This obviously doesn’t work, and he often goes into full tantrum mode. Then I will take him away from the rest of the family, usually to his room, where I will sit in a chair looking at my phone until the tantrum turns into sad crying (when he starts asking for a hug), then I will hold him until he stops crying.
Is it okay to say that he needs to stop whining or screaming before he can leave his room and that it’s not okay to behave that way? Whining is a huge trigger for me (as it is, I assume, for most parents), so not screaming at him to stop after he has been going on for 10 minutes generally takes all my willpower.
I just can’t imagine being able to engage sweetly with him or in any way validating that behavior other than letting him get it out of his system and being extremely unemotional during the whole process until he’s ready for comfort. (He will not be distracted.) Is this an okay way to handle this?
A: Thank you for writing in; you are not the only parent triggered by whining, so let’s try to alleviate some of the suffering here. You don’t mention your son’s age, so I’m going to assume that your child is under 5, because you’re taking him to rooms.
The first thing to understand is that your parenting job is not necessarily to stop crying, whining or even tantruming. Although these acts are difficult to listen to, a young child cannot develop properly without moving their big emotions through and, when you’re little, all emotions are pretty big. You will notice that you don’t see much ambivalence in young children; they are living in the moment, and life is made up of small and big frustrations. These frustrations can lead to a little whining or full tantrums, and although this is “normal” behavior, we parents can make it better or worse with our own behavior.
My friend Sandi Lerman, who specializes in adoption and trauma, has a great tool for assessing the power struggles in your home: LIFT, which stands for length, intensity, frequency and triggers. You know you are triggered by whining, but I’m not interested in how to react to the problem; I’m interested in how to understand the issues and prevent them. LIFT will help you assess whether the situation is getting better or worse over time.
When using LIFT, you will quickly ascertain the patterns that are leading to greater upset. You say: “I will tell him that he can keep whining if he wants, but he has to do it in his room instead of at my feet or while trying to climb into my lap.” This is not the first problem, but even you admit that it leads to more upset. Giving a false choice — “you can whine, but not here” — will only lead to more frustration, and your child is not going to respond maturely. He’s little, remember? The other problem is that the deepest human need is to belong, so sending him away, even if you go with him but ignore him, as you say you do, will up the ante. (Hence the tantrum.)
I don’t think you’re doing everything wrong. Remember: Young children are emotional and often tired, and are therefore frequently tiring for us. I love that you are compassionately staying with him. (Don’t stop that.) Let’s refocus on the first no. Is there a way to say yes instead? This is not giving in to your young child; instead, this is getting in front of the power struggle. “Yes, you can have a snack before dinner. Here’s some cucumber.” Is there a pattern of something your child needs every night? Is there a routine that needs changing or an expectation that can be dropped?
When there’s nothing left to do but hold the boundary, please get on your knee, look your child in the eye, put a kind tone in your voice and say: “The answer is no. I know this is frustrating, and it’s okay to be upset about this.” Then keep your mouth shut and wait. Don’t keep justifying, don’t ask him to stop whining and don’t move him. Just stay nearby and stay loving. When he eventually cries, all you need to do is hug him.
I’m not going to lie to you: This is very hard work. If the whining grates on you, get some earplugs (seriously), plan to briefly remove yourself or arrange backup in the form of a partner, family member or friend. As you practice staying calm, your child is less likely to slip into the tantrums.
Go slowly, keep practicing and remember: You are both learning from each other. Good luck.