Nagging or Reminding: A Psychologist Explains the Difference

This morning I gently reminded my daughter—yet again—to email her teacher about a question she had on her homework. I’ve been reminding her for the past three days and she still hadn’t done it. Her response to my “helpful nudge” was, “Mom, I know. Stop nagging me about it! I’m going to do it.” Then she stormed off.

Here’s the thing, I know nagging is ineffective. I teach all my clients that it’s not effective. Not only does nagging trigger the very response I just got from my daughter; it also impedes the development of our teens’ ability to self-regulate. And yet, here I was—nagging.

mom and daughter
Nagging teens sends a message that we don’t think they are competent. (Twenty20 @svetlaya)

The differences between reminding and nagging

So, I got to thinking. What’s the difference between reminding and nagging? How do we remind our kids to do something without coming across as a shrew? I came up with two key differences.

Intention. Nagging assumes the person hasn’t done something, isn’t planning on doing something, or has completely forgotten to do something. For example, “Don’t forget to email your teacher,” or “You need to email your teacher.” They sound like accusations. They send the message that we don’t think they are competent or have things under control.

Naturally, this makes the other person feel attacked, which triggers their defenses. In the case with my daughter, I found out that she had written an email to her teacher, but when she pushed send her Internet futzed out and she lost everything she had written. She was already frustrated, so when I asked about it, she snapped.

When we remind, on the other hand, we can do it in a way that gives them the benefit of the doubt. For example, “How’d your chat with your teacher go?” or “I’m looking forward to hearing what your teacher said about your homework.” In my case, this would have opened a window for my daughter to express her frustration without feeling defensive. Even if she did forget to do it, she would know that I trusted her to do it on her own. It’s a subtle difference, but it can completely change how our teens perceive it and respond.

Frequency. When we check in once maybe twice, it’s reminding. When we check in incessantly, it’s nagging. Teens want to feel like they have control over their own lives. They want to do things on their own free will, not because they were told to. They may need more time to work up the courage, figure out what to say, or simple to feel ready. If we ask too frequently, we don’t give them a big enough window to act independently. To feel like they are doing it by choice (not on command), they need enough padding between when we ask and when they do.

You need to be clear about your goal

You may be thinking, “But if I don’t nag them, they will never get it done.” And that may well be. But then I ask you, what is your goal: To teach them how to obey you and do as told or to learn how to problem-solve and motivate themselves on their own?

If it’s the second (aka you want them to become self-sufficient, competent adults), then nagging isn’t going to help. Instead, identify a clear consequence if they don’t complete the task at hand. Ideally, this is a natural consequence (e.g. you get an F on your homework) or a consequence that is directly related (you’ll have to do this homework plus an extra assignment to make up for it being late).

Communicate this consequence to your teen clearly, agree on a timeframe that it needs to be completed within, and ask them to repeat it so you’re sure they understand. You can ask them if they would like you to remind them later that day or if they need your help to get it done. Then, say you trust that they will get it done and pass the ball to them. The task is now 100% in their court. They can either run with it or they can drop the ball and deal with the consequences.

The choice and the outcome are theirs—not yours.

More to Read:

Social Distancing: 30 Things Your Teen Can Do Alone or With the Family

The Hardest Part of Parenting is Watching Our Teens Make Mistakes

About Cameron Caswell

Cameron (Dr. Cam) Caswell, PhD is a developmental psychologist, family coach, teen expert, certified professional success coach (CPSC), author, and inspirational speaker. She is on a mission to help parents build strong, positive relationships with their teens through improved communication, connection, and understanding. Dr. Cam is a mom of a teen too, so she not only talks the talk, she walks the walk!

Read more posts by Cameron

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.