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Whining in a 1-Year-Old

What It's All About and How to Stop It


A mom asks,

"Can you just reassure me that constant whining is a normal thing for a nonverbal 12-month-old? It's happening all the time. Often he whines when he's playing and gets frustrated by a toy. For example, if he can't get the ladder back on his firetruck, he starts whining like crazy. It just seems that any second of the day that he is not having exactly the thing that he wants to do at exactly when he wants to do it (which is most of the seconds of the day) he is whining. What can I do? It's driving me insane. "

This is one of those stages that can be very frustrating for a parent or caregiver. Your child isn't talking yet so it's even harder than ever to figure out what all the fuss is about. As frustrating as it is for you, though, it's even more frustrating for your toddler. Part of dealing with the whining issue involves patience. The other part involves helping your child learn to communicate and removing triggers that lead to whining.

A Little Child Development Background

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget figured out a couple of things that might explain what's going on with your son. He described periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium. When all is right with the world, and things are going along as your child expects them to be, then he's a pretty happy camper. When things are new and unexpected or aren't working out as he thinks they should, then watch out!

If he's playing and is trying to get the ladder to go back on his firetruck, for example, his mind has an expectation of how that should work out. When he actually performs that action and it doesn't go as expected, he's going to experience frustration. He may throw a temper tantrum, whine or throw the toy in anger. At this age, there are many things that will not match the model your child has in his head and so there's a lot of confusion and frustration on a daily basis.

Eliminate Frustration When You Can

How many times is it going to take before he finally gets that firetruck ladder to reconnect as it should? A better question might be: How much more whining over this firetruck can you take? There's also a fine line here between healthy frustration that leads to learning and frustration overload that leads to both you and your child being agitated all the time.

If you've noticed that your child is using toys in new ways and those ways all seem to make him whiny and angry, then it's time to take some of those toys and put them away until his motor skills catch up. Maybe he used to just mouth the Duplo blocks and scoop them around aimlessly. Now he's trying to actually fit them together but can't do it without going into a full-on whine session. Try putting the Duplos away for a few weeks and offer toys that are similar but match that particular skill level more closely. Nesting cups, the big plastic pop beads or other toys that stack and fit together still offer fine motor practice with less frustration and will lay the groundwork for the more difficult Duplos.

Another option is to offer the Duplos or other offending toys less often and only at times when your child is functioning at his best. If he's in a period of disequilibrium, it's likely that there are lots of new skills and experiences that are adding to his confusion and frustration right now. You may notice, too, that he's especially whiny when he's hungry or tired. So, choose to play with those toys when he's happy, fed and refreshed from a nap or a good night of sleep. When the whining starts, gently transition him to an activity that's calming like reading a story together or playing outside.

When You Can't (or Don't Want to) Eliminate Frustration, Console and Empathize

Sometimes, the object of agitation is something that is outside your control. If your toddler doesn't want to get into his car seat, for example, there's not much you can or should do about that. You can empathize and console, however, even through his whining. Let him know his feelings are valid: "I know you don't like being in the car seat right now." And share in his misery: "I don't want to be in the car right now either."

There are also going to be times when you don't want to eliminate the frustration because it has to do with your child adjusting to the realities of life. He can't always get what he wants, after all. So long as his needs are met, you don't need to bend over backward to make everything a smooth, frustration-free experience for him, either. If he doesn't want apples for breakfast one day but ate them fine just yesterday, don't feel like you need to give in to the whine and offer him every fruit under the sun until he finally accepts one. You can still show sympathy, though, and help your child learn to appropriately express how he feels about those tough realities.

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