How to Handle Whining and Talking Back

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Science has proven what parents already know: Whining is the most annoying sound on earth. A recent study published in the journal Evolutionary Biology found that when compared to other forms of speech, including baby talk, whining was uniquely distracting, causing listeners to tune in to the whining at the expense of other tasks. Another study from the State University of New York at New Paltz found that whining was more distracting to people attempting to solve a simple math problem than the sound of a table saw. Then there’s back talk, whining’s older and even more irritating sibling. While managing these frustrating utterances is a part of parenting, here are age-by-age tips to help dial down distracting and disrespectful communications.


Early Years

Whine Time

Whining is tough to ignore for a reason. According to a study by Evolutionary Biology, it serves an evolutionary purpose, attracting a primary caregiver’s attention just as a child leaves babyhood. In other words, it’s a way to attract babying once a child no longer requires it. That’s also why whining peaks at ages 3 and 4, and why it’s so often directed at a child’s primary caregiver. How should parents and caregivers respond to this cringe-inducing but biologically normal behavior?

First, remember that whining tots aren’t necessarily being disobedient, says Talya Mazor, a licensed school social worker at Triangle Counseling in Chapel Hill.

“It’s easy to think that children are being uncooperative when they’re really just acting their age,” Mazor says. “Good behavior is encouraged through positive parenting strategies, such as developing strong and affectionate parent-child relationships, offering descriptive praise and giving attention to positive behavior.”

Elementary Years

Sounding Off

You’re waiting at home for your fifth-grader to step off the school bus, eager to hear about her big test that day. After she’s arrived home and shed her backpack and coat, you gently inquire about how she did on the test. Her eyes roll to the ceiling and she retorts, “Um, how do you think?” before flouncing to her room and slamming the door. Disrespect often appears during elementary school as tweens begin to chafe at authority, test boundaries and try out new social personas. Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean parents should let it go unchecked, Mazor says.

“At this age, children are trying to grasp for some control in their lives,” she says. “Back talk is often an indicator of feeling disrespected, unheard and powerless.” It may also be a signal that parents should do more listening and less talking themselves. Mazor recommends holding family meetings to help tweens feel heard, building respectful communication skills through negotiation and taking turns, and encouraging teens to advocate for what they feel are fair rules and consequences.

Teen Years

School Rules

While younger children often reserve their most irritating whining and back talk for their parents, teens might act out toward a teacher or authority figure as a way to appear tough in front of peers. While parents may be shocked to hear that their formerly angelic child told a teacher to “blank off” (you fill in the blank), it’s important to keep a level head, Mazor says. Support the school’s disciplinary plan and don’t double punish, doling out additional consequences at home. Grounding your teen for mouthing off at school is redundant if a punishment was already given at school. Instead, allow the situation’s logical consequences to deliver the lesson. For example, when a teen displays a bad attitude toward a teacher, that teacher is less likely to grant the teen an extension on homework.

Parents should also model appropriate behavior. For example, don’t bad-mouth your child’s teachers or shirk the school’s rules, even if they are rules that you don’t happen to like. This parental self-discipline demonstrates to teens that there are some rules we all need to follow, like it or not.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.