Talking with Toddlers- #2- The Purpose of Whining

As toddler become more verbal they start to use a new tone of voice. The Whine. It is that sing-song tone that makes your skin crawl. Most parents hate this voice and don't respond to it. So why does it even happen? Why are toddlers so whinny? The answer may surprise you. The whinny voice is actually a transitional stage.

A Step Up From Crying

From birth infants have two modes of communication, body language and crying. The main vocalization is crying. As a child learns to talk they add a new way to communicate. But the other ways don't just go away. There is still a good amount of body language. They point, hold their hands up, turn away, and shake their heads, and use many other nonverbal gestures to communicate. They also cry when they are tired, frustrated and hurt. With the addition of words and language, children combined the cry with the words. The result is whining.  

Just like crying, whining drives us crazy, and moves us into action. With crying we usually focus on the need the infant is trying to communicate. We meet the need and the crying stops. When a child whines we tend to focus on getting rid of the whining. In our culture, whining is viewed as an inappropriate form of communication at every age. Instead of helping the child with the need they are expressing we get make them tell us again in a non-whining way. The result is often the child getting whinier and everyone is frustrated.

Developmental Expectations

Don't me wrong. I think it is very important for children to learn not to whine. But it has to be with in the correct developmental expectations. We understand the infants limitations in communications and allow for them to use crying as a way for them to tell us they have a need. For the young child who is using words in a sing-song tone, this is the developmental appropriate transitional stage. They know they need to do more than cry. Toddlers are still learning how much more effective talking is for communicating.

Instead of being annoyed by the whine with young children, we should be excited that they are starting to use language to express their needs and want. By being excited about the words the toddler learn to use more and more words and the whiny voice will drop away on its own. Since all children begin using language at a different age, the age at which the whine stops is also different. In general, once a child is using 4-5 words sentences on a regular basis, they will whine very little. 

Supporting Though the Whine

When your very young toddler whines the best thing to do is to encourage the use of words, and avoid making the whine the focus. Tell them how glad you are that they are telling you what they want instead of just crying. If the whine is so intense it is all you can hear, you will want to have them tell you again. Avoid being upset, or sarcastic that you can't understand them. You want to encourage them, "I can see that you want to tell me something, but you seem a little bit too upset for me to hear all your words." Giving them support to calm down a little before they tell you again, is often helpful. 

Once your child has better languages skills you can up the expectation and point out the tone of voice. Stay in a place of support, and watch your own tone of voice. The words and tone of voice you use when talking to your child are the ones they will use too. If the child uses a whiny tone, start by just asking them to repeat what they said. The more emotionally neutral you are in the way you ask the better. If the whiny tone is used again, point out the tone, have them take a breath and ask again. If you are consistent in this approach, the child learns to correct the tone of voice any time you ask for a repeat of what they are saying.

 Whining is a transitional behavior, not a bad behavior. As long as you support a child in learning and using language, most will stop whining on their own. However, if the whine gets you to change the limits you set, then it is going to keep happening, no matter how many times you correct it.