My 8-year-old son constantly has a runny nose. When he sniffles and I hear it, I'll usually ask him to blow his nose. Sometimes he starts arguing and whining as soon as I ask - for some reason he hates blowing his nose - but usually he'll go get a tissue and pick his nose with it.

Today, we were waiting for the bus in the car and he was sniffling like crazy. I handed him a tissue and told him to blow his nose.

Son: [starts picking his nose with the tissue]

Me: No, son, you have to blow.

Son: [yells] I did blow my nose!

Me: You need to blow harder.

Son: [practically crying] I did! Nothing ever comes out when I blow my nose!!

Me: No, you didn't. If you blew your nose I would have heard it. And from the way you're sniffling it's clear that snot would have come out if you actually blew into the tissue.

Son: [more arguing and crying, bus arrives]

Me: Well, put the tissue in your pocket in case you need it later.

Son: Eww! No way! Then I'd get snot in my pocket! [leaves tissue on car seat]

Me: Thanks for getting snot on my car seat.

Son: [crying, gets out of car] Why am I always the worst?!

Me: [drives to work angry, posts this question]

Am I being unreasonable? Isn't it bad for you to constantly have a bunch of snot in your nasal cavity? Like, can't it lead to a sinus infection or something?

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    "Am I being unreasonable?" -- yes. You are allowing yourself to be dragged into unproductive arguments by an 8 year old. You might want to investigate Webster-Stratton and "The Wonder Years" which will give you techniques for this and other situations. – DanBeale Nov 19 '14 at 18:01
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    @DanBeale While unproductive, I wouldn't say unreasonable. His son's behavior was unreasonable, as children often are. But his own approach wasn't unreasonable, just unsuccessful and, as you said, unproductive. – Web Head Nov 19 '14 at 18:10
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    I'm curious about the downvotes. This looks like a fairly good question to me; it's not an example of perfect parenting behavior, but that's why this site exists to a large extent - none of us are perfect parents. I don't know that I think downvoting based on the agreement with how the parent approached the subject is a good thing for the community. – Joe Nov 21 '14 at 1:27
  • @Joe thanks for the support. I'd like to know why people are downvoting as well. – David Kennedy Nov 21 '14 at 3:19
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    +1 A parent has a problem they're asking for help with. They've described it well and, from the look of it, people are able to provide helpful answers, even if the problem extends a bit beyond the asker's original idea. Good question. – James Bradbury Nov 21 '14 at 10:32

NOTE: I'm not a pediatrician. Contact one for a professional evaluation of how much snot is too much. However: It's good for you to have some mucus in your nasal cavity: it keeps tissues lubricated, and traps dust and bacteria, preventing it from getting into your lungs (which are more sensitive). Too much snot prevents you from breathing well, and might lead to increased sinus or ear infections -- although I think that the quantity here (a constant sniffle) isn't enough to cause that. (Ref. previous "not a pediatrician" note again.)

Getting away from the question of too-much-snot consequences:

It sounds like he just doesn't know how to do it very well, and has gotten used to it being ineffective ("nothing ever comes out!") so isn't going to practice, and it's just a spiral of "I can't, so I won't try, so I can't, so I won't try," etc. In fact, my spouse was in his twenties before he learned how to blow his nose reasonably well, and his excuse was exactly the same. He'd decided there must be something wrong with his sinuses, since "nothing ever came out."

A bit of Googling turned up this article, Teaching Kids How to Blow Their Noses, which largely encapsulates the approach I took with my kids (and the spouse). Since he's older and understands how airflow and his nose work in general, focus on technique and skip the bits about blowing paper around.

  • Don't blow too hard. If you need a lot of air pressure to force something loose, it probably doesn't need to be blown out, and it's easy to give yourself a headache, noseache, or earache (which will just teach him to hate nose-blowing even more).
  • Work on holding one nostril closed at a time, which:

    • puts about twice as much airflow out of the open one without requiring very hard blowing
    • ensures both nostrils get a chance to be cleared -- often one is more snotty than the other, and without pinching one at a time, the more clogged passageway won't get cleared

If he always has a runny nose, have you thought of taking him to a doctor? Clearly you have wondered if this is bad for him, or can cause problems. You're the adult here, and you're responsible for your child's health. It won't work to wait for your son to say,

Hey, Dad? I have this constantly runny nose. Do you think you can take me to my Pediatrician to have me checked? Or do you think an Allergist would be a better choice? Maybe an Otorhinolaryngologist?

Your son is 8 years old. That's a mighty tender age, and you could use a softer approach, because you're interacting with him in a way that is not very healthy for you, him or your relationship with him.

For example, lets look at this interaction:

You: Well, put the tissue in your pocket in case you need it later.
Son: Eww! No way! Then I'd get snot in my pocket! [leaves tissue on car seat]
You: Thanks for getting snot on my car seat. {sarcasm}
Son: [crying, gets out of car] Why am I always the worst?!

If you don't want the snotty tissue on your seat, why are you telling him to put it in his pocket? Handing him a clean tissue to put in his pocket (as well as keeping a small trash basket in the car) would have prevented the last upsetting exchange. Also, It's not what you say but rather how you say it. Grown-ups who use sarcasm with young children risk being misunderstood at best and creating lasting wounds at worst.

If your son actually says things like Why am I always the worst?! after an interaction with you, you need to examine your own behavior more than ask about a runny nose. Sure, you're wondering what to do, but a runny nose won't do him nearly as much harm in the long run as will a bad relationship with you. So I'll leave the runny nose up to you and your choice of doctors or advisors.

From your end, you hear your son's snuffles. You ask him to blow his nose, even though he doesn't like it (and you know that already). Are you being unreasonable? No, not at all. Not even a little bit. Are you prepared for his likely unpleasant reaction? It doesn't sound like you are. Instead it's frustrating and aggravating. It escalates to the point of crying and anger at the beginning of both of your days. That last part is your responsibility to prevent with a little forethought.

Another responsibility you have as a parent is to raise your child, to the best of your ability, to be a successful adult. To do that you have to plan, you can't coast along and hope it happens. For all adults, the default position is to parent like our parents did with us. But a lot of us don't want that for our own children, so we need examples of alternatives. That's where books and support groups and such come in.

If you're frustrated with your son's runny nose, take him to a doctor. If you're frustrated with your interactions with your son, do something helpful about it. Get your pediatrician's (and some internet) advice on good parenting books and a library card, and start learning better ways of interacting with your child. It will bring a lot of good to both of you (and maybe more).

Edited to address sarcasm

Sarcasm is socially acceptable witty banter among adults. But children are not miniature adults. When used with young children, it is reduced to callousness because sarcasm relies on a type of subtlety that most children under the age of 10 do not pick up on. Children are much more apt to interpret words literally and to miss or disregard non-verbal cues. Sarcasm is, by definition, biting and critical. It's a passive aggressive behavior in which the speaker expresses covert hostilities in sugarcoated, "humorous" ways. When the child is hurt ("Why am I always the worst?"), the adult can defend themselves with "Can't you take a joke?" Showing empathy is one of the best ways to strengthen the parent-child relationship. Parents cannot show empathy while being sarcastic simply because empathy is sincere, while sarcasm is not. Children need our encouragement — never belittlement. Sarcasm is not a desirable form of communication with children, and often leaves them feeling confused, hurt, and with damaged self esteem.

Why Sarcasm is No Laughing Matter for Kids
The Effects of Sarcasm on Children
Why to avoid sarcasm with your kids
Words Speak Louder Than Actions: Understanding Deliberately False Remarks
Development of children's ability to distinguish sarcasm and verbal irony
CHILDREN AND SARCASM: A PSYCHOLINGUISTIC STUDY

  • Wow. I've never actually heard anyone use the term Otorhinolaryngologist. I don't think I've even seen it before, even under signs for ENT clinics. Props for that. – Web Head Nov 20 '14 at 16:22
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    To clarify, "Thanks for getting snot on my car seat" was sarcastic. My son objected to getting snot in his pocket, but then left it on my seat. I carry used tissues on me in winter or if I have the sniffles and it doesn't bother me, so I expect him to deal with it. I like your comment about child gloves though. I definitely struggle with sensitivity, and he is very sensitive. – David Kennedy Nov 20 '14 at 17:11
  • Hi @anongoodnurse, "kid gloves" is quite a pejorative phrase here in the UK (I'm guessing from the way you've used it that in the US it isn't). Here it means extreme or excessive care - you might want to clarify or use a different phrase. – A E Nov 20 '14 at 18:32
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    @AE - hmm, I never knew that. In the US, it means handling with care. Thanks. – anongoodnurse Nov 20 '14 at 20:05
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    I think the sarcasm notes are very apt, by the way; it's very hard particularly for people whose primary humor outlet is sarcasm to remember that it works with adults and not kids much of the time. – Joe Nov 21 '14 at 1:25

Can not blowing your nose lead to a sinus infection or something?
According to some articles available online, blowing your nose can actually lead to sinus infections, and possibly ear infections.

Blowing your nose uses much higher pressures than coughing or sneezing, which may cause germs to be blown into your sinuses or your Eustachian tubes. Blowing your nose can also increase the swelling of the sinuses, making them more irritated and uncomfortable. These negative side effects increase when the nose is pinched or clogged while blowing, as a result of the increase of pressure. Some research suggests it's better to not "blow" your nose at all to remove mucus/phlegm. Alternatives include rinsing with saline solutions, wiping away uncomfortable/unsightly drippings, and coughing/sneezing naturally.

The phrase I used to search was: "Effects of not blowing your nose". However, the results were primarily about why you shouldn't blow your nose. Trust it as far as you would any Internet search, but it’s definitely got me thinking about how I’m going to handle my next sinus infection. I already do saline rinses, but I think I’m going to try them exclusively next time around.

Am I being unreasonable?
I don’t think you’re being unreasonable, but the incident suggests you need to try a new tactic. If you want your child to blow his nose better, he may need a demonstration from you. If he doesn't believe he’s actually getting any snot out of his nose, he may need to be shown a closer examination of his snot rag after a good blow.

Also, is his nose constantly running from minor colds a child his age would be exposed to, or is it possible that it’s from allergies? If it is allergies, then treating those may help alleviate his symptoms.

One thing I want to bring out and focus on here is the specific elements of the question, "How do I get my son to blow his nose?", which seems to me the core of the question above.

The answer: You largely need to let your son figure out for himself that he needs to learn to blow his nose (either figure out how to do it, or figure out how to ask for help), while helping him understand your rationale for wanting him to. This is the core of some of the teaching approaches, such as Parent Effectiveness Training: that convincing your child to choose to do something is more effective than forcing or requiring them to do it. This reduces conflict (because you aren't applying a restriction to the child, and instead are gaining their buy-in), at the cost of having to sometimes let things go at least temporarily.

The basic approach (which i'll detail below the break) is to use active listening, trying to get him to tell you his reasoning behind the issue. Ultimately you find out what the real problem is, whether it's because of the cleanliness, physical discomfort, not caring about the snot, or not knowing how to; and then you leave yourself open to him asking how to fix that problem if he wants to ask. No unsolicited advice, just opening a dialog where he tells you what the problem is and you indicate that you understand the problem. That gives him the opening to ask for help if needed/wanted.

Now, of course it doesn't fully apply to serious or life threatening issues - I'm going to require my three year old to not walk in the middle of a busy street alone certainly - but even then the approach is sound, insomuch as you try to get him to choose not to walk in the street alone while still requiring it, and as much as possible explain why you feel the way you do.

Below the break here I'll go through some of the potential dialog, largely in the structure of Parent Effectiveness Training (show some examples of how the conversation could go that aren't optimal, then give an example of a better conversation). I'm not an expert here, just a parent, but I find this effective even with my preschooler much of the time.

I'm not a doctor, also, and can't say if this is one of those serious situations where you need to intervene even without being asked - I doubt choosing not to blow your nose will cause health issues, but I can't know for sure - so I'll answer both ways, first assuming it's not, then a followup assuming it is after the second break.


The first step is to non-confrontationally ask your child to do it. (1 level is you, 2 levels quote is your child, we will call Johnny.)

Hi Johnny, I notice you have a stuffy nose. Would you please blow it?

I did blow it.

Okay, so he did blow it, but not hard enough. Or he didn't, but he thinks telling you he did blow it will get you off his case. Let's see if we can get at that a bit more.

Some possible responses:

  • Well, you obviously didn't blow it hard enough.
  • If you did blow it, why can I still hear all of that snot?
  • It sounds like there's still an awful lot of snot in there.

All of these are fairly confrontational responses, and none are likely to gain his cooperation. The first two are pretty clearly confrontational - you're directly telling him what he did wrong (and that it was wrong), or challenging the veracity of his statement. It might be untrue, but challenging veracity is always confrontational - he knows it's untrue if it is, and telling him so isn't helpful at gaining his cooperation.

Even the last response is somewhat confrontational, because you're implicitly stating either 1 or 2 is true, or else you're stating the blindingly obvious. It might be effective in a normally calm setting, but it's easy for this particular conversation to go off the rails - so here's a somewhat better approach.

You blew your nose, but you're still feeling uncomfortable.

Okay, now we're doing better. You're telling him how you think he feels (he's itching at his nose still, so he's clearly uncomfortable), and you're not accusing him of lying to you. You're indicating you trust him (whether or not he is telling the truth) and inviting some more information.

You blew your nose, but you're still feeling uncomfortable.

Yeah, blowing my nose doesn't ever get anything out.

Now we know that he thinks that blowing doesn't work. Rather than telling him to blow harder, let's see if we can get in a bit more:

You don't think blowing your nose is an effective way to get your nose cleared.

Nope, it never works for me. Picking my nose with my kleenex works a lot better.

Okay, now we know why he picks his nose with the kleenex: not to exasperate you, but because he thinks it is the best solution. We've pretty much collected the information we can.

One option here is to stop. He clearly knows that it's possible to blow your nose, and knows that you favor that solution. He also knows that you're concerned about his nose, and if it causes him a problem, he knows he can go to you for help. This is a good solution if you think the problem is not a severe one and are willing to be patient; your child will eventually figure out that he needs to learn how to blow his nose properly, and will either figure it out or ask for help.


However, as I said above, I don't want to discount the possibility that this is a more serious problem that you want to more proactively address. How you do that is to follow up the above conversation with providing information in a way that is not too pushy, but tells him how you feel.

Jonny, when you don't blow your nose completely, it makes me feel worried that you will develop a sinus infection and get sick.

Dad, I don't want to blow my nose.

You've conveyed your feelings, and he's rejected them; not the nicest thing to do, but not exactly a shock from a child who isn't fully aware of others' feelings (ie, all of them). Let's see if we can reinforce the feeling and get some more information out - still not really pushing, but trying to encourage more conversation.

You don't like blowing your nose, even though it makes me worried.

No, it hurts when I blow my nose.

Now, this isn't exactly a shock: it hurts when I blow my nose, too. It also was something I had a very hard time learning how to do.

It hurts when you blow your nose hard?

Yes, because the inside of my nose feels like it got hit with a hammer.

So he does know how to blow it hard - that is exactly what it should feel like. But he doesn't like the feeling, and is willing to exchange a lesser, longer term pain for a short term pain. I don't have a good suggestion for how to deal with that issue; you have to decide between trying to offer advice that may not be taken well, or laying off.

Or maybe he says

It hurts when you blow your nose hard?

Yeah, and it feels like it's not doing anything, it just feels like I'm blowing a lot of air.

Okay, so he doesn't know what to do. That's easier to handle.

You feel like blowing your nose doesn't do anything.

Yeah. Air just comes out of whatever side of the nose isn't stopped up.

Do you hold one of your nostrils closed and blow one at a time, or do you blow both?

Both. (This is how most children are trained.)

When I blow my nose, I blow one nostril at a time, holding the other one closed with a bit of the kleenex. That usually works pretty well for me.

Other problems of course can be met with similar advice. It's not always going to work - sometimes he doesn't want to hear your advice, and as often as possible it's better to get him to ask for it - but if you feel it's important to convey the information, it can be done in a relatively non-confrontational manner.

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    Wow, I never considered that I was the one being confrontational. I do have one question though: In 1-2-3 Magic, Dr. Phenas emphasizes that explaining things to kids is pretty useless, and usually just leads to arguing and yelling. I don't totally agree with the book (just started reading it), but when you said "convincing your child to choose to do something" that sounded like a bad idea. What do you think about this? – David Kennedy Nov 21 '14 at 3:33
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    @Koveras 1-2-3 Magic and this approach are diametric opposites in this regard. They're both reasonably good approaches to parenting, don't get me wrong, but they're aimed at very different things. 1-2-3 Magic ultimately aims for well behaved, compliant children; PET and similar approaches aim for independent children who will make good decisions on their own. – Joe Nov 24 '14 at 22:54
  • The concept behind this approach is ultimately that if you want your child to make good decisions in life without you present, you need to give them the opportunity to learn how to make good decisions - which requires letting them make the decision on their own, without leading them around by the nose. Part of this is learning problem solving - PET pushes not providing the solution unless explicitly asked, so that he/she figures it out when possible on his/her own. – Joe Nov 24 '14 at 22:57
  • 1-2-3 Magic on the other hand focuses more on teaching children things rather than developing their independent problem solving skills. That's not necessarily wrong - many people use this to great effect - but it's a different approach and ultimately a very different goal. Each work well with different personality types, both of parent and of child. – Joe Nov 24 '14 at 22:59
  • I will say, however, that if they truly say "explaining things to kids is pretty useless and leads to arguing and yelling", that's incorrect. From my experience with a preschooler and a toddler, even the toddler is capable of understanding why, and providing that explanation often leads to better outcomes than simple do/don't do instructions, in my experience. When it does lead to arguing is when you are not truly frank in your explanation: if your reason is ultimately "because I want you to", then don't provide reasons to justify that. – Joe Nov 24 '14 at 23:02

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