Toddler Behavior: My Kids Whine All Day

Dear BabyShrink, My husband and I have two really great little girls, ages four and 22 months. They are both really well behaved, good kids, but we have been having a lot of problems with our youngest whining constantly.

I expect a toddler her age to have plenty of temper tantrums and be willful. But the constant whining all day long is really getting to me. No matter what she is doing, she wants something different and is whining constantly. For instance, she whines for a certain toy she can't reach. When she gets it, she drops it and decides she wants something else. She gets that and she whines that she wants something her sister has. She whines when she wants her snack. I set her at the table and she whines because she wants down the whole time she is eating.

I have tried to treat it like a temper tantrum and not give in if it is something she really doesn't need. But she soon forgets whatever it is she is whining for and moves on to whine for the next thing she decides she wants. It is making my husband and me CRAZY! Is this just a stage that we need to ride out, or do we need to make some changes in how we deal with this? I try to get her to use words to tell me what she wants, but she is very stubborn and refuses even though I know she can say these words. She can talk very well when she wants to. Please help!! We will really appreciate any suggestions you might have, or suggestions for books that address this issue.

Thank you,

Jaime

Hi Jaime,

Ugh! I am so with you. Our youngest is 26 months old, and just getting to the end of that horrible "constant whining" stage. Whining is specially created by the baby gods to cut through the hustle and bustle of the household to get your immediate attention. It works, right?! Toddlers' whining is super irritating, party because at this age, we KNOW they CAN "use their words" when they feel like it. Why must they insist on whining, when all they have to do is USE THEIR WORDS?! Just like they did so nicely yesterday (for like 14 blissful seconds, but who's counting?).

Well, toddlers this age are really on the brink of a developmental shift. I HIGHLY recommend the DVD series, "The Baby Human". It's terrific at showing so much of what we're talking about here. (Please do yourselves a favor, everyone, and watch that series.) One of the episodes focuses on the time around 18-24 months, when a huge change starts to occur. Before that, they're really just walking babies. We don't expect much more from them. But after this change, they're more like "miniature preschoolers", capable of expressing themselves much more directly. Yeah, they're still toddlers, but an important shift has occurred. They can hold themselves together longer. They can communicate much better. They understand more of what you're telling them. They can wait for things (for a few seconds, anyway).

Have you read T. Berry Brazelton, MD, about how any new developmental shift is first accompanied by some serious regression? Your little girl wants to do all these new, "mini preschooler" things, but is overwhelmed a lot of the time with her inability to make the world work in all the new ways she's trying out. So she's frustrated and feels like freaking out. It's like when we, as adults, are learning a new skill (say on the computer, and writing a new blog!). Until you really understand your new skill, you feel like banging your head on this damn keyboard, and screaming at the screen!

The Best Thing About Whining But I digress. Whining, believe it or not, is a way your toddler has developed to avoid melting down into a total tantrum. This is good, right? What would you rather have: whining -- or a kicking, screaming tantrum? It's also a way your toddler is working on to establish some more power around this place. How can I be in control here? How come everyone decides everything for me?  "I do it! I do it!" These are early signs of the negotiating skills that are used so well by 5, 6 and 7-year-olds. And even though it's irritating as hell, it's also a sign that your baby is growing into a thinking, negotiating little person, striving towards independence and self-assertion. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: you really don't want a passive little toddler who never complains. I worry about those kids. Blustering, loud, irritating attempts at independence are the hallmark behaviors of this stage, and need to be struggled with in order to help your toddler feel a sense of competence and success in the world.

How To Cope But how do you cope with it? First of all, understand that it is a normal phase. Constant whining at this age is really common. If your toddler is whining constantly at a later age; something else is going on. Perhaps there's a speech delay, or you could be unintentionally reinforcing the behavior. Whining also increases a lot when kids are sick. So always check to see if that might be true.

Tell your toddler: "I hear whining. I don't like whining. Tell me in your words. You want juice? Here's your juice. No juice? OK, tell me, 'Mommy, no more juice'. Thank you for using your words. Now you want milk? OK, but no more changes. Milk, or juice. You choose. OK, no milk and no juice?" If whining starts, try again. "No more whining. Milk or juice. You pick." Often, this little exchange will help, at least a little. Your toddler wants to feel that you take her needs seriously, even if she changes her mind a million times.

Lather, rinse and repeat until you start to get irritated. Because there will be a limit to how much any living, breathing parent can do this. And she's checking to see exactly how much you can take it...today.  Testing is part of the whole routine. Exactly how much control do I have in this situation? When does Mommy take over and cut me off? How far can I push it? Now, notice I didn't say, "Continue to negotiate until you're about to lose your mind and give her the juice box, milk, water, AND the Diet Coke you were just drinking, plus open up the bottle of wine that YOU need now". Instead, set the limit before you're at your wit's end. "OK, no more drinks, all done with drinks. Let's go do something else."

Try to Ignore? If you're really strong, you can try ignoring the whining. Say you're about to do it. "No more whining.  I don't like it when you whine. Mommy is busy. I don't hear whining." And then go about your business with the whining toddler behind you, trying to get your attention. Breathe deeply, don't make eye contact, and repeat yourself. "I don't listen to whining." This may take several minutes, which seem like several hours, in toddler-time. Some will get the message, others will not.

Take a Time-Out You can also give time-outs for excessive whining. The amount of time necessary for each toddler will vary, but usually a short one (a minute or less) is sufficient to make your point. We have a little place in our kitchen for exactly such purposes; it's just a small corner of space between a wall and an armoire, about three square feet of space, which provides a sense of containment for our little guy. After going through the above routine, I will threaten one. "No more whining. More whining, and you go in time-out." When he was at his peak of whining, I would follow though on this once or twice a day. He felt the pain of the consequence, and  especially the pain of having to give up some power, and often (but not always) return in a better frame of mind.

A key part of all this is to make sure you give huge props for quitting the whining.  "Wow! You used your words! You are playing nicely now! Oh, that feels so much better!  Good job, honey! Gimme five for talking nicely! I love it when we play and talk nicely together like this!"

Also, make sure you can blow off some steam about the whining. Call a friend who understands and complain about your whiner. Exchange "horrible toddler whining" stories. Laugh about it, and get away regularly so you can re-gain your sense of perspective about all of this. Take turns with your partner when the whining is really getting on your nerves, even if you have to "trade off toddler duty" for just a 10 minute break. Ten minutes taking a quick walk around the block, or plowing through People magazine, in the quiet of your own bathroom, can be wonderfully restorative. (I know I'm not the only one who retreats to the bathroom for some peace and quiet! Where else can you go, sometimes?!)

Hope that helps. Let us know how it works out!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink