Whining and Negativity in a 9-Year-Old Girl

Anna wrote in:

My daughter is now 9, and I’ve noticed a steady increase in negativity in the past several months.  She has become whinier, she has an attitude (more “entitled”), etc.  The latest is whenever I don’t let her have her way she says “you’re mean”. We try to enforce manners, for example, saying thank you when we give her something, but even the thank-yous seem grudging. I have a feeling most of this is normal (I hope), but do you have any suggestions to help me modify her behavior?

I’d look at this two ways: First, is there a reason for the change, especially a reason you could address? And second, forgetting about any possible reason or whatever, what can you do about whining and negativity to change a child’s behavior?

Why do kids act like this? Sometimes, there really is specific reason. A new sibling, marital discord, medical problems, bullying in school, a friend moving away, not getting enough sleep, over-scheduling, boredom, attention-seeking… all sorts of things. I’m not sure it’s always obvious, or that it’s always possible to know *for sure* what led to a behavior change, but sometimes there really is a reason staring you in the face. Perhaps that’s worth talking about, or at least thinking about.

One of the most common reasons for negativity and whining is attention-seeking. If a child doesn’t feel like she’s getting your attention—maybe you’ve been preoccupied with work—she may develop, let’s say, “maladaptive” ways to forcing you to pay attention to her. In other words, she may become a pain in the ass not because she’s a pain in the ass, but because she’s figured out that the behavior gets what she craves: more attention. One way to “fix” this is by giving more attention, but not at times that reward the whiney and negative behavior (see this prior post, under “love,” for a method called “magic time.”)

But sometimes there really doesn’t seem to be a specific reason, or at least not one that you can easily figure out. Maybe it’s just a phase, or a “normal thing.” Even without worrying about the specific “why”, there are ways to help a child change this behavior:

#1: Don’t reward it. She’s looking for a reaction. Don’t ignore her, but don’t get into it, either. Be bland and boring and non-reactive to negativity, and it tends to go away.

#2: At the same time, do reward times when she’s not negative, or at least when she’s less negative. Make sure to not only tell her that it makes you happy to hear her say something positive, but (more importantly) do what it is she’s asking for, if she’s asking for it in a reasonably nice way. Now, sometimes you just can’t do this (“Mom, can I please have a bazooka? No.”), but other times you might be saying “No” a little too reflexively, because, I know, they never stop asking for things. Surprise them with a yes, or even better, with some happy silliness:


Good: Child: “I want a bubble bath!”

Mom: “No.” (Looks away, bored. Not a lot more talking and explaining and attention.)

Better: Child says “Can I have a bubble bath?”

You: “Good idea!”

Best:    Child says “Can I please have a bubble bath?”

You: “That’s a great idea! I know—why not take some shaving cream and spray it on the wall of the tub, too?”


You’ll also want to set a good example. Kids only sometimes, barely, pay attention to what we say. But what they really pay attention to is what we’re doing and how we act. If you’re whining and negative and complaining, don’t be surprised if your kids do that too. Your kids learn far more by watching and modeling what you’re doing than by listening to your explanations. Be gracious with your partner and all of your children, say your own thank-yous (like you mean it!), and maybe even try to work in other expressions of gratitude. Kids notice these things.

Don’t stay mad. This is a tough one—but children, they don’t think like we do. You might still be steaming over those dirty looks at dinner (It’s tortellini for God’s sake! Eat it!), but 20 minutes later your child is over that and thinking about other things. Giving her grief, then, isn’t going to help.

Use humor, too. I know it can be hard, but next time your child tells you you’re mean, make a bear face and say “I’m going to eat you!” and chase her around the house. Mmm, tasty child!

Another idea: talk with a child about what would work best. Not when she’s all upset and whiney, but at another time, bring it up. “Sweetie, you seem to get so mad sometimes, is there something I can do to help keep you happy?” You might just learn something.

Every age brings its challenges—it’s not just terrible twos, but terrible threes and nines and (OMG!) sixteens. Though chasing your teenager around pretending to eat her might not be the best specific idea for that age, the basic principles are the same. Look for causes, reward what you want to encourage, and ignore what you want to discourage. Use humor, and try to solve problems as a family. Meanwhile, remember to forgive. You have bad days too. You’ll make it through, together.

Hey! Some of the best—heck, probably all of the best—ideas I give parents come from you guys. What other advice do you have for Anna? What did I say that was stupid and off-base? Add a comment! You’ll be glad you did! Probably!

This blog was originally posted on The Pediatric Insider.

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD