Whining, that fussy tone of voice between talking and crying, is commonly heard from toddlers, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a spoiled child. Often, children whine when they can’t truly express their feelings. You are most likely to hear whining when something in your child’s world has gone awry. Anxiety, hunger for food, craving for your attention, boredom, overstimulation, or fatigue can all be triggers of whining.

You can help. First, teach your child the difference between a regular voice and a whiny voice, and encourage him to use his regular voice to get his needs met. Respond positively when he does use a regular voice, and thank him when he remembers to ask nicely.

Acknowledge your child’s need for attention. Kids often resort to whining when they have tried and failed to get the attention of a parent. So, when your child asks for something in a pleasant way, respond as soon as you can. If you are in the middle of something, take just a second to acknowledge that you recognize her need. You can even tell your child that you hear what she is saying, and then offer a realistic time estimate of when you will be able to respond.

If your child is whining, look at what is going on behind the whining. What is likely the feeling that’s causing the whining? When possible, help your child identify the feeling. For example, you might offer, “I wonder if you are feeling sad and a little mad because I can’t take you to the zoo right now?”

It is also beneficial to avoid the triggers of whining. Take hunger, for example. It would be most fair to your child to feed him before going on a grocery outing. Expecting a hungry toddler to understand that he can’t have something to eat at the store would be unrealistic and asking for trouble.

Respond consistently. If your child whines, remind her that you will be happy to listen when she can use a regular voice. When your child does use a regular voice, respond immediately so she learns that the regular voice works.

Be sure to make time—regular time—to read a story together, play a game together, or engage in some other activity of connection. Then, your child doesn’t have to complain first.