How to respond to your child’s whining

How to respond to your child’s whining
Your child whines over the slightest thing. What are the causes of this behaviour and what can you do to prevent it?


Most children whine and complain to their parents from time to time. However, if it happens frequently, you can help your toddler break this habit by encouraging them to express themself in other ways.

Why do children whine?

A child is said to be whining when they complain or make demands in a crying tone without actually crying. Here are a few reasons that explain why a toddler might whine.

They can’t get what they want

It takes several years for a child to learn that they can’t always have everything they want. At this stage, they are self-centered and have difficulty understanding that not all of their desires can be satisfied. They also don’t know the difference between a need, such as being hungry, and a desire, such as wanting cookies. So, when they’re frustrated about not getting what they want, they may whine. This behaviour can also worsen if the child often gets what they want as a result of their whining.

They don’t have the vocabulary to explain what’s bothering them or what they want

Even as a child’s speech continues to develop, they still might not have a wide enough vocabulary to describe what they want or feel. Children also have a hard time managing their emotions, especially when they feel frustrated, sad, or neglected. As a result, they may react by whining.

They’re not able to do something by themself

Even though a toddler still needs their parents to do certain tasks, they have a strong desire for autonomy. For example, they might want to get dressed by themself or help out with chores, and then whine that they can’t do it.

They are tired or sick

A child might lack energy if they are tired or sick. Even the slightest annoyance or frustration can make them irritable and cause them to whine.

They’re bored or want their parent’s attention

Again, a toddler lacks the vocabulary to express what they’re feeling, such as boredom or the need for attention. Whining can be a way to get their parents’ attention and tell them that they need to spare some time for them.

They’re mimicking the behaviour of someone else who whines a lot

Children learn a lot by imitation, and their behaviour can be influenced by the people around them. For example, a toddler might start whining because they’re modelling this behaviour on another child around them, such as a sister, brother, or friend from daycare.

What to do when your child whines

  • Encourage your child to use their words to ask for things in an appropriate way. For example, you could say: “Are you thirsty? Do you want some milk? Tell me, ‘I want milk please.’” If they refuse or get mad, don’t insist that they repeat it, especially if your toddler is just starting to talk. By rephrasing their request and putting it into words, you’re setting an example for them. Little by little, your child will learn other ways to ask for what they want instead of whining.
  • Help your child put their emotions into words. Encourage them to use words to express how they feel. For example, you could say: “I can see you’re upset. Do you want to talk about it?” or “I think you’re trying to tell me something, but you’re whining. Will you try to tell me what’s wrong?” The more you get your toddler used to verbalizing their emotions, the less they’ll whine to express what they’re feeling.
When your child whines, don’t give in just to make them stop. If you do, they’ll see that whining is a good way to get what they want.
  • Tell them that it’s okay if they don’t feel good, and that you feel the same way sometimes. Then, help them tell you what’s wrong. Don’t tell them that they’re whining “for nothing.” That could lead them to feeling misunderstood and thinking that they should try to hide their emotions.
  • Stay calm throughout their whining until they’re able to express themself properly. However, if you think they’re completely overwhelmed, try to help them calm down. For example, you can hug them or gently stroke their back. If they’re sick or tired, take the time to comfort them, soothe them, help them relax, and fall asleep.
  • Take their mind off of the situation. Sometimes your child may not know how to stop whining and will need your help to focus on something else. That said, you should only do this after you’ve tried to understand what was wrong and help them.

How can you prevent whining?

  • Praise your child when they use their words to ask for something. This will encourage them to express themself appropriately. For example, you could say: “I love how you asked for what you wanted. It’s a lot easier for me to understand what you want when you ask nicely.”
  • Listen carefully when your child speaks to you in a normal voice. If you ignore them when they ask for something nicely, they might feel that whining is the only way to get your attention. If you’re busy, explain that what they have to say is important to you, but that you need to finish what you are doing first, and then they’ll have your full attention.
  • Pay attention to your child before they ask you to. Make sure to spend some quality time with your toddler, even if it’s just a few minutes. This may involve playing with them, talking to them, drawing together, or reading them a story. By making sure your child’s need for attention is already met, they may not whine so much.
  • Take note of what types of situations tend to make your child especially whiny for a few weeks. This is a great way to recognize when and why your child is most likely to whine. You can then adapt some of your responses to limit this behaviour. For example, you may realize that you need to spend more time with them after you get home from daycare, put them to bed earlier, help them put their emotions into words, not systematically give them what they want when they whine, etc.

Things to keep in mind

  • When a child whines, it’s often because they can’t find the words to say what they’re feeling or what’s bothering them.
  • A toddler might also whine when they don’t get what they want, when they’re tired, or when they want their parents’ attention.
  • By encouraging your child to use their words to tell you what they want, how they feel, or what’s wrong, they’ll learn to express themself in ways other than whining.

 

Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Marie-Hélène Chalifour, psychoeducator
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir Team
Updated: February 2021

 

Photos: GettyImages/ilona75 and skynesher

 

Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

For parents

  • Bourque, Solène. Les grandes émotions des tout-petits. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2020, 144 pp.
  • Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec. www.inspq.qc.ca
  • Filliozat, Isabelle. Understanding Children’s Emotions: Heart to heart parenting. Raising your child’s EQ. Lulu Press, 2013, 296 pp.
  • Filliozat, Isabelle. « J’ai tout essayé! » : opposition, pleurs et crises de rage : traverser sans dommage la période de 1 à 5 ans. Paris, Éditions JC Lattès, 2011, 176 pp.
  • MacNamara, Deborah. Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One). Aona Books, 2016, 304 pp.
  • Rossant, Lyonel and Jacqueline Rossant-Lumbroso. Votre enfant : guide à l’usage des parents. Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont, Bouquins series, 2006, 1515 pp.

For kids

  • Bourque, Solène. Mini Loup vit un tourbillon d’émotions. Éditions Midi trente, 2017, 48 pp.
  • Gravel, Élise. The Cranky Ballerina. HarperCollins, 2016, 32 pp.
  • Llenas, Anna. The Color Monster: A Story About Emotions. Little, Brown, 2018, 40 pp.

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