By Nicole Gregory
The long, high-pitched sound of a whining toddler seems perfectly designed to pierce a parent’s brain. You just can’t ignore it—and that’s exactly why it’s the communication style of choice for little ones when they’re mad and frustrated with the adult world. For parents, it presents a complex challenge: how to respond to what the toddler really needs without allowing the whining.
What’s behind the whine?
Instead of reacting with annoyance to the whiner, consider what’s going on with him or her. “Take time to figure out the why of the whining,” says Claire Lerner of Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of infants and toddlers.
“The more you understand the underlying reason for the whining, the more effective your response will be.” Is your child tired or hungry? If this is the case, says Lerner, start by validating the child’s experience. “You can say something like, ‘I know you’re hungry and cranky. That’s okay, but I need you to use your big girl voice so I can understand you and help you.’”
Acknowledging a toddler’s frustrating situation engages her at a whole new level, and she will be more likely to stop whining if she feels that you understand. gettingalong
If she’s not hungry or tired, perhaps she just hasn’t had enough of your undivided attention, says Deborah Solomon, executive director of Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) in Los Angeles. “Parents are overburdened, and these days we’re trotting kids from one activity to the next.
If a young child whines constantly, he might need you to stop what you’re doing and get down on the floor and play with him,” Solomon says. When parents are pulled in too many directions, children lose the calm, focused, one-on-one time with their mothers and fathers that they need. “You can’t underestimate the value of giving a child undivided attention. When we stop and give a child our undivided attention, the message we’re sending is ‘You are important to me. I care about you,’” says Solomon.
If you don’t have an hour each day to do this, aim for 20 minutes, she suggests. And turn off the computer, the TV and your cell phone during that time. “Lila whines a lot when we’re rushing around doing things but not really being together,” says Nicole Paterson of Los Angeles, talking about her 21⁄2-year-old daughter. “She just wants my attention. She doesn’t want me to be looking at my BlackBerry or talking on the phone. When I realize she’s been whining over a couple of days, I take it as a clue that I need to get down on my knees and talk with her— really be with her. And it works.”
A child who constantly whines might have learned it’s the best way to get his parents to bend the rules. “Sometimes whining happens when children think there’s room to negotiate,” says Solomon, adding that parents need to set limits with toddlers— gently, fi rmly and consistently. “I see in some parents a reluctance to really be the parent.
They’d rather be their child’s friend.” But this doesn’t serve toddlers, who thrive when they know who’s in charge and what the limits are. Whether it’s no candy before dinner, no throwing food or no jumping on the couch, whining won’t be an attractive option for a toddler who understands that when his parents say no, that means no. If you sometimes give in to the whining about a particular rule and other times you don’t, that’s confusing to a child and will not help her make good choices, says Lerner.
What if you’ve already given in to your whining toddler more than you like? You can always change your behavior. “If a child has always gotten what he wanted with whining, then it will be hard to change that behavior at first,” says Karen Carter, M.D., a pediatrician in Augusta, Ga., who specializes in developmental behavior. “But if you state calmly that you’re not going to listen while he whines, then it will decrease,” she says. Keeping calm when confronted with a whining, upset toddler is key. “The more unemotional and matter-of-fact you can be, the better,” says Lerner.
A calm demeanor can diffuse the intensity of a child’s frustration. “You can say, ‘I can see you’re upset and I know you want something, but it’s hard to understand when you’re whining.’” It might very well be that you can’t give your child the strawberry ice cream cone she wants. Staying calm can help you both fi nd a solution. “You can respond by saying, ‘I can’t get that for you right now, so let’s think about what we can do,’” says Lerner. “This keeps the conversation positive.”
“I’m big on offering toddlers alternatives,” says Carter. “If you don’t allow candy before dinner, offer an apple. If you don’t want your child to climb up a dangerous fence, tell him he can play with his truck.” Don’t bother with long explanations about the rule in question. “Not being able to have what he wants is an emotional moment for a toddler,” says Solomon. “When an adult tries to explain to a small child rationally why it can’t happen, the two are missing each other completely.”
Redirecting a whining child can be effective, too. “My husband and I try to use a little humor and also get our son focused on something else,” says Susan McMahon of Putney, Vt., about her 5-year-old son, Aden. When Aden whines about not wanting to wash his hands before dinner, McMahon says her husband will offer to race his son to the bathroom to see who can wash hands first, and he quickly forgets about whining.
We all want our children to learn how to get what they need in a positive way. Whining undoubtedly gets your attention, but if you react with compassion, understanding and a consistent response, you can use it to guide your toddler toward a better way of communicating his needs. Nicole Gregory is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who has written for Family Circle, Los Angeles magazine, Weight Watchers and other national publications.
Go to the next page for quick tips:
When your toddler is whining:
• Stay calm.
• Be gentle but firm in your
• Ask her to use her big girl voice.
• Don’t get into long explanations
about why she can’t have the
thing she’s whining about.
• Suggest an alternative.
• Keep the conversation positive.
How to respond to your toddler’s needs without allowing the whining.