Have you been accused of nagging your teenage son or daughter? Do you find yourself in a constant state of worry that your child isn’t social enough, smart enough, or doing enough? Do you show your irritation by suggesting that your teen act on your advice?
You are not alone. Many parents feel frustrated and angry when adolescents do not respond positively to pleas for changes in their behavior. Whether it is a plea to get homework done on time, clean their rooms, find better friends, or discover a passion, the primary message behind nagging is “You are not enough.”
The first thing to understand about nagging is that it doesn’t work. Adding threats of punishment when teens don’t take your advice doesn’t work either. In fact, nagging is an expression of negative emotion and can have serious consequences for parent-child relationships.
In today’s competitive Digital Age culture, children and teens consistently hear negative messages from peers that affect their resilience, self-confidence, and hope in the future. At school, they may be struggling to make good grades, compete at sports, or feel accepted. Most kids, at some point in their middle or high school years, come to believe the message “I am not enough.”
Listen to the doc. If your pediatrician thinks your kid's fever is caused by a virus, don't push for antibiotics. The best medicine may be rest, lots of fluids, and a little TLC. Overprescribing antibiotics can cause medical problems for your child and increase the chances of creating superbugs that resist treatment.
Home should be the primary place where kids get positive reinforcement and non-confrontational support. Teens with parents who understand these concepts, usually negotiate their ways through adolescence to discover that they are enough and, in fact, like who they are.
In homes with daily negative interactions with parents, adolescence becomes much more challenging. With an overwhelming sense that nothing is enough, teens can become bored, anxious, depressed, and apathetic.
Nagging is a pattern that develops over time and involves two people. It takes both people to recognize and change the pattern. Of course, when infractions of family rules occur, consequences must exist. But most nagging by parents falls into two categories: 1) Small stuff, or 2) Big stuff that is now the responsibility of your teen to figure out for themselves.
The Psychological Work of Adolescence
Researchers agree that the psychological work of adolescence is to “become yourself”—to form an identity separate from your parents (Arnold 2017). Conversely, the psychological work for parents is to value this emerging young adult while you are grieving the loss of your compliant child. This is tough work for teens and parents. The journey is made tougher when parents do not allow teens to do their own work of “becoming.” Parents often believe they have a better vision of success than their adolescent. This mindset leads parents and teenagers into rocky waters and creates a foundation for nagging.
Avoid food fights. A healthy child instinctively knows how much to eat. If he refuses to finish whatever food is on his plate, just let it go. He won't starve.
During the years leading up to adolescence, parents occupy roles that allow them to have greater power and authority over their kids. Often, this authority is enough to get kids to comply with simple demands or suggestions. At some time during middle and high school, it is natural for children to develop their own identities. Part of that process is to gain a sense of choice and control over their own lives.
Nagging sets up a power struggle between parent and teens. There are no winners. Ever. Consider the following scenario:
Debra Messing with her son Roman Walker Zelman at The Project Angel Food's 2018 Angel Awards on August 18, 2018 in Hollywood, California. Will and Grace actress Debra Messing might be one of America’s most beloved sitcom stars, but according to the 50-year-old Emmy winner, her son, Roman, is not quite as impressed.
Mom to teenage son: “When are you going to start working on your homework project? You know Mrs. Cooper will not tolerate a late assignment.”
Son to Mom: “Yeah, I know. You don’t need to remind me.”
Mom to son: “Well, obviously, I do need to remind you because you aren’t doing well in Mrs. Cooper’s class.”
Son: Silently leaves the room.
In this example, neither the mother or son feel good about the interaction. In fact, they likely feel angry. Nothing has been accomplished.
The son either acts like an obedient child and does his homework. Or he exercises his developing sense of self-control and denies, or delays compliance. His maturing adolescent brain gives him a natural push toward denial.
Full listening. Try to increase those times that you give your child your undivided attention and are really listening. This does not mean dropping everything every time she speaks.
The mother, perhaps unaware of her shifting influence in her son’s life or the natural role of adolescence, grows frustrated. She asks herself, “What am I doing wrong?”
The mother and son enter a pattern of nagging that is unhealthy for both parties. The mother repeats her demands on numerous topics; the son exerts his control. The pattern is self-perpetuating, with each reacting to the other in similar ways.
5 Steps to End Nagging and Build a Better Relationship with Your Teen
The alternative to nagging is to develop a relationship that communicates to your teen, “You are enough.” Young people need to feel heard and understood—to know that parents support, not judge them. For parents, it means letting go of the idea of overseeing everything and learning to respect your teenager’s emerging sense of new identity.
Where do you begin? Start with these five steps:
- Recognize the Pattern. If you have developed a pattern of nagging in your household, begin by recognizing its existence and not placing blame on either parent or teen. Nagging is an understandable problem and can be changed. Identifying a negative behavior allows you to replace it with positive behaviors.
- Initiate Positive Change. It is usually the parent who must initiate change. Sometimes this happens as the result of therapy or parent coaching, as often positive change is aided by the help of a third party. That said, many parents can break out of the habit of nagging their teens, especially when they recognize how it is affecting themselves and their kids.
- Meet with Your Teen . It is never too late to renegotiate a healthier relationship with your adolescent. If nagging is a habit that involves more than one child or impacts the entire family, consider discussing it at a family meeting . Otherwise, you may wish to address the issue between the two parties that are most involved.
- Name the Problem. Take responsibility for your role in nagging and name the problem. Let your teen know that you are not perfect, and you don’t expect them to be perfect. Share your feelings about yourself when you nag them. Listen to your teen. Understand how he or she feels when they are nagged. Talk about the emerging self-identity in your teen and your own feelings about losing the child they once were. Whatever feels authentic and real for your situation is the best starting place. Invite two-way conversation with your teen, without shaming or blaming.
- Create a New Plan. Explore how you can each take steps that will improve the situation. For example, Mom says, “I know you are capable and I’m not going to interfere with or remind you about homework again unless you ask me to. That will be hard for me because it has become a habit. Would you be willing to share a brief update about your school work every week, so I don’t worry about you?” If the son agrees, also agree on what day of the week to expect the update. “If I don’t hear from you on that day, do I have your permission to ask about your update the next day?” Find out what your son needs from you and offer to meet his request in a way that is agreeable. Meet every week or two for the first few months to make sure you are both sticking to the plan and negotiate further issues that come up. Keep a sense of humor. Perhaps create a secret hand-signal to remind each other when nagging behaviors are surfacing.
Schedule daily special time. Let your child choose an activity where you hang out together for 10 or 15 minutes with no interruptions. There's no better way for you to show your love.
When families rid themselves of nagging, relationships get infused with more energy and compassion. Parents get to know and appreciate teenagers for who they are, not just for what they do. This shift in focus helps parents reinforce family values that help create healthy learning environments for their children and themselves.