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Why Nagging Doesn't Work and Damages the Parent-Child Bond

While mothering her sons, Ms. Meyers fell into the habit of nagging. When realizing that she was doing so out of fear, she was able to stop.

Asserting independence, teens can become stubborn and defiant when parents nag.

Asserting independence, teens can become stubborn and defiant when parents nag.

The Negative Consequences of Nagging Kids

“Remember to wear your glasses...Don't put in your earbuds...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 was overriding my good judgment, causing me to nag even when I knew I shouldn't.

Here are 5 reasons why constant nagging could negatively affect children for the worse:

1. It makes them feel incompetent.

2. It makes them feel manipulated.

3. It emphasizes the negative instead of the positive.

4. It alienates them.

5. It provides no long-term solution.

1. It Makes Them Feel Incompetent

Parenting is a challenging job and, along the way, we pick up bad habits. One of these is nagging. In an effort to protect our children and prevent them from suffering the consequences of their behavior, moms and dads can 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 feel incompetent and, thus, become overly dependent on us.

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

2. It Makes Them Feel Manipulated

Dr. Robert Myers, a clinical psychologist who has worked with children and adolescents for over 25 years, warns that nagging weakens the parent-child bond. Kids simply tune it out because it's so unpleasant and “the more you nag, the less they hear,” he says. When carping moms and dads want to have a serious talk about drugs, sex, or other weighty issues, they shouldn't be surprised when their kids turn a deaf ear.

Dr. Myers explains that adolescents who get nagged feel manipulated and, therefore, resist it with all their might. 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 reacting to their insubordination by nagging even more, moms and dads should see their kids' responses as normal and healthy. It simply means that they're growing up and separating from parental authority.

Catching our children doing something positive and complimenting them is far more effective than nagging.

Catching our children doing something positive and complimenting them is far more effective than nagging.

3. It Emphasizes the Negative Instead of the Positive

Dr. Myers states that nagging harms the parent-child relationship because it's negative. He cautions: “Nagging is a way of finding fault, and it tends to wear people down instead of building them up.” When moms and dads do it excessively, their children feel defeated. They figure that they can't do anything right so they might as well stop trying.

A more effective strategy is to catch kids doing something positive and praise their efforts. Parents can increase extrinsic motivation by offering age-appropriate rewards. They can, for example, give stickers, little toys, or a trip to the park for younger kids and extra television or computer time for older ones. Moreover, moms and dads should never underestimate the power of a simple compliment, especially with adolescents. Saying: "I appreciate how you filled the car with gas after borrowing it" means a lot more to teens than parents may imagine.

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

4. It Alienates Them

Michael P. Nichols is a family therapist and author of Stop Arguing With Your Kids, a book that I found extremely helpful as I parented my sons through the teen years. He advises moms and dads to be discerning when picking battles with their kids. He suggests letting go of the inconsequential (dirty socks on the floor, lights left on in the bathroom) to focus on the big-picture goal of rearing kids who will become responsible, independent adults with keen problem-solving skills.

Nichols says a common mistake moms and dads make is trying to control things that they don't need to control. He states, “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.”

When it comes to nagging, parents should choose their battles carefully or they'll antagonize their teens.

When it comes to nagging, parents should choose their battles carefully or they'll antagonize their teens.

5. It Provides No Long-Term Solution

Parents nag for many reasons and are more likely to do so when feeling overwhelmed. While offering a quick fix in the moment, badgering our kids does nothing to stop the problem from recurring. Moreover, it comes at a high cost: damaging the parent-child relationship, making kids feel incompetent, and decreasing the likelihood of them becoming confident, capable adults.

Debbie Pincus, a family counselor, says parents can achieve a long-term solution by establishing healthy boundaries between themselves and their youngsters. This, she claims, will greatly decrease or eliminate their impulse to nag. To accomplish this, she advises moms and dads to ask themselves an important question before opening their mouths: “What's my responsibility here, and what's my child's?” Pincus states: “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.”

Why Parents Nag

Nagging is about us, not our kids. It's a sign that our lives are out of sync and we need to make changes. The following are common reasons why we may be turning to this ineffective and destructive method of communicating with our youngsters:

  • We feel powerless in our lives: in our marriages, our jobs, and our families. Wanting to be in control of something, 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 and barking out orders—we forget that kids are little people who need our patience and guidance.
  • Our expectations are out-of-whack. Thinking a kindergartner can clean their bedroom all by themselves or a teenager will always return the car with a full tank of gas is unreasonable and causes frustration.
  • 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 example because it's what we know.

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

Final Thoughts

The ultimate goal of parents is to rear children who will become independent, responsible adults. They accomplish this by allowing their kids to make age-appropriate decisions for themselves and to learn from the consequences. If moms and dads accept that making mistakes is not only okay for youngsters but essential, they can stop trying to control situations by nagging.

Do you nag your kids?

In this video, author and father, Bruce Feiler, explains how parents can nag less by empowering their kids more.

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

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

Answer: 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.

Question: 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.

Answer: 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.'”

Question: How do I get my parents to stop nagging me without making it obvious?

Answer: It sounds like you've discovered that this needs to be handled in a subtle and clever way. When you accuse someone of being a nag, they may become angry and defensive. It's a rare person who hears such criticism, looks inward, and chooses to change. Instead, many people double-down on their kvetching, saying things such as: “If I didn't nag, nothing would get down around here!”

So, instead of advising your parents not to nag or explaining why it's ineffective, use a little psychology. It's a good strategy to own the problem and throw them off balance. Tell them that you're forgetful but do better when you see things in writing. Explain that you're a visual learner, not an auditory one. As such, you'd appreciate it if they'd make a list of the things that they wanted you to do. Then, you'll check the items off as you complete them.

When they start to nag, calmly and consistently remind them to write it down. It may take many months before they get into the routine of doing this. However, when you finish the tasks in a timely manner, they'll see that this system works and will be more likely to comply.

You must remember, though, that they get a payoff from nagging. Therefore, they'll resist giving it up at first. I wish you well with this.

Question: What should the consequence be once your young adult fails to do the things you've agreed upon and how do you enforce it?

Answer: The psychoanalyst, Anna Freud, famously said: “A mother's job is to be left” (and I'm sure she'd say the same for father's)! In today's hectic world, though, many moms and dads don't set such far-ranging parenting goals. Instead, they just try to get through each day and handle problems with their kids as they come.

If, however, your ultimate aim is to rear a child who will become a competent, independent, and contributing adult member of society, you want to use a combination of logical and natural consequences. Natural consequences are far more age-appropriate for young adults.

Logical consequences are stated in advance by the parents, understood by the child, and are related to the unwanted behavior. A dad, for example, may tell his teenage son that he can borrow the car but only if he returns it with a full tank. He makes it clear that, if that doesn't happen, the penalty will be no use of the car for a week.

Natural consequences, on the other hand, are what parents should rely on as their kids grow older instead of creating consequences for them. Unfortunately, many moms and dads are too anxious to let their kids fail. Therefore, they make the mistake of sheltering them from natural consequences.

A mom, for instance, has bribed her daughter in the past to study for her Spanish tests and has grounded her when she received a low score. Now, she's decided to take a step back and rely on natural consequences, realizing her daughter needs to experience the full negative impact of failing to study. She doesn't let her fears overpower her better judgment, deciding her daughter must contend with the natural consequences, whether that means getting a low grade, having to repeat the class, or not going to college. Most parenting experts agree that natural consequences are far and away the most effective way for kids to learn.

If by “young adult,” you mean your child is of legal age, it may be time to accept that your parenting responsibilities are over now. Your adult child's defiance may be signaling that it's time for them to make their way in the world. If they're not abiding by the agreements you've made, it would be reasonable to give them three months notice to find another living arrangement. This would not be a punishment or a rejection but a realization that they need to take the reins of their life. At this point, your involvement may be hindering their journey into adulthood rather than helping it. I wish you well with that.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on April 06, 2020:

You're a wise 15-year-old. Whether an adult is nagging their child or their spouse, they do so because there's a payoff for them. It may make them feel powerful at home when they feel impotent at work. It may relieve their anxiety, making them feel in control in a world that's often out of our control. It may make them feel superior, pointing out how they perform tasks better than the person they're nagging. Whatever the payoff is, it's important to understand that nagging is all about the person doing it and not the person receiving it. Take care!

Anonymous on April 06, 2020:

I don't think parents know that they should not nag and I, a 15 year old knows they should not because I just got grounded after arguing with my parents for nagging. This is an amazing article, but because parents don't know they are doing something wrong, they will never search it up and come across this

McKenna Meyers (author) on March 09, 2020:

Parents from all socioeconomic groups nag their children. What they nag about, though, can differ according to their unique anxieties. That's because moms and dads nag out of fear. For example, wealthy and successful parents might worry about their kids getting into good colleges. Therefore, they're more likely to nag about grades and extracurricular activities. Lower income parents in high-crime neighborhoods might nag their kids more about staying safe and not falling in with the wrong crowd.

joh harold on March 09, 2020:

Does nagging involves parents income?

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 09, 2019:

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.

anonymus on November 09, 2019:

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