Avoiding the Negative Nag Syndrome

Kids need a lot of guidance and sometimes as their parents we can end up feeling like nags – constantly riding them to change their behavior. One way to get across our message without nagging is to use “I” statements. Not only do we get away from nagging, but “I” statements are constructive and help children understand that their behavior impacts others. Using “I” statements also helps kids learn to express and clarify their own feelings, a fundamental pillar in constructive communication.


An “I” statement is a communication skill that tells the other person how you feel about what they did. The focus is on you, rather than the other person. Ideally, “I” messages don’t label and they minimize blame.

“I” messages have four parts, although you don’t have to use all four parts in all circumstances:

1. State what is happening.
2. State how you feel.
3. Explain why you feel that way.
4. Suggest what behavior you’d like to see next time.

Here are some examples:

– “When you don’t call, I feel worried because I don’t know where you are.” (Uses options 1, 2, and 3 only.)
– “I am scared when you play with scissors because you could hurt yourself. So the next time they are left out, please wait until I am with you to use them.” (Uses options 1, 2, 3, and 4.)
– “I need you to wash your hands before you help make cookies.” (Uses only option 1.)

“I” statements work best for kids when the “I” language is a direct appeal for help. For example, “I can’t set the table when your homework is all over it, so please pick it up.”

“I” statements are most effective when parents address the real problem. Often it’s not the behavior that bothers parents but what results from the behavior. For example, when a child doesn’t brush their teeth, what a parent really worries about is cavities. Be clear when communicating. For example, “When you don’t brush your teeth I worry that you will get cavities and it’s not fun to have them filled.”

When you give an “I” statement, your child may want to communicate their thoughts on the issue, so be ready to listen and work toward a solution. For example:

Parent: “When you come home late, I get worried.”
Child: “But if I take the earlier bus then I miss our on an extra 45 minutes of time with my friends. With the later bus I only get home 15 minutes late.”
Parent: “I didn’t realize this. Why don’t you text me when you get on the bus and I’ll give you an extra 15 minutes leeway.”

Be careful to keep anger out of you “I” messages. Otherwise even if you use a proper “I” message your tone and body language may indicate your anger and your child will pick up on your deeper, angry feelings, and react to those. Also be sure to avoid negative opinions or statements such as “I feel that you are lazy” or “I feel like you forget to call me on purpose”.

Remember to give friendly “I” messages too, especially those that are linked to specific actions because they help encourage positive behavior. For example, “I noticed that you cleaned up your toys. That sure made me happy.” or “I noticed you were patient with your little brother when he needed your help. I was proud of you.”


Although “I” statements are generally more useful and constructive, they are not perfect. Three drawbacks are routinely pointed out.

1. “I” statements are less effective or simply don’t work in families where the parents tend to not listen when their children have problems. If you want your kids to listen to you, you need to listen to them and model the behavior you would like to see when you have a problem.
2. Although “I” statements aim to minimize the blame placed on the other person and thus diffuse defensive responses, they are still essentially blaming or “pointing out” the other person’s error. Be sensitive to how cumulative blame may affect your child.
3. A major study reported that marital couples that used “I” statements did see a decrease in negative interactions but no increase in positive interactions. To see an increase in positive interactions couples must also implement meaningful changes. For example, if your spouse says “I feel like you don’t value me when you leave your dishes all over the place for me to clean up.” The spouse must also implement change, and clean up their dishes, for the other to feel like they were heard and valued.

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