Two-Year-Old Whining

Dear Naomi,

My 28-months old is whining a lot. While I understand this is a normal behavior I’m afraid I’m reinforcing it by responding every time. I usually get down to his level and tell him “please use your words, tell me what you need, I can’t understand what you are trying to tell me” and he often does unless he is tired or upset, sometimes I just hug him and we snuggle or sit in a rocking chair. When I leave him with my husband (usually few hours on weekends) he stops whining, he is a different child when I’m gone. My husband usually tells our son gently to stop whining or ignores him when he does and my sons plays happily by himself which he rarely does when I’m around. I don’t feel comfortable ignoring him, I think whining is our son’s way of telling us about his needs. Sometimes my son also pretends to get hurt and keeps crying until I come to him and offer my help, again he never does it with my husband. I would probably just keep doing what I’m doing without doubting myself if it wasn’t for my husband complaining lately that I’m causing this kind of behavior by responding to every cry. Is my husband right? Joanna


Dear Parent,

I am delighted that you respond to your child’s every cry. Being responsive is crucial for the child’s development of self-reliance and to his sense of connection. He learns to be responsive and caring toward others from the way you respond to him. 

However, how you respond can make a difference in your child communication strategy.

Your child has concluded that the way to get your attention and care most favorably and quickly is via upset and crying. He thinks he cannot get your care as easily in another way. I cannot know how he came to this conclusion, but you can. One clue is your child’s idea of pretending to be hurt. He seems to think that being hurt or upset is the best way to get your attention and love promptly. 

You can change your response in two ways:

1) Make sure to respond as fast when he asks for something without whining. 

For example, if you are busy and he comes over and says happily, “I want to go outsite with you,” respond with an excited, “Yes, I would love to.” Stop what you are doing, give him a hug and go out with him.

2) When he whines, validate his feelings so he can have feedback about his emotional expression. 

For example, if he whines, “mommy, read me a book,” (however he says it), you can respond, “You sound like you want to cry, were you waiting for a long time to be with me?” (Maybe he did) Then, you can add, “I would love to read you a book and I know you want me to read right now.” Or, if he cries, pretending to be hurt, respond by saying, “Come here, sweetheart. Let me see what happened.” In this case, wait for him to come to you. If he comes and shows you a real or imagined hurt, kiss it and move on without pampering or drama. Put minimal attention on such events, yet acknowledge the emotion with a benign attitude. 

Don’t rush to give him whatever he wants, but do respond to his expression. In this way your child will learn to distinguish emotional expression from asking for what he wants.

He doesn’t always have to get what he wants, but he must be heard and feel connected.

It is possible that you child is not getting enough direct time with you and seems to conclude that the only way he can count on getting your attention is by sounding upset.

Make sure his need for connection with you is fully met and that you don’t show up as a parent who is often trying to get away. Once your child knows that he can get your presence and care while he is happy, and that he has enough of your care, he won’t need to whine for attention. 

Keep in mind that at this age, your child needs a lot of human connection. Waiting can leave him feeling yearning and doubting his self-worth. He won’t be needy and whiny when this need for connection is fulfilled.

Warmly,  Naomi Alodrt


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