Why Nagging Our Kids Doesn't Work and Actually Backfires

Updated on April 14, 2019
letstalkabouteduc profile image

With two teen sons, I've done my fair share of nagging. As I grew older and wiser, though, I realized it was ineffective and even harmful.

“Remember to wear your glasses...Don't put in your ear-buds...Slow down in the school zones...Look for pedestrians...” My 16-year-old son had just gotten his license and these words tumbled from my mouth every time he picked up his car keys and headed out the door. My fear and worry were getting the best of me and making me nag him even when I knew I shouldn't.

Make your words matter by not nagging.
Make your words matter by not nagging. | Source

Nagging Makes Your Child Feel Incompetent

Parenting is a challenging job and, along the way, we may pick up some bad habits without realizing it. One of these is nagging. In an effort to protect our children and prevent them from suffering the consequences of their behavior, we moms and dads begin to hen-pick, scold, complain, and kvetch. As our youngsters grow into teenagers and start making their own choices, we feel a loss of control that causes us to turn it up a notch. The simple truth, though, is: Nagging doesn't work. In fact, it can actually make our kids become overly dependent, stop listening, and feel incompetent

Why Are We Nagging Our Kids?

Nagging is about us, not our kids. When we do it, we should realize our lives are out of balance and changes are needed. First, though, we should figure out why we're being nags. Here are five common reasons why we might rely on this highly ineffective and destructive method of motivating our kids:

  • We feel out of control in our lives—our marriages, our jobs, our families—and want to feel in charge of something so we target our kids.

  • We feel anxious about the competitive world in which our children live. To cope with our fears, we push and nag our kids to get top marks, excel in athletics, have part-time jobs and internships, and be popular with the right crowd.

  • We're too busy and stressed out to help our children. When we're parenting on-the-fly—rushing here and there, barking out orders, and nagging our kids—we forget they're little people who need our help.

  • Our expectations are out-of-whack. Expecting a kindergartner to clean her bedroom all by herself or expecting a teenager to always return the car with a full tank of gas is unreasonable.

  • We learned it from our parents. We nag because our moms and dads did so when we were growing up and now we're following their lead.

Nagging Makes Teenagers Feel Manipulated

Dr. Robert Myers, a clinical psychologist who has dealt with children and adolescents for over 25 years, argues that nagging poisons the parent-child bond. Because it's so unpleasant, kids simply tune it out and “the more you nag, the less they hear,” he says. When it's time to have a truly meaningful conversation about an important topic (drugs, sex, grades), parents may find their youngsters don't want to listen.

Dr. Myers advises parents not to nag their teenagers because it causes them to feel manipulated. Wanting to assert their independence and make their own decisions, teens become strong-willed and even defiant when parents pressure them to do something. Instead of feeling threatened by this, moms and dad should see it as a normal, healthy part of growing up and separating from parental authority.

When parents go on and on, kids tune them out. Researchers have shown that the human brain can keep only four 'chunks' of information or unique ideas in short-term (active) memory at once. This amounts to about 30 seconds or one or two sentences of speaking.

— Melanie Greenberg, psychologist and parenting expert

Nagging Damages the Parent-Child Relationship

Dr. Myers believes nagging harms the parent-child relationship because it's negative: parents point out what the child is not doing instead of noticing what he is doing. He cautions parents: “Nagging is a way of finding fault, and it tends to wear people down instead of build them up.” When parents nag too much, children decide they can't do anything right so they might as well stop trying. They begin to feel incompetent.

A more effective parenting strategy is to catch kids when they're doing something right and praise their good deeds. As the saying goes: “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” Parents can increase extrinsic motivation by offering rewards based on the child's age: stickers, little toys, a trip to the park for younger kids and extra television or computer time for older ones. Parents should never underestimate the power of a simple compliment, especially with teenagers: "I noticed how you filled my car with gas after borrowing it. I really appreciate that!"

Catching your child doing something good and giving her a compliment is more effective than nagging.
Catching your child doing something good and giving her a compliment is more effective than nagging. | Source

Nagging Alienates Teenagers

Parents nag their teenagers because they're scared. They see their teens making mistakes— not studying, arriving late for an after school job, or drinking alcohol when they're under-age—and want to shield them from the consequences of receiving a bad grade, getting fired, or being arrested. They know these consequences have the potential to hurt their kids in serious, far-reaching ways so they understandably want to prevent that.

When they nag, parents feel like they're exerting some control over their teenager's fate. As their kids get older, parents feel like they're losing control so they nag even more about trivial matters instead of picking their battles carefully. Mike Nicole, author of Stop Arguing with Your Kids, says parents are making a common mistake when they try to control things they don't need to control. He argues, “When parents nit-pick their teenagers over little things, it just makes the children feel alienated. They may argue, they may 'yes' their parents, but whatever the outcome, they feel disrespected, they feel put down and they become antagonistic.”

One thing we can do, when we become aware of our expertise in nagging and the reasons for it, is to appreciate the side benefits of not nagging. Parents who stop nagging and use substitute behavior almost always report reduced stress and positive consequences. Arguments drop significantly, and parents and teenagers learn to get along without the constant bickering.

— Dr. Jan Philamon, psychologist and teacher

Nagging Is a Quick Fix

Some parents nag because their parents nagged, and they fall into that same old familiar routine. Some nag because they're unacquainted with alternatives so they go with what they know, and some nag because they get a thrill from it, feeling powerful while towering over their children and barking orders. They feel in charge when they're nagging even though it's ineffective. Others nag because they're feeling anxious about their own lives and futures. They're fearful about their children making the same mistakes they made. Nagging their kids is an escape from their own problems and insecurities.

More often than not, however, parents nag because it's quick and easy and requires little thought or effort. When moms and dads commit to making a change, though, they see that it pays off in the long run with less family strife and more responsible children. Nagging doesn't work, but collaborating with your child does.

Instead of Nagging, Make a Plan!

Let's say that a mom has a 7-year-old girl with a messy bedroom. She's nagged and nagged, but the place is still a pigsty and she's getting angry. One day she decides to try a different approach and sits down with her daughter to brainstorm and make a chart. On this chart, they list what the girl needs to do to have a neat and tidy room, being as specific as possible: put dirty clothes in hamper, return books to the shelf, put toys in the trunk, make the bed with pillows on top, put dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. They make a clear plan: the daughter needs to do these tasks every morning before she goes downstairs for breakfast. For each task done well, she gets to place a star sticker on the chart. When she gets 10 stickers next to each task, she gets a reward: a movie night, a sleepover with a friend, or a trip to the zoo.

Too often parents make the mistake of thinking children already know how to do chores and are simply being lazy. In reality, cleaning a bedroom is a huge undertaking for a little kid and seems overwhelming. Parents need to break down big jobs into reasonable chunks so they seem doable. Children 6 and under probably need a parent to stay in the bedroom and clean with them. Turn on some music, dance, clean, and cut loose! Make it fun. Parents with reasonable expectations are less likely to nag and feel frustrated.

Nagging doesn't work so why do it?
Nagging doesn't work so why do it? | Source

The problem is, in our efforts to protect children, we take valuable opportunities for learning away from them. Failure provides benefits that cannot be gained any other way. Failure is a gift disguised as a bad experience. Failure is not the absence of success, but the experience of failure on the way to success.

— Mandie Shean, psychologist and teacher

Will Nagging Help Us Reach Our Long-Range Goals?

Parenting is a marathon. Moms and Dads need to look at the long road in front of them and understand their jobs are to prepare children for adulthood, not protect them from making mistakes. According to Debbie Pincus, a family counselor, parents need to set up healthy boundaries between themselves and their youngsters so they'll be less likely to nag. She says: “When you move your focus off of your child and onto yourself by taking responsibility for how you act, your child will likely learn to be more accountable for his behavior.” She advises parents to ask themselves an important question before they start to nag: “What's my responsibility here, and what's my child's?”

A parent's goal in rearing a child is to bring forth an independent, responsible human being. Moms and Dads accomplish this by letting their kids make age-appropriate decisions and learn from the consequences of those decisions. This will prepare them for life on their own. If Moms and Dads accept that making mistakes is not only okay for kids, but essential, they can stop trying to control through nagging and start enjoying their family. Because what we know for certain is, nagging doesn't work!

Do you nag your kids?

If that's the case, why do you continue to do so?

See results

This Book Helped Me to Start Listening and Stop Nagging!

Stop Arguing with Your Kids: How to Win the Battle of Wills by Making Your Children Feel Heard
Stop Arguing with Your Kids: How to Win the Battle of Wills by Making Your Children Feel Heard

As my sons approached their teenage years, I turned to this book for some practical advice. I needed some effective tools to communicate with my boys and stop the cycle of nagging and arguing. I highly recommend this book for helping parents develop a new dynamic that creates mutual respect. This book is easy to understand (no psychobabble) and the ideas are simple to put in place. It brought peace to our home and made me look forward to the teen years, not dread them.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

  • How do I get through to my ADHD kid who I have to chase to do things without nagging?

    Out of fear, I nagged my now eighteen-year-old son too much when he was a boy. Because he's autistic, I worried so much about him and wanted him to be like the other kids, blend in with the crowd, and not look and behave differently from his peers. I hated when he'd “stim” because everyone would stop and stare (or, at least, it felt that way to me). When I came to terms with my own anxiety and self-consciousness about his autism, I was able to back off from the nagging. It wasn't working, and it was hurting our relationship. I let go of my immediate desires (having him clean his room, having him get decent grades) and started looking at my long-term goal (rearing a son who'd become a strong, kind, and independent man one day). My son just graduated from high school and will start college in the fall. I'm so glad I stopped the nagging and built a beautiful relationship with him.

    Having charts and a reward system worked well with my son. I never nagged but gave him points on his chart when he completed a task: doing his homework, cleaning his room, taking out the garbage, walking the dog. After a certain number of points earned, he got a reward that we had previously agreed upon: a bowling night, going to the movies with a buddy, having a sleepover, spending a day at the beach. If his tasks went undone, there were consequences on the weekend: no video games, no trip to the skate park, no going over to his friend's house. I stayed firm, consistent, and unemotional. When he saw that I meant business, he began to get things done and enjoyed earning his perks. He felt in control, and it built his self-confidence. So I recommend that you stop the chasing and let your child live with the consequences of his actions.

  • Why do you feel nagging kids doesn’t work? The research study described in this article seems to contradict your argument, and I don’t see any research-based evidence in your article.

    Nagging is like spanking and time-outs. It may work in the short-term but not in the long-term. It doesn't promote better behavior, it doesn't teach anything, and it damages the parent-child relationship. It's negative and fault-finding and makes youngsters react badly or simply tune it out. They get worn down by it and sometimes stop trying. Teenagers find it especially humiliating.

    The Whole-Brain Child, written by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, is an outstanding resource for parents that I highly recommend. They explain that the “downstairs brain” is primitive and reactive while the “upstairs brain” is sophisticated and analytical. Because their brains are still developing, kids need to be challenged to use their upstairs brains often and not rely too heavily on their downstairs brains. They need help to make better choices. Scientists now believe the decision-making part of the brain doesn't stop developing until age 25 or possibly even later.

    It's critical that moms and dads interact with kids in ways to engage their upstairs brains: talking with them about their feelings and the feelings of others, giving them choices, brainstorming ideas to solve problems, building self-awareness, and learning constructive ways to deal with powerful emotions. Nagging accomplishes none of this. It's typically one-sided with no input from the youngster.

    If a child's room is messy and the parent's only goal is for it to be cleaned, then nagging might work. But, if a parent has a long-range plan (rearing a youngster who's self-motivated, responsible, thoughtful, considerate, and hard-working) nagging is not a useful tool and is counter-productive. It's far better if moms and dads figure out ways to encourage good behavior.

    When you think of teachers with 25 students in their classrooms, they must motivate and not nag. If they were to rely on nagging, they'd be thoroughly exhausted and frustrated by the end of the day and have little to show for it. Instead, they find ways to encourage their students through praise, sticker charts, grades, “student of the week,” and rewards like an extra recess or a trip to the prize jar.

    You may want to read my article entitled “27 More Effective Ways to Praise Your Child Other Than 'You're Amazing.'”


© 2015 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      12 days ago

      I'm sorry to hear that. Are they overwhelmed, stressed out, and doing things on-the-fly? If so, that may be the reason that they're nagging. When busy moms and dads nag, they feel like they're parenting. In reality, though, they're not taking the time to have meaningful conversations with their kids. In a healthy parent-child relationship, kids want to please mom and dad so nagging is unnecessary.

    • profile image


      12 days ago

      my mom and dad nag a lot!!!!!!

    • profile image


      3 months ago

      This is not going to work for households who are ran with an authoritarian dictator.

      They won't care to learn a different way because their way IS the way. And everyone else is a fool.

    • profile image


      6 months ago

      Thanks so much! Maybe this will get my mom to finally stop nagging!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      12 months ago

      I hope it helps!

    • profile image


      12 months ago

      Thank you this might help my Dad understand that nagging makes me feel bad.


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