Parent, Adolescent, and the Use and Abuse of Nagging

When is parental nagging effective, when is it not, and what is an alternative?

Posted Aug 24, 2020

 Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

Years ago, I wrote a post about the use of parental nagging and have since been taken to task by younger readers for supporting this unwelcome source of adult influence.

One responder objected: “I cannot fathom the mental processes that lead to nagging. It is counterproductive in relation to getting the actual task done and builds resentment on both sides. The nagger is in a persistent state of victimhood, the nagged because they are continually harassed.” 

So, let me clarify my thinking and modify what I previously said.

Nagging

The same definition still holds for me: Parental nagging is the use of repeated asking to convince a reluctant child to abide by a family rule or to cooperate with an adult request. 

When excessively applied, nagging can feel unrewarding and taxing to give and to receive. As the reader quoted at the outset suggests, it can wear on both sides of the relationship. 

  • For the nagged: constant nagging is aggressive, invasive, and oppressive: “I hate it when you keep on nagging me!” 
  • For the nagger, constant nagging is demanding, irritating, and exhausting: “I hate having to keep on nagging you!”

If both parties find this behavior so agonizing, why is it so frequently done? 

Why nag?

Partly, I believe, adolescent change is the culprit. For the young person, growing independence fuels the desire to operate more on one’s own terms, in the process becoming increasingly intolerant of being told what to do. So now there can be more active resistance to authority in the form of arguing and more passive resistance in the form of delay. This last is where parental nagging can be employed. Why?

  • Nagging shows the parent is serious: “I keep after you to show that what I want is important.”
  • Nagging is an act of parental follow-through: “I keep after you until the task is accomplished.”

The conflict

At issue for the more independent-minded teenager can be pushing for a compromise: “You can tell me what, I’ll tell you when, and when I get enough ‘when,’ I’ll do what you want—at least partly.” The delay shows that adult authority has no power of command until and unless the teenager agrees to give consent. Thus there is this resulting conflict.

  • Adolescent delay can be an expression of independence: “Whether I do what you want when you want, that’s up to me!” 
  • Parental nagging can be an expression of determination: “We will keep after you until what needs doing gets done!” 

Since nagging can intensify opposition between adolescent independence and parental determination, it’s best for parents to use it selectively, keep it specifically directed, and matter-of-factly (unemotionally) communicated. “I am asking you again to wash and put away the dirty dishes left on the kitchen table after your snack.”   

Adolescents nag, too

To be fair, adolescents can do their share of nagging too, as parents of a willful teenager will sometimes testify. “When we say ‘no,’ why can’t you just accept that? Instead, you keep hounding us to change our minds. You keep asking and asking and asking for us to finally give in!” Now who is nagging who?

Differentiating nagging

So, consider three levels of parental nagging; the first two are often serviceable by providing oversight; the third is often stressful by becoming controlling. 

1. Informative nagging can be reminding: “Remember what needs doing.”

2. Confirming nagging can be checking: “Did you manage to get it done?”

3. Oppressive nagging can be pursuit: “I’ll keep after you until you do it!”

In general, it works best for parents to confine most nagging to the first two levels, which are most lightly given and received. Best not to rely on level three (oppressive) nagging too much, because that is what youthful objection (quoted at the outset) finds hardest to bear.

An alternative

If the wear and tear of parental nagging as a pursuit is getting all parties down, there is a less objectionable but effective alternative: working the exchange points.

The adolescent is still dependent on parents for all manner of permissions and provisions, which the mom or dad is usually glad to give because that is part of their job. However, the relationship needs to be a two-way street, an exchange with each party cooperating and contributing for both to get along. 

So, instead of oppressively nagging to get what was promised but has not been forthcoming, the parent can wait for the next teenage request. Then the adult might pleasantly reply: “I’m happy to provide what you want, but before that, I need you to do what I’ve been asking for.”