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Why Won't My Toddler Stop Whining?!

I like to think of myself as a pretty patient person, at least when it comes to kids. I've been around them my entire life, after all, clamoring to babysit as soon as I was allowed to, nannying throughout college and chasing my friend's children around for years before I had one of my own. When my daughter was born, I was pretty sure I had a handle on this whole calm and rational parenting thing.

But then, she started whining.

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I'll admit, at first, I was pretty smug about the whole thing. "Mommy doesn't understand whiny voices," I would say. "Please use your nice voice." Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But I felt confident in my ability to remain firm.

Only … the sound of the whining started to get more and more grating over time. I don't actually think the sound changed, so much as the constant repetition of it started to drive me mad. Not to mention, the reasons she was whining were absolutely baffling:

"Mooooooommmmmy! I can't ooooooppen this."

"Oooooooowwwwwiiiiieee! Hug huuuuuuurts!"

"Noooooooo! Noooo cake!"

Seriously. The kid was so out of her mind one day that she started whining because I was trying to give her cake.

I just can't.

The only sure-fire solution I seemed capable of coming up with was to start wine-ing to take off the edge as soon as the whining started.

So one day, when I least expected it, my girl started whining and I could take no more. I dropped what I was doing (legitimately, I threw things on the floor), turned to her, put on my best whine and said, "Noooooooo! No more whiiiiniiing. Moooommmmy can't staaaaaaannnnnd it!"

It surprised us both, and at first I was shocked at what I had just done. But then … she started cracking up. The child was falling over in laughter. And when she finally pulled it together, she only started whining more.

Because now I had made it a game. And my kid is a jerk.

Giant mom fail.

When it became clear I had no idea how to put an end to the whining, I turned to friends and the Internet in search of practical tips. Because the only sure-fire solution I seemed capable of coming up with was to start wine-ing to take off the edge as soon as the whining started. And since that would have had me taking my first drink at around 9 every morning, I feared it wasn't my best option.

My search led me to two different experts who both had some interesting insights to share. Katie Hurley is a mom.me contributor, child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of "The Happy Kid Handbook." And Danielle Rannazzisi holds a doctorate in psychology, is licensed for private practice in New York, and currently works as a school psychologist. Both are also mothers themselves.

So what did these two experts have to tell me about all this whining?

1. Empathize

"A child whines to communicate something. Acknowledging the feeling or situation and providing some empathy breaks up the negativity. It communicates that you are there to help (even if you don't help in the exact way your child wants)," said Hurley.

2. Assess the Source

"Sometimes children whine as a form of communication, because they don't have the vocabulary to express how they are feeling (e.g., frustrated, sad, angry, tired). Other times, children whine to get a parent's attention. Sometimes, children whine to gain something tangible (e.g., a cookie, a toy, etc.). Other times, children whine in an attempt to escape doing something that they don't particularly want to do (e.g., clean up their toys). The reason a child whines can be any of the above, or a combination of them, depending on the particular situation," said Rannazzisi.

3. Encourage the "Assertive Voice"

"Parents tend to say things like 'use a nice voice' when kids whine (Oooops! Guilty!), but what does that really mean? Practice assertive communication at home—yes, even with toddlers! Make eye contact, use a strong (but not yelling) voice and wait your turn to talk. Instead of asking for the nice voice, ask your child to use her assertive voice. We like to put on plays around here to work on using our assertive voices!" said Hurley.

4. Redirect and Ignore

It is very important that the parent not react to the whining verbally.

"Kids learn pretty quickly that whining is often a surefire way to get a parent's attention. Once you're confident that your child understands what whining is, and that they have the appropriate skills to communicate their thoughts/feelings/requests without whining, you can move onto other interventions. You can start by saying things like 'I don't understand whining.' However, while these statements can work, they still provide verbal attention for the whining. And for some children, any attention is good attention and may prolong the whining behavior. In that case, I would recommend ignoring all whining from the child and instead reinforcing (or) praising only the behavior that you want, (that is) the child speaking in an appropriate voice/tone. It is very important that the parent not react to the whining verbally, but remain stoic and go about their business as usual," advises Rannazzisi.

5. Stay Calm

"Don't cave, but don't yell. Kids tune out when parents yell—that's their natural defense mechanism. They might also whine when they are afraid to communicate their needs because they don't want parents to yell at them or dismiss them. You shouldn't give in to whining to make it stop, but you should remain calm. Try, 'I can't understand you when you use that voice. Let's take three deep breaths together and try again.'" said Hurley.

6. Acknowledge Good Behavior

"When the child eventually speaks to the parent in their normal voice, heap on the praise (e.g., 'I love hearing you use your big boy/girl voice! My ears are really happy now!') When you notice the child using their normal voice throughout the day, praise them during those times as well," said Rannazzisi.

7. Brainstorm Solutions Together

"Talk about it when your kids are calm. Give examples of a whining voice versus an assertive voice. Ask your kids what kinds of things might trigger whining for them and talk about solutions. Many kids will respond to a secret hand signal. Come up with one for 'stop,' one for 'think' and one for 'assertive voice.'" advises Hurley.

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Katie and Danielle both agree that consistency is key in any whining intervention, which is perhaps where I've faltered most. In my efforts to end whining, I've bounced from solution to solution, which seems to have only made things worse. Since talking to the experts, I've been working on using the "assertive voice" phrasing more often, and my daughter and I have even been practicing our assertive voices during calm moments. She seems to be especially proud of this newfound way to express herself, and I'm just proud to be hearing less whining.

Of course, just as Rannazzisi mentioned, the change hasn't come overnight. But by paying attention to the triggers of her whining, and remaining consistent with the new solutions I'm employing, we have seen a difference.

And I'm no longer craving wine first thing in the morning. Which has to be a win.

Photograph by: Getty Images

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