The One Sentence to Say to Get a Toddler to Stop Whining


One of the more vivid memories from my childhood is my dad saying clearly and concretely: “I can handle any conversation…as long as you don’t whine.” Flash forward to my current role as a parent of a little kid and, oh wow, I get it.

Upon further research, the choice our children make to whine is actually quite fascinating. A 2019 piece in the New York Times explains it as a kid behavior so common, it’s universal across cultures and a mechanism kids deploy to get the attention of their parents…fast. Research also demonstrates that, as far as vocalization options go, it’s the most annoying choice made by our kids. A study published by the American Psychological Association found that participants forced to listen to whining made more mistakes and were less productive; they also found it way more distracting than the sound of a typical infant cry. (Which explains why my child’s whimpering about dinner last night completely derailed my plans to send some work emails.)

So, what’s the calmest way to get it to stop the minute it starts? On an episode of the podcast Raising Good Humans, hosted by Dr. Aliza Pressman, developmental psychologist and co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, she says the first step is to take a deep breath.“Whining isn’t harmful, it’s just annoying,” Dr. Pressman says.

She then shared her genius phrase to help your toddler communicate better. Her advice is to pause, breathe, then get down on eye level [with your child] and say: “I really want to understand what you’re trying to say, but it’s hard for me to understand when you’re whining. Can you try that again in your real voice?”

The reason this works is because you’re first acknowledging your child’s discomfort; you see their need for your attention and you’re making yourself available, but you need them to step up a bit, too, and adjust their tone. It’s also the polar opposite of your typical reaction to whining, which is to yell or exhibit body language that shows how triggered and irritated you’re feeling. (Hey, that response is only natural, but it also encourages your kid to keep going.)

Toddler expert Devon Kuntzman agrees, noting that your toddler’s whining is perfectly normal and your kid’s way of communicating something, whether that be fatigue, hunger, overwhelming feelings, boredom or wanting something but not knowing how to express it. Your job isn't to give into their whining, but to help them express what they're communicating in a more appropriate way. “If you are overwhelmed or frustrated by your toddler whining, that’s understandable. Take a moment to find your calm and center yourself so you can help your toddler express themselves.”

I decided to test Dr. Pressman’s advice on my own son. The other night, when his words turned high-pitched and impatiently sing-songy as I was trying to rush to prep dinner, I stopped: “I really want to understand what you need from me, but can you please say that again in your real voice?” He paused, then said a bit timidly: “I want you to play with me, mama.” Of course, the dinner demands still existed, but I was proud of him for calmly articulating his needs. (We came up with a project for him to do side by side with me on the kitchen floor.)

Will it work every time? TBD. But if it saves a parent’s sanity even once, here here.

This story was originally published in 2021.

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