Parenting Guide: How to Spot Whining Disguised as Sadness

By Greg Baer M.D.

February 16, 2024

A father wrote me:

“This morning we were playing in the yard, and my six-year-old, Ella, was drawing on the sidewalk with chalk.

"My nine-year-old, Aaron, spilled some water on part of her drawing, and Ella came crying to me that he had hurt her feelings.

"I told her I would talk to him, but she kept crying and saying that Aaron had hurt her feelings. 

"I told her she could be mad for only 30 more seconds, but then she would need to stop.

"I tried a whole bunch of other things to help her see what she was doing, but she was still very upset about her drawing being destroyed.

"I tried logic and listening and touch. It took her more than ten minutes to calm down. I don’t know if I handled it right."

Seeing Through the Sadness to the Whining: The Central Issue

This father got confused. Because little Ella kept talking about the drawing—through her irresistible tears—he thought the drawing was important, but no, it wasn’t. Ella played him all the way. With her tears, and whining, and blaming she convinced him that some terrible thing had happened. He even referred to her drawing being “destroyed,” but the drawing was irrelevant.

The central issue—the only issue—was his daughter whining. Drawings come and go, but whining tends to become a lifetime pattern, ruining happiness and relationships. For more than ten minutes, she manipulated him to talk to her, reason with her, hold her, talk to her some more, beg her, sympathize with her, promise to talk to her brother, and ignore his own promise that she could cry for only 30 more seconds. 

And with every word he spoke, every second she cried, he unintentionally CONFIRMED that she was RIGHT to be a victim and justified in crying and blaming her brother. He put her on the throne of victimhood.

How to Stop the Whining

I told the father that he had done the best he knew and to try this next time:

Ella comes to you wailing that her brother has ruined her drawing. Immediately stand up, look right into her eyes, take her by the hand, and say—with absolute confidence and no impatience—“Follow me.” 

Walk straight to the sidewalk, and as you gesture to a clean section of it, say, “Do you see any place that you could make another drawing?” Whether she nods or not, say, “Then make another drawing. Come and tell me when you’re ready to show me. I can’t wait.” Then return to your seat. Done, in almost every case no crying if you are confident and clear.

What if she keeps crying? Crouch down to her level and firmly—but with zero impatience—say, “(1) Would you like to make another drawing? OR (2) would you like to be alone in your room? Choose right now.” Over. Lesson taught.

Stuff we don’t like just happens. Then we can choose (1) to be happy OR (2) to whine and cry and be alone and miserable.

We can teach our children these lessons early in life, or we can let LIFE teach them, where the lessons are long and brutal.

How to Distinguish True Sadness from Whining

Dad wrote again: "How do I understand whether one of my children is experiencing genuine sadness instead of just whining?"

Two questions can help distinguish true sadness from whining:

  1. Was the loss truly important?
  2.  Was the loss permanent? 

So, by use of just those two criteria, you have a good indication that she was not crying from genuine sadness. SHE claimed sadness, but you're the adult. YOU get to TEACH her about the nature of loss.

It is your responsibility to teach her which losses matter and which do not. You don't ask her, because victims always act like everything is important and permanent. They always justify their victimhood. 

When a child is genuinely sad, THAT is when you comfort her. Her dog dies? Comfort. She falls and breaks an arm? Comfort.

She falls and skins a knee? Again, you don’t let HER determine what is tragic. You teach her that it’s just a skinned knee. It hurts, but nobody dies. The loss is not big and not permanent. No sympathy, just love and instruction. 

This is big stuff to learn as a parent. Our children are not experienced enough to know when a given discomfort is just part of learning, so we have to teach them to distinguish those minor pains from the losses that justify gut-wrenching pain.

Teaching a child how to avoid victimhood is lifesaving.

Want to learn more?

Eliminate confusion and conflict with your children.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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