“How do I get a child to do as asked, and not when they feel like it, but when you ask them to? I’m totally sick of ranting, having to follow my child round the house to make sure he’s doing what i asked. He won’t come to dinner when asked, won’t go to bed when asked, won’t do anything when asked. Will do things I’ve asked him not to do. Not all the time, but mostly and when he sees fit. He’s too tired to get up and do things he even wants to do. I want him to be able to put himself to bed early, not after he’s done whatever he sees fit.”
Nagging wears us out. And it wears our kids out. Or more accurately, it wears our relationship with our kids out. Nagging our older children is one of those things which can seem so tempting and justified. After all, they are bigger now. They ought to be able to do it. And now they are older, you sure are sick if doing it all, which you’ve probably been doing, un-thanked, for years now…We’ve all been there.
Unfortunately, nagging often doesn’t move anything much forward. In fact, it can move things backward. When your relationship with your child is characterised by trying to get them to do things but there’s no progress then its probably a sign that things need to change.
What kind of problem is it?
It will be tempting to think of the problem – whether it’s cleaning their room or getting ready for school on time – as a “Correction Problem”. You feel you have to state the challenge again and again because they don’t seem to get it. And they are big enough now that they surely should get it!
However, in general, children (and adults!) struggle when they don’t feel connected. Connection is the oil that keeps the wheels of family life moving smoothly. When you are stuck in a seemingly endless series of skirmishes with your kids over little (or big) things, it may in fact be a “Connection Problem” rather than a “Correction Problem”.
This is an important distinction: seeking to correct your child by stating your reasons, or reminding them of what is expected, assumes that they are able to make sense of what you are saying. But once a child (or adult) has gone off-track enough to need correction, chances are their “thinking mind” which can absorb and make sense of reasons, is no longer “on-line”. They are flooded with feelings, and these are what we need to address if things are to move in a positive direction.
Nagging might be a sign that your relationship may have tipped over to the wrong side of the balance between “Connection” and “Correction”, where there just isn’t enough connection to keep things moving in the right direction. There are many reasons for this. But no matter what the reason, if you keep on doing what clearly isn’t working – nagging – you may only head things further downhill.
Three steps: Listen, Limit, Listen
The issues you are nagging them about can probably usefully be understood as limit setting opportunities. I will talk a bit later about the different ways we can approach this. But there are three basic steps – Listen, Limit, Listen.
First, we listen to understand the problem, then once we have decided a limit needs to be brought, we bring it with warmth (the latter being the challenge for most of us!). And then we listen again – to the upset that follows. Believe it or not, that upset is the path to co-operation.
The reason we listen is that the “little” issues we find ourselves nagging about may be standing in for big ones. Reluctance to do homework, for instance, or a tendency to spend too much time watching screens, may turn out to be covering big emotional stresses about social struggles and bullying at school. For whatever reason your child doesn’t feel safe enough or isn’t able to raise the issue directly. In response to their difficulty, big or little, our warmth, our genuine reaching for connection, is what will either smooth the way to getting things done, or it will pull up the underlying emotional tension for release – in our teenagers’ cases, sometimes quite forcefully – stomping, yelling, banging of doors, hitting out, angry tears, and, if you are lucky, heartfelt sobs.
Putting credit in the relationship bank.
How well this goes will depend on the overall state of your relationship. I like to think about this as a kind of bank balance. When you bring a limit, you’ll always be using up “emotional credit”, effectively making a withdrawal from your “relationship bank account”. That is fine, necessary, and as it should be. But you want to be regularly topping up your bank balance with connection, keeping it in credit. Limit setting goes much better you aren’t going into debt or making too many withdrawals. I’ll talk more in my next article about how to “keep out of debt”, but Special Time is a great way to build credit.
Why does it get hard for them?
Why does it get hard for our children to “do the little things”? Older young people have so much going on -developmentally, inside their brain as it prunes and reorganises – and hormonally. This eats up their base level of connection. Chances are you are starting with a connection deficit. So bowling in with expectations and requirements, no matter how reasonable, often doesn’t work because you have a lot less “connection credit” to work with. In many ways, right now, they have less resource than they might have had when they were younger. So we need to choose carefully which issues we want to take on.
They are also functioning in often less-than-ideal school environments where they have to comply -all day long – with a set of rules and expectations they did not get a chance to negotiate. Often their input was not invited. Some of the rules may appear quite arbitrary. It’s hard for most of us who are adults to imagine (or remember) how wearing that is. By the time they get home, our young people have run out of slack for compliance.
Nagging drags things down further. It often doesn’t work because, in making the request, there’s too much of your agenda (You ought to be able to do this by now/I’m the one who does all the work around here etc). And it doesn’t work because mostly, we aren’t bringing enough connection to the challenge.
Limit Setting – Listen first.
So when there’s an issue which has been troubling you and your teen, start by listening for information about the broader circumstances. If they didn’t eat their lunch, was it because they didn’t actually have a lunch break? If they missed the bus, was it because they were upset over something that had happened in the day? If they can’t stay off their social chats, is there some conversation which is actually important to them?
Don’t assume you know what the problem is. If you don’t understand what happened, ask what your child was thinking about at the time (it’s best to avoid the question “Why?” as it tends to get people on the defensive*). Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, suggests that you make yourself available, be open to it when your teen starts to talk even if it is inconvenient, and resist the temptation to give advice.. She recommends you discuss thorny topics by appointment, not by impulse, letting your child know ahead of time what the topic will be.
Is it you, or them?
You’ll also need to check in with yourself. In particular, feelings of urgency can be a sign that we are carrying a lot of feelings about a topic. If we can take some time to download our own tension about the topic with a respectful listener (not our child), our conversation with our child is likely to go better. If you feel pulled to set a limit, check if it is reasonable. Your network of support needs to include other parents you can check your thinking with. Perhaps even ask a teacher (after all, they deal with many teenagers every day.)
Make sure it’s not your feelings that are the real problem. If there’s an issue in your relationship which has been a persistent source of difficulty, then it’s worth taking a Listening Partnership or two to work on your feelings about it before you take it on with your child. Guaranteed, if it’s been going on for a while, you will have some feelings about it. Pent up frustration, anger, resentment, disappointment and grief will get in the way of achieving the magic limit setting tone: warm, relaxed and hopeful.
Is it worth it?
Part of the first step, “Listen”, is to decide if the issue is worth the struggle. Now that our children are older, it’s easy to feel that they ought to be able to do more for themselves, and if we are not careful, these expectations can drag our relationship down. Our focus is pulled off noticing, building, maintaining and repairing our connection with our older child, and we get snagged in low level, unwinnable struggles.
However, at this stage of parenting, you might be wanting to save up your limit setting for issues which really are important. That may not include having them clean up their room. As our children move into adolescence, various changes to their brains mean that they are likely to be exploring (if not pushing) boundaries. They may be more inclined to take risks that ultimately aren’t safe. You don’t want to have used all your credit so there is none left for the big issues. As Patty Wipfler says “Choose your challenges carefully. Make sure that you spend your efforts on course corrections that are vital, not on issues that are matters of taste or personal preference.”
Focus on the important things
How to decide what is important? Patty Wipfler says we need to keep the focus on the principle at issue. So rather than be dragged into a squabble about whether we have confidence in their capacity to keep things safe, you might instead emphasise that the issue is that you need to know where they are so you can help if needs be. Patty also recommends that you structure the challenge toward encouraging independent functioning. So if they are having trouble staying off You Tube while studying, you could help them install a site blocker – finding a way that you aren’t going to be in the position of having to nag, and where they can manage their own screen time better.
Jono Nicholas is CEO of ReachOut, an organisation providing online support to teens. He suggests that the goal of ensuring safety is a good framework for setting limits:
“The most consistent conversation that I would have with children, I have with my own children, is focus on goals, that the number one job of me as a parent is to make sure my kids are safe, happy and well. And it does go in that order. I’d much rather you be safe and unhappy than very happy and unsafe. But if I see you being unsafe, then I’m going to intervene..It…set[s] up the challenge…for your teenagers to say what are the points of intervention? My mum or my dad may intervene if they see me doing unsafe things or they see me being unhappy, but they will probably give me some space if they see I’m doing pretty well. So aligning around goals is often good because it helps your teenager predict when you will intervene and why you will intervene. They may still be unhappy but it won’t be unexpected.”
Then Bring the Limit
So once you have stopped nagging, and you’ve done the work to drain your own tensions about the issue, and you’ve decided that it is important, and touches on broader principles and moves your child in the general direction of independence, how do you set the limit?
I’ve found it most useful to think about bringing the limit rather than setting the limit. It helps to remind me that this is, to some extent , a negotiation rather than an exercise of power. This focus is even more important now that my child is older. I’m bringing something to my child. I may need to do it decisively.
As Patty Wipfler says: “It doesn’t work to stand back and issue orders to a child whose behavior is beyond reason. She needs someone to offer concrete help at that moment. Your words are far less effective than your kind, firm actions when your child can’t think.”
So we need to bring the limit – often putting ourselves physically in the mix – sometimes playfully, sometimes more directly. But it’s our job to keep things safe, and we’ll often need to move in to do that. When our children were little, it was to stop them pulling the baby’s hair. Now it might be to stop them driving drunk.
Another tip that helps keep my limit setting on-track is to use five words or less. It stops me from getting into a whole long justification about my reasons. Which won’t, likely, work, because the part of my child’s brain that can process this information is already “off-line”. There’s no point reaching for my child’s “thinking mind”, because right now, it is not there.
The triple bonus of playful limit setting
Around chronic difficulties – things you have been scrapping over for a while, playful limit setting goes a long, long way. With Playlistening, you’re looking for the place when you can make them laugh – begging, sending yourself up, offering completely bizarre and quirky “consequences”: “If you don’t clean up your room, you’ll have to listen to me sing You Are My Sunshine ten times over”. You could offer to help, but noisily and bumblingly. With great fanfare and dedication, put the socks in the t-shirt drawer and the school books in the bathroom cupboard. They may roll their eyes, but by approaching the difficulty this way, you have set an important tone.
You get a triple bonus when you approach the problem playfully. The laughter itself is a connecting force, which helps move things along in a positive direction. Laughter may also be draining some more specific tension your child is carrying – a hard day at school being lectured at by teachers or negotiating a tricky social situation, for instance. And the final bonus is that it’s a huge relief to our children anytime we respond playfully in a situation where we, or other adults, have tended to react with tension in the past. They have been sending you a signal, all this time, and this time you got it. This time you aren’t tense. Their laughter is releasing the fears which have accumulated from all the earlier times when adults were tense with them about something.
Expectations can act as a limit.
Other times, holding out a relaxed high expectation acts as a kind of limit. *Relaxed* is the operative word. “You can tidy up your room”, cheerfully, and perhaps offering your company in some way, without judgement or criticism, can function as a limit.
We bring the limit, and then we hold it. Staying relaxed, and aiming for a neutral, ideally warm tone, we might need to say “I know you can do this” when our child doesn’t jump immediately to the task at hand.
Then Listen: Upsets are the path to co-operation.
When we bring limits -the ones we really have to bring – it is often the occasion of a big upset for our children. We can mistake this for defiance or resistance. But it’s actually the path to co-operation.
That’s because it’s likely that you are bringing the limit because your child is off track (almost by definition – if they weren’t, the thing that needs doing would be done). And it is feelings that drive off-track behaviour. We won’t always know their source – not enough sleep, a botched test, a fight with a friend, hard work and effort that wasn’t acknowledged, not enough play. Sometimes, the feelings are welling up from big past hurts much earlier in their life.
When we bring a limit, those feelings are brought out into the open. It’s good to be prepared for this, ready to listen and deciding not to take it personally. Often, after the release of feelings, you’ll be able to come to some agreement about how things should proceed.
As Patty Wipfler, Founder of Hand in Hand Parenting says in her wonderful booklet Supporting Adolescents:
“When young people feel pleased, hopeful, and close to others, they make intelligent decisions about their lives. Perhaps not the decisions their parents would make, but decisions that show thought, caring, and confidence in themselves and others. When a young person’s judgment has gone awry, emotional upset has trapped his thinking. He has become too isolated, or too discouraged, or too full of some feeling or confusion to function well…We need to learn to move supportively toward a teenager who has become trapped in actions that don’t work. He needs to know that we notice the difficulty. He needs us to set reasonable limits for him. And we need to expect that these limits will ignite the upset that smolders in him. We need to be ready to listen.”
Why does it get hard for us?
One of our major difficulties lies in separating our own troubles from our teenagers. As Patty Wipfler says, “We want to understand them, but can’t get close enough to understand them if our own upsets are sticking out all over”. We need to build good support for ourselves, work on our own issues (away from our children), and acknowledge that often, we are tired, coming to the challenge of parenting adolescents with 10-15 years of hard parenting work behind us. Patty says “When we feel too exhausted to meet one more challenge, we need a listener. We need someone to help us work our way toward releasing the heavy feelings that weigh on us. A Listening Partnership is just the place to laugh, cry, and rage about what’s hard in our lives. This emotional release can help us regain the energy to take initiative and enjoy the challenges in our lives again.” 
Dan Seigel talks about teenagers’ ESSENCE – Emotional Spark, Social Engagement, Novelty seeking and Creative Exploration. He says “the essence of adolescence turns out to be the ESSENCE of how to live a full and vital life as an adult.” Our teens need to see us having a good, purposeful, connected life.
In addition, most of us are carrying around an untold story about our adolescence. For many of us, our teen years were not easy. Adults who were of much help were few and far between. Lately, I’ve been having fun just working through the story of my adolescence – just the things I remember, good and bad. I never want to do this, but once I get started with a respectful listener, I’m finding it rich pickings. I feel like I’m reconnecting with a vital part of myself, somewhat lost in being 55. And in those volatile years of my adolescence there were painful, formative experiences which it’s been a great relief to retell. It helps me meet my 14 year old daughter with more of a spring in my step.
In part two, I will outline how you can begin to build more credit into your emotional bank account with your teen. But one thing is pretty clear – nagging won’t help. It will neither build the connection you need, nor help you bring limits successfully. You’ll nag, nothing much will change, and you will be picking the mess up yourself anyway – both literally, and metaphorically. Save yourself the extra work. Focus on building credit with your teen, and unpack the dishwasher one more time without complaint. They may surprise you, at some point, and come fill up the sink with hot water to wash the pots, without you asking at all.
Dr Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry, refers to the adolescent brain as a construction site – the necessary re-modelling that starts around 12 year of age may mean various functions are off-line for a while. Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain (1st ed.) NY, NY: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin, [Print]. p 103
 Hugh MacKay, eminent Australian social researcher, has spent his life interviewing people. He says he banned the question “Why?”, and says it is a “fundamentally useless question, which does not work in personal relationships.” Asking “why?” immediately assumes that there is a rational reason for doing something, and that we know what that is. But much of what is going on in our minds is happening at an unconscious level, and is not simple but a complicated mix of rational and emotional reasons, with the emotional often prevailing. And “why” can be very confronting question, tends to be adversarial and makes people feel defensive. If the person you are asking is unable to produce an acceptable answer, it prompts lying.
Kanowski, S, (Interviewer) and MacKay, H.(2018, May 17) How the state of your nation begins in your street. [Audio podcast] ABC Radio National – Conversations, Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
 Wipfler, P. (2006a) Supporting adolescents. [Print] Palo Alto, USA. Hand in Hand, p13-14
 Dr Dan Siegel, says adolescence is characterised by novelty seeking, which is part of what will impel our children to move beyond the comfort and security of their childhoods. Risky behaviour, the result of changes to the brain’s dopamine receptors, results in what Siegel calls “positive bias” allowing adolescents to emphasise the pros of any course of action and de-emphasise the cons. The result is that “we are three times more likely to suffer serious injury or death during this time and we were in childhood or than we will be in adulthood.” p18. The upside is that young people are ” open to change and living passionately [which can be] honed into a fascination for life and a drive to design new ways of doing things and living with a sense of adventure.” Siegel, D. (2013), p70 & p8
 Wipfler, P. (2006a) p25.
 Wipfler, P. (2006a) p26.
 Malcolm, L. (Interviewer), Nicholas, J., (2017 Mar 10) Growing up digitally. ABC Radio National – All in the Mind. [Audio podcast] Australian Broadcasting Corporation,
 Wipfler, P. (2006b) Setting limits with children. Palo Alto, USA: Hand in Hand Parenting, p13
 Hand in Hand Parenting. (2018, 5 Aug) How to set limits in five words or less | A parenting resources guide. [Blog Post]
 Wipfler, P. (2006a) p23
 Wipfler, P. (2006a) p9 & 12
 Siegel, D. (2014, February 7) The ESSENCE of adolescence. [Blog post].
 My daughter, who was in her early teens at the time, and I watched the entire 7 series of Pretty Little Liars. I don’t know that I’d recommend it /-: but what I was struck by was what an accurate picture it draws of the way adults fail young people. Many of the adults were well meaning and caring, but were unable to really listen to their children and their friends. This left the young people with only themselves as a point of reference, spinning further and further into crisis.
The Photo above is called “Mom and Teen” by Irelynkiss. CC-BY-2.0
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© 2019 by Madeleine Winter.