
  2. ‘I’m tired’. I can always tell when my eldest child is tired, as his sense of humour goes out the window and his patience is much shorter than usual – but even at 11, he very rarely says the words ‘I’m tired’. Sometimes you know and expect your child will be tired, for example if they have had a late night visiting friends, and you can plan for this accordingly. If you suspect this may be why your child is whingy but without good reason, make sure they have lots of rest time to feel better, and encourage them to reflect on why they may be tired so it is less likely to happen again.
  3. ‘I’m hungry / thirsty’. Children are often so busy wrapped up in what they’re doing, they forget about their basic needs, such as eating and drinking. Dehydration and hunger have some really bad side effects, including irritability. If you suspect this may be the case with your child, ensure they have a drink and a snack, and see if this makes a difference.
  4. ‘I’m uncomfortable’. Again, sometimes children neglect their own basic needs, and don’t realise when they are getting uncomfortable; for example overheated or cold. It may be simply laziness (‘I can be bothered to go back inside to get my coat’), discomfort (‘my coat makes it difficult to run’), or simply the fact they haven’t realised quite realised their need (‘my foot keeps hurting but I didn’t realise there was a stone in my shoe’). Feeling uncomfortable in any form can make children very agitated and grumpy, so if your child is particularly whiny it might be a good idea to check if they are uncomfortable in any way.
  5. ‘I want attention’. Children who are craving your attention rarely come to you with a sweet smile and a flower, asking politely to play with you. Instead, they often get grumpy and whiny, and start doing things to irritate you so you notice them – it is a fact of life that many people notice negative things over positive, without meaning to do so. If you have a spare 5 minutes, consider suggesting an activity you could do together with your child, or make time for an uninterrupted chat.
  6. ‘I feel anxious’. Children who are worried about something will often act in peculiar ways, that will sometimes be displayed in whingy behaviours. If your child is whiny, try considering if there is anything they are worried about, for example an upcoming test or a busy birthday party. Having a chat which is fee from distractions can often help, and it provided your child with an opportunity to talk.
  7. ‘I need to move’. Children with built up energy want to bounce off the walls, but our home rules and environment don’t always allow for them to move as much as they would like. Consider going out for a walk, doing some sports or having a dance if your child may by whingy because they have too much energy.
  8. ‘I feel unwell’. Children might not always recognise they are feeling unwell at first, but feeling poorly can leave children groggy and whiny. You will probably notice if your child is starting to feel unwell, but it is always worth just having a feel of their forehead or considering allergens in the environment.
  9. ‘I need positivity’. Sometimes, we all just need a bit of positive reinforcement – that well done, or the hug after a long and stressful day. Children who are feeling a little down or lacking a good sense of self-esteem may feel particularly miserable and moany, so it might be wise to check your child is receiving enough positivity in their lives.
  10. ‘I am reacting to something bad in my environment’. This one is sometimes quite hard for adults to accept, as we never want to think that we would be negatively affecting our children in some way. However, if you are having a rough patch with your significant other or going through a stressful time which is affecting your patience, your children will notice and they will react. Try considering if there is anything that could be improved at home so make things easier to manage for your child.

I hope this helps you to consider some of the reasons why your chid may be more whiny that usual, and supports you to come up with some solutions. It may take a little effort to improve things at first, but you will get there with consistency and the desire to improve.

You are doing a great job growing as a parent – it is the toughest job in the world, but you can ace this with a little love and support (which is why I’m here, hopefully).

Love, Heather x



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Author: Heather

I am a parent and teacher, as well as a parenting blogger.

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