Dealing with whining toddlers

Q: I have a beautiful, lively and very articulate three-year-old girl. She can be very whingey and now this is escalating into cheeky behaviour. A typical scenario is that we are playing a game or completing a task together and, for no evident reason, she takes great exception to something. She whinges, “Maammyy . . . I don’t want you to do X; stop saying ‘Y’; stop touching my hair,” and so on.

While I am trying to be understanding about her possible frustrations, I find this very irritating, and am struggling to find a consistent approach that will help to minimise this behaviour. If I say nothing, I feel I’m encouraging “spoiled” behaviour. If I tackle every incident, I spend the entire day asking her to “use her patient voice”, which seems to irritate her even more.

She has now begun to resist correction too. She slapped out yesterday and when I explained that slapping was not tolerated, and that she must say sorry, she responded angrily, “I didn’t slap, you slapped me.” (Obviously, we never slap.) The number of full-on tantrums is minimal, but we have this constant whining and bickering. I’m finding it difficult to enjoy my little girl.

A: I think your question illustrates very well the challenges of raising a bright, articulate yet spirited and independent three-year-old. She has a good grasp of language and argument and uses this powerfully to communicate when she is annoyed or distressed.

As a parent it is easy to get provoked by the protestations of a toddler and to get hooked into trying to reason with them about their behaviour. However, at three years of age your daughter is unlikely to be reasonable, and so these arguments are likely to intensify.

Also, if you get angry back to her and “give your wit” to your child, this is likely to make her more angry or to make her feel insecure and/or put a strain on your relationship. Once you understand the arguments are fuelled by the fact that you react or argue back, then you can understand how best to respond.

In dealing with your daughter’s tantrums and angry feelings, the goal is to help her understand her feelings so she feels contained and not overwhelmed, while making sure that she learns to behave and to keep some basic social rules.

Have a step-by-step plan for dealing with rows
In responding to your daughter, it can help to have a step-by-step plan that allows you to unhook from the rows and to remain calm. The goal is to try to resolve things at the earlier steps first and to use the later ones sparingly, only if things escalate.

1. Largely ignore her protestations
You can let most of her cheekiness go over your head. If she argues black is white, just ignore it, take a break from discussing things and then move on to the next thing. Not engaging with your daughter when she provokes you is very powerful.

2. Praise any times she behaves well
Go out of your way any time she behaves well in an opposite way to the problem behaviour: “Good girl, listening to Mummy;” “That is a lovely polite way to talk,” and so on.

3. Acknowledge her feelings
Simply acknowledging your daughter’s feelings and making them understandable can help a great deal. For example, “You sound a bit cross . . . I know you wanted to go next,” or “It’s hard to hold on when it is Mum’s turn, but you are a good girl for waiting.”

4. Acknowledge your own feelings
Rather than expressing your own feelings in an angry tone or by being critical of her, it helps to explain your feelings to her: “Dad is getting a bit cross now, because we are late.”

5. Correct gently
Sometimes it is important to correct her cheekiness and it is best to do this positively, showing her the behaviour you want: “Let’s use your polite voice.” The key in doing this is to keep your tone calm and not angry. Sometimes using a light tone or even humour can work: “Now, that is a little bit silly; come on, let’s get dressed now.”

6. Use consequences
If your daughter escalates her behaviour, it is useful to have consequences that offer her a choice and that allow you to remain calm: “I can play the game with you only if you are jolly and polite”; “If you ask nicely, you can play with the doll.”

7. Take a break/ help your daughter calm down
Taking a break can be a good idea if things escalate: “We are not talking now until you calm down”; “You need to sit over on the couch until you are calm.” Remember to return your attention to her as soon as possible and when she starts to behave better.

When pre-schoolers get into a tantrum, they sometimes need their parents to soothe and reassure them to help them calm down. For example, after taking a break or a time out, your daughter might need a reassuring hug that everything is okay and then be shown how she can join back in.

8. Continue to enjoy your daughter
If you can, it is important to put your daughter’s behaviour in context and to continue to enjoy all the things you love about her. She is only three and will be learning over the coming years how better to manage her angry emotions. It can help to see some of her behaviour as relatively normal and even part of the spirited personality you enjoy.

For example, when she argues vehemently with you, you can pause and think to yourself you are glad she can stand up for herself. And then think about how you can help her learn to do this more politely.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.