elevating child care

Why The Whining? (And 5 Steps To Eventual Peace)

A child whining, specifically my child whining, has got to be the most torturous sound I can imagine.  I’d rather be trapped in a car with the alarm going off, or locked in an Urban Outfitters dressing room with that monotonous techno music they play pulsing at full blast…  Maybe that’s because whining is not only earsplitting — it makes me feel intensely pressured to do something, to fix something NOW. (I know, enough whining about whining.)

Getting our attention and unnerving us is what whining is supposed to do. If it’s any consolation, just about every child goes through a whining phase (or two) at some point, and it’s not indicative of a fatal flaw in our child or our parenting. Here’s how to help toddlers get what they need in a manner that’s easier on the ears and nerves…

1. Don’t let it rattle you

Some say to ignore behaviors like whining, but since that might be misinterpreted as deliberately turning away and ignoring the child’s existence, I believe in staying present and available, just disengaging from the whine. Imagine yourself wearing an annoyance filter (an invention that could make billions, I’m sure). Take a deep breath and remind yourself that your child’s behavior is perfectly normal, but that you don’t want to encourage it. If we grant our child’s request to appease the whining, or react negatively, we might do just that.

2. Gentle guidance

Calmly say something like “It sounds like you’re uncomfortable, but it’s hard for me to understand you. Please tell me in your normal voice.” You might add matter-of-factly, “That sound hurts my ears.” If the whining continues, return to whatever you might have been doing and then after a moment try again. Or, you might ask the child some questions about what he wants while reminding him to answer in his normal voice.

3. Rest, food, drink, comfort

Whiners aren’t functioning at their best, often as the result of not enough of these things. Remember, your toddlers are growing rapidly, tire easily, and have low blood sugar attacks before they realize they’re hungry. They’re also sprouting two year molars, which is bound to create discomfort (and also interfere with sleep).

4. Whiners might be on the verge of an emotional explosion

Whining can be a sign that strong feelings of frustration, disappointment, sadness and anger need to be expressed. If these feelings appear, welcome them, allow the feelings to run their course completely (in that moment and as a general rule) and the whining will likely cease.

5. Give undivided, positive attention

Even newborn babies know whether or not they have our full attention, and a day’s worth of half-attention doesn’t fulfill our child’s needs. As Magda Gerber writes in Your Self-Confident Baby, our children need to periodically receive the message “You are important. You are number one right now.”

Magda encouraged parents to take advantage of feeding, bathing, diapering and dressing as natural opportunities for one-on-one attention. She also recommended periods of “wants nothing” quality time, time when we allow our child to be the initiator of activities while we observe, support, respond and participate as the child requests.  This is illustrated beautifully in “Five Minutes Makes A Difference” from Hand In Hand Parenting.

Unfortunately, no matter how much attention we give our children, they’ll still try out whining when we aren’t observing and listening to them. But if they don’t get encouraging results, this too shall pass.

Parents, teachers and caregivers, feel free to whine all you want here in the comments…

(Photo by StarMama on Flickr)

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22 Responses to “Why The Whining? (And 5 Steps To Eventual Peace)”

  1. avatar Michelle dillard says:

    Wow! You read my mind because I’m experiencing a similar incident except my child is 1 year old. He can’t quite understand full sentences. How do I diffuse the whining if they can’t communicate effectively at the same time take care of their current needs. I want to be proactive:)


    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Michelle! Glad to hear the mind-reading lessons I’ve been taking are working.:)

      I would try asking simple questions and asking your boy to indicate YES or NO, point, etc. I’d still acknowledge his difficulties and say “I can’t understand when you speak to me that way.” You might be surprised by how much your boy understands even though he can’t respond in kind. When he starts talking you’ll realize how much he’s been taking in!

    • avatar Cheyenne says:

      This is where one word communications become effective. Sign language and simple “yes”, “no’s”, “Bananas?” can be communicated quite easily. But what do I know? :) With love, Cheyenne

    • avatar Cheyenne says:

      Libraries have sign language DVD’s and such. Love, Cheyenne

  2. avatar Cheryl says:

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me! I thought we had passed the whining stage, since B is almost 4 but he has really been struggling with sleep for the past few weeks. When he’s tired and hungry, just like you said, the whining starts. It’s a huge relief that my standard “Sorry, I don’t understand that kind of voice” is okay!
    A little bell went off when I read number 4, undivided attention, though. That’s what he’s really asking for, in whatever voice he can.

  3. avatar sara says:

    this is perfect… so timely, too!

  4. avatar jeanne says:

    Janet – no whining here :) Your 4 approaches are clear and to the point to engage with children and UNdo the whining. I’ve used each of those in my preschool classroom, as well, and the whining shifts quite quickly! Thanks, especially, for the reminder to not get rattled otherwise the other tips won’t work!

  5. avatar Shannon says:

    I’m finding that with my 20 month old, who doesn’t always have the capacity to tell me what’s wrong, if I ask him to SHOW me what he needs, I can nip the whining in the bud a lot of the time. Not ALL the time. ;) But more often than I’d have guessed.

  6. I love your last point, especially. I often feel so distracted that although I have spent all day with my kids, they’ve only received my “half-attention”. I love the “Wants nothing” quality time – that is an amazing gift to be able to give your children. It is absolutely the most energizing and delicious experience – to just “be” together.

    I have found that my children whine way less when I have filled their cups, so to speak. Even just a small amount of deep connection eliminates their need to seek attention in negative ways.

    Thank you again for such a great post.

  7. Lovely post!

    I addressed the same issue quite a while ago in my blog, at

    Perhaps the words I suggest using to the child are a little stronger; I do believe in being authentic about one’s own feelings when children are behaving unacceptably, and invariably whining creates extreme irritation in the poor parent (or teacher!). But we come to the same conclusion in the end. It’s all about how much time you’ve given your child, versus how much time she actually needs and wants.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Annie! Yes, we do have similar conclusions… and I think you like whining even less than I do! I know what you mean about being authentic, but I’ve seen our emotional reactions backfire in a big way, just as they do with other undesirable behaviors. The child feels powerful gaining that negative attention from us, and for some, it can encourage them to do it more. But you are such a gifted teacher that I don’t doubt you know what works for you by now.

      • avatar Kirstie says:

        Hi Janet and Aunt Annie! After a steady few days of “the whine’s”, and with my husband in the US for work (I’m in Australia), I plugged “whine” into your blog search for some inspiration.
        Hooray! Many thanks for this post, Janet! I think #1 is the hardest one for me, especially when I feel I am doing a pretty good job of the other three. I will add that one to my fridge/pantry reminders!
        I would also like to thank Aunt Annie for your post too. I love how you both have similiar ideas, “similar conclusions” but with differences in delivery and yet you remain on speaking terms! :>
        I’d love your advice with something I have noticed when getting down to my two-year old’s level and talking with him. No matter what I am saying, really it could be anything at all, good or bad, he doesn’t look me in the eye. I was a bit concerned about this initially, but I have since noticed he does look at me other times, just not on those occasions when I would really like him to look at me. Perhaps it is simply the “Look at Mummy” phrase?
        Should I be concerned? Any thoughts on what I should do next?

  8. avatar Cheyenne says:

    Yes…we must go to loved based discipline if we are ever to change this world for the better.

    The time of domination is ending.
    The time of respect and unconditional love is here.

    I am reading, “Easy to love, Difficult to Discipline” It is a great book. It goes into great depth (Eckhart Tolle-style.)(categorized well) concerning why relationships seem/are disharmonious and what we can learn for them and how we can transform ourselves and avoid trying to transform others. Successfully transforming them is good- through inspiration but (confused)manipulation only causes pain for all.

    So I end by saying. I love you all and I look forward to this growing relationship with peaceful presence.

  9. avatar Lanie G. says:

    I’m hoping that my daughter (she will be 4 next month) is just going thru this “whining phase” it’s been 4 nights in a row that she have not sleep normal nor everyone else in the house, she start by getting mad at me or at something then she starts crying like a cow ( it’s so loud it hurts on the ear) when we ask her to go to bed, she cries for about 20-40 minutes. The very first time we thought that she was in pain, hungry or just mad at something but when we ask her she’ll just cry more and louder like almost screaming. She then will fall asleep then few hrs later she will wake up again( 2am or 4am) upset or mad then starts crying the same way for 30-45 minutes, on the 2nd and 3rd time we ignore her and my husband put her in the room by herself crying loud then the crying fades and she falls asleep, tonight is the 4th night it’s now 11:40pm, she fell asleep at 9:30 PM got waken up again at 11:10 PM by something then started getting upset and mad at me then starts crying loud again for 15 minutes, it”s the same thing for 4 nights now. Good Lord I have to have some sleep~ please someone tell me this is normal for kids her age or someone had experienced this at some point.

  10. avatar Chelsea says:

    What should I do about my 15 month old whining? He can’t really talk yet so I can’t use the “I can’t understand you” route. I know he has a hard time communicating his needs- he does some basic sign language- so I try to be patient but it gets sooo annoying! Any advice?

  11. avatar Ashley says:

    I have a two years old boy who has changed so much. He just got mad at me whatever I did. I have tried to use “limit-setting” approach and acknowledged his feeling. But it doesn’t seems working yet. He still can’t speak properly, I guess this is one of the reason he got so mad when he can’t express his feeling and his need to me.

    I love your blog, Janet and I think what have you said is so logic and make sense to me. But, is hard to practise (for me). I hope I can be more patient and consistent.


  12. avatar A.K. says:

    Ummmm this describes me as well as my kids. I can feel myself get whiney and the above mentioned certainly applies. Whining is like a contained cry. Janet, once again you’ve reminded me to check in with myself and my kids. Thanks!

  13. avatar carley says:

    ouch. I must have screwed up since my kiddo is whining horribly at 4 years old. do you think these rules still apply at her age?

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