I feel like I'm ALWAYS Nagging. Help!

by Jenn Chrisman, Clinical Psychologist
Originally Published: 
A portrait of a nagging little girl with an angry facial expression

One of the most difficult challenges of parenting is the conflict that occurs when our children don’t do what we want them to do. As parents, but I think mothers especially, we have certain expectations of both ourselves and our children. We often times will carry the burden of raising our children to be a certain way and embody certain characteristics or qualities, such as being responsible, respectful, kind, and courteous.

Whether it’s teaching our children manners, following directions, or basic hygiene like brushing teeth, our illusion of control and efforts to “teach” often end up interfering more with our children’s ability to learn. We encourage, explain, lecture, and remind ad nauseum but it seems to do no good; they still aren’t behaving the way we would like them to.

Why is this? The hard pill to swallow, and I often upset other parents when I say this, is that we don’t actually have as much control over our children as we think we do. The reality is, our children are their own little beings, with their unique personalities, and they are going to make the choices they make of their own volition. We cannot control who our children become; at best, we can hope to influence them.

Getting clear with ourselves about how much and what we actually have control over can alleviate a lot of angst and frustration that comes with parenting. So, what do we have control over? We have control over our own attitudes and actions. We have control over our own boundaries, deciding what we are okay with and what we are not, and we have control over upholding the consequences that come when these boundaries are not respected. We get to assert these boundaries, but whether or not our children abide by them is up to them.

The 13 year old girl who still isn’t making the effort to brush her teeth may finally give in and go brush just to get mom to stop nagging her, but she hasn’t really internalized the importance of dental hygiene. Imagine what might happen if, instead of lecturing and reminding her to brush, mom let her go to school with dragon breath and she felt the discomfort or embarrassment of her friends’ rejection.

I know this probably sounds harsh, and as parents, the last thing we want is our children to hurt, which is why we expend so much effort into trying to teach them to behave a certain way. But in the example above, which do you think will do more to actually motivate this young girl to take responsibility for herself: her mom’s nagging or the natural consequences of peer rejection?

As parents, we want to take responsibility for what we will and will not do and let our children deal with the natural consequences. No lecturing, no criticizing, no preaching. It is important to respect our children’s ability to make choices, even if we don’t agree with them. And then it is our responsibility to respond to their choices from our own informed and appropriate thinking and action, i.e. setting a limit and sticking to it.

Some tips to help you move away from the endless frustration of lecturing, nagging, and reminding:

1. Give Yourself a Timeout Just Before You Start Your Lecture. As soon as you notice yourself becoming frustrated, irritated, or worried about your child’s behaviors, take a moment to step back and breathe. This second between your child’s action and your response is a critical moment in parenting. When we have awareness, we allow ourselves to make more thoughtful choices, rather than reacting impulsively and emotionally. Take a step back and think about the bigger picture, reminding yourself that the lecturing, threatening, and nagging is not helping your child to grow. Although it can be sometimes painfully uncomfortable, taking this step back allows your child to make his own decision and then experience the natural consequences of that decision.

2. Move Your Attention Off of Your Child and Onto Yourself. Again, we spend far too much time focusing on what our children should or should not be doing and our time would be better spent instead focusing on what we can or should do. When we shift our focus onto ourselves, we get to ask ourselves difficult questions, such as “What would a responsible parent do in this situation? What are my options and which do I want to choose? Am I willing to live with the consequences of what I choose?”

A few weeks ago, my 3 ½ year old and I were grocery shopping and he decided it would be a good idea to knock over the display case of seaweed snacks and then keep walking. This trip to the grocery store was in preparation for a family meal we were having that night, at which his grandma would be joining us, and was a big deal dinner for him. I calmly asked him to pick up the seaweed snacks, informing him that when we knock something over, we have to clean it up, blah, blah, blah. The more I talk, the farther away he walks. I had to ask myself in that moment, what I was realistically willing to do. I wanted him to clean up his mess, and responsible parenting suggests that this is what he should do, but how willing was I to accept the consequences if he chose not to? So, I presented him with his choices, he could either clean up the mess and we could continue our shop, or he could choose not to and we would go home without the food and cancel our dinner with grandma. I gave him an appropriate timeline to make this choice, a count of 3, and I was prepared to leave with a screaming child in protest. Thankfully, this time, he chose wisely and cleaned up…but only because I’ve let him experience the consequences before and he knows that mommy doesn’t make empty threats, I take responsibility for my part in upholding the boundaries that I have set.

3. Ask Yourself, “What Does My Child Really Need?” Infants have different needs than toddlers, who have different needs from school aged kids, who have different needs from teenagers. Additionally, different temperaments will determine different needs, as well as any special circumstances such as an ADHD diagnosis, a recent divorce in the family, or even simply a missed nap. Taking time to consider these questions allows us to really identify what a child actually needs and what our responsibilities are and are not.

4. Learn to Recognize the Line that Determines Where You End and Your Child Begins. This is what we call boundaries and it is often times the hardest part of a relationship, especially a mother-child relationship. Far too often we are unaware of where these boundaries lie and we unknowingly, or even knowingly, cross them. Learn to see your child as their own person, separate from you, with their own unique personalities, likes and dislikes, and needs.

Additionally, make time to learn and understand yourself in the same way, separate from your children, with your own interests and needs. Identify what your triggers are and what is likely to have you crossing their boundaries and invading their space. It is very easy for the lines to be blurred between a mother and child, and it most often times stems from our very best intentions. However, it is critical that we learn how to act in ways that respect our own personal values and principles and to promote a healthy emotional separateness from our children.

The more emotionally separate we are from our children, the more able they are to see us as our own person, with our own strengths and weaknesses, which in turn allows them to be better able to see themselves. When we get out of their space and out of their heads, no longer telling them what to do all the time, our children are freed up to cultivate their own awareness of themselves and others, and to act from this place of self-awareness rather than just in reaction to mom.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to not control so much of our children’s lives, just imagine how nice your day might be, or all that you could get done, if you weren’t so busy nagging, reminding, and lecturing!

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