The Power of Respect: Whining and Tantrums

By Karen Ryce

Q:  “What do you do when your child is whining and throwing a tantrum?”

D.M., Briceland, CA

A:  When people whine or throw tantrums, they are only doing their best to get their needs met. Like many unpleasant situations, it is better to prevent this type of behavior than to try to stop it once it is already happening.

          When your child is very young, like two or three, you can do this by paying attention to your child the first time, or even the second time she asks a question. When you ignore or only pretend to pay attention while you are really doing something else, your child escalates her behavior.

          If asking does not get your attention, pulling on your clothes might, if that does not, maybe whining will, if that doesn’t, maybe crying or maybe throwing a tantrum.

          A very young child has not yet developed her ability to be patient to any great extent. She can develop patience more easily if she is confident that when she needs your attention, you give it.

          I’m not saying that you must agree to every request, or answer every question right at that moment, if that is not agreeable to you. However, if you make the extra effort when he is young, you might avoid years of dealing with whining and tantrums.

          If your child has often had to resort to whining or even tantrums to get your attention, eventually he gives up on the preliminary attempts of asking and goes right into whining or a tantrum. Isn’t that what any intelligent person does, he does what works?

          If you forget to give attention promptly, or are not able to, and you hear the whine start to enter his voice, take you cue. Give him attention right away. Even apologize, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t pay attention to you. What do you want?” When you’re talking with a child, it helps if you put yourself at eye level with her, squat down if necessary.

          If your child is older and has already established the habit of whining or having tantrums to try to get his needs met, it can be very helpful to discuss this with him. Arrange to talk about this sometime when he isn’t whining or having a tantrum and you are both feeling good. Explain to your child that all you want to do in this talk is to come to some agreement between you that you both feel good about.

          During your talk, make sure that your communications are clear. Check it out. Has your child understood what you meant? Have you accurately understood what your child means?

          “Do you understand that I mean every day?” “Does that mean that you want me to take you any time you want to go?” Brainstorm for solutions. Write them all down with the understanding that only a solution or solutions that you both like will be acceptable.


  • When she wants your attention, she taps you on the shoulder and waits, you look at her, nod your head and pay attention to her as soon as you can.
  • She’ll do her best not to whine. When she whines you’ll ask her not to whine, but you’ll still pay attention as soon as you can.
  • You’ll both do your best to find mutually satisfying solutions to all your problems. Sometimes you might not be able to reach agreement in one session, though usually the more skilled you both become, the faster you reach agreement, often taking just a few minutes or even less.

The time put into discovering win-win solutions reaps a bountiful harvest in peaceful, enjoyable, trusting interactions.

          Another thing to consider: listen to yourself talk, and the other significant people in your child’s life, his father, big sister…Any whining there? Remember children use the people who are important to them as models for their behavior.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Karen Ryce, the Miracle Worker of Education and Parenting, has used the Power of Respect for more than 35 years. She started a Montessori school in 1973, gives talks and workshops to parents and teachers.

Phone:   702-363-5564