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Parenting -- Pestering: how to respond

Key points

  • Pestering is when children repeatedly ask for things in a challenging way.

  • Reduce pestering by making sure children know what behaviour you expect. Praise children when they’re patient or helpful.

  • If children pester while you’re shopping, try to stay calm. Don’t change your mind if you’ve said no.

  • Try to minimise children’s exposure to advertising, especially advertising aimed at children.

Why children pester

To your child, the world is full of interesting things. In shopping centres, they’re often at your child’s eye level.

Also, children are easily influenced by clever marketing of products aimed at children – for example, toys and unhealthy food. Children don’t always understand that some pretty, shiny or yummy things aren’t good for them or aren’t good value for money.

And children are still learning skills and self-regulation. This includes the ability to control their impulses and behave in the way that you want.

This means it’s natural for children to ask for things.

Sometimes when your child asks for something, they might ask the question just once or twice. There’s a difference between this kind of asking and pestering.

Pestering is when your child repeatedly asks you for something in a challenging way. For example, ‘Can I have a lolly?’, ‘I want a lolly!’, ‘Give me a lolly!’, ‘Please, please, please!’

It can be hard to say no when you know that giving in will make your child happy or stop them from asking. But if you give in, your child learns that pestering works. And this means they’ll keep pestering in the future.

*When your child asks for things, the way you respond to their requests teaches them important lessons about how to influence, negotiate and communicate. Find out more in our article on how to respond when children ask for things.

Reducing pestering

As children develop, they’ll get better at understanding and managing their emotions, including the emotions that go along with wanting things they can’t have. In the meantime, you can also take steps to make pestering less likely to happen:

  • Set some ground rules before you go shopping. Talk with your child about what behaviour you expect and how you’ll respond to pestering.

  • Praise your child for good shopping behaviour. Give your child plenty of positive attention so they know you’ve noticed that they’re not pestering. For example, ‘I’m really proud of how you helped me shop and didn’t ask for things’.

  • Offer healthy rewards for good shopping behaviour. For example, ‘If you can get through this shopping trip without asking for stuff, we’ll stop at the park on the way home’ or ‘You can have some strawberries when we get home’.

  • Be aware of toy, junk food and other advertising in your home – for example, through the TV, radio, internet, junk mail, apps and social media. The more advertising your child sees, the more they might want things.

  • Talk with your older child about advertising and smart shopping. For example, you could talk about how free toys might make you want to buy some fast food products.

  • Make decisions as a family about what you’ll buy. You can remind children of these decisions when you’re shopping. For example, ‘Remember we decided not to buy toys for a while? That way we can save our money for a family holiday’.

*It’s a good idea to restrict how much online or in-app advertising your child sees. You can do this by choosing children’s games, apps and movies without advertising.

How to respond to pestering

If your child pesters or tries to get you to buy certain things you could try the following:

  • Remind your child of the ground rules you discussed.

  • Make sure your child sees that you’ve heard and understood. This way, your child will be more likely to accept your answer. For example, you could say, ‘Yes, they do look delicious, but we aren’t buying donuts today’.

  • When you say no, stay calm and give your child an explanation. For example, ‘No, we can’t have ice-cream now because we’re about to have lunch’.

  • When you say no, stick to it. If you say no and then give in, your child gets the message that pestering can work.

  • Acknowledge your child’s disappointment if you’ve said no. For example, ‘I can see you feel disappointed because you really wanted those biscuits. But we’ve already had enough treats today’. Conversations like these send a message of empathy and can help you and your child move on.

  • After saying no, try to distract your child with something else. For example, ‘We need oranges. Can you help me find them?’

Staying calm when children pester

If you feel overwhelmed when your child pesters, the following exercise might help:

  1. Stop.

  2. Count to 5 in your head.

  3. Now respond to your child.

That extra 5 seconds is often enough to think and decide how you’ll respond calmly. If things don’t work out the way you’d hoped, it’s important to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing your best.

*When your child doesn’t get what they’re repeatedly asking for, their frustration and disappointment might overwhelm them. This can lead to a tantrum. When this happens, calmly acknowledge the emotions that your child is expressing. Stay with your child and comfort them until they calm down and feel safe.

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