Q: My 8-year-old whines and makes negative remarks about everything — whether we're eating dinner, doing puzzles (which she loves) or going on a bike ride (which she also loves). What do you think is happening?
A: What do I think is happening with your whiny 8-year-old? I have no idea, but let’s start with why children might be negative.
The first thing that comes to mind is the “temperament scale,” which describes how we approach and react to the world. A person’s temperament is considered set at birth and remains relatively stable throughout life. The environment and parenting, as well as brain mechanics, can magnify or diminish these temperament traits, but they are considered unchangeable.
One of the temperament traits is “quality of mood.” This trait essentially looks at the degree of optimistic or negative reactions a child has to the world. The scale indicates whether the child appears to be more pleasant or glum in social situations, more friendly or unfriendly, and more smiling or whiny.
Although Americans are obsessed with everyone being positive and optimistic, the truth is that some people are born more serious. And that’s okay. The world needs people to be different. But it can pose challenges if you are a positive, upbeat person raising a child who is more reserved and negative. This could even panic you, the idea that your child doesn’t see the world as you do. You might say: “Why are you worried about the clouds? It’s not going to rain, and we are riding bikes. You love this,” or “But you wanted to come to the park and see your friends. Why aren’t you saying hello?” If you are a friendly and outgoing person, parenting a low-mood child can drive you crazy.
So my question to you is: Was your daughter born this way, or is this a new development?
If she was born whiny and negative, you are going to have to find a way to connect to her despite her mood. It isn’t as though low-mood children don’t enjoy life or don’t have friends or don’t love certain activities. They just don’t immediately respond to life the way a positive person does. Don’t react to the negative remarks toward cheerleading (“Remember? You love puzzles! Woo-hoo!”) or rational thought (“When we were home, you were excited to go ride bikes, so explain to me why you’re whining right now”) or accusations and name-calling (“I don’t believe you are whining about this right now. It sounds really ungrateful and bratty”) or threats (“If you cannot get more positive about this activity, we are not going to do it again”) or exasperation and guilt (“All I do is try to make life enjoyable for us, and you never seem to care”) or anger (“I have had it! All you do is whine. I am sick of it!”).
I may have taken every tool out of your toolbox with that list, which leaves you with . . . staying quiet. I am not saying you have to go mute, but I am saying that parental commentary usually feeds our own ego, worry and anger more than it helps our children see the light of positive thought. If your child is going about her activities with some initial whining and negativity but then goes on to enjoy herself, maybe you can just let it go? I am not writing that lightly. I know how provocative whining and negativity can be. If you are conditioned to respond to your daughter’s every statement, the work ahead of you is tough (but worth it).
The other question that pops up for me: Has something happened recently that has precipitated this? Is there trouble at school? Is she having friendship issues? Has there been a transition or trauma or change at home? Because inside every child (every human) is the need to be seen and heard. It is so deep that it doesn’t really come through as a thought or feeling; it is more like an impulse. And this impulse will compel children to act out in any way that gets the attention they seek. So if your daughter whines and you pay a lot of attention to the whining, guess what you are going to get more of? You got it: whining.
Here is how it really gets messy: Every strategy of “nipping it in the bud” or “teaching the child a lesson,” while possibly working in the short term, serves only to heighten the negativity. And if you have a child who was born a little negative, paying attention to her only when she is negative or whining will get you more of what you despise.
My homework for you is to figure out whether your child was born like this, if there is something else going on in her life or if it’s a combination of both.
And a little something to remember: Children with a low mood tend to be sensitive. They might pay attention to the darker aspects of life, and that is okay. We need these people in our world. They can be excellent problem solvers (because they are looking for what will go wrong). These children are not easily duped, and their skepticism, though annoying as children, can be prized as intellectual and thoughtful when they are older. Pick up “The Highly Sensitive Child” by Elaine Aron for more help with understanding sensitive children.
More from On Parenting:
Online chat March 14 at 11 a.m.: Leahy will join On Parenting editor Amy Joyce to talk about parenting children of all ages. Submit a question now.