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The Informed Parent

Sending “I-Messages”

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Dec. 03, 2007

Articles I had written for The Informed Parent in August and October of this year dealt with effective communication skills. “Five Do’s that Always (almost) Work” and “Are You Really Listening” talked about how the words parents use affect their children’s behavior. Examples of phrases that open the door to positive esteem-building communication were given.

This month completes the communication series by looking at “I-messages.” An “I-message” tells children how you feel about an unacceptable behavior they are exhibiting. It leads to non-defensive, open communication.

You know from experience your response when feeling blamed. More than likely you become defensive. You may stop listening to what the person is saying. You may even ignore the message and continue with whatever you are doing. Children are no different. When they feel blamed, they turn off.

“I-messages” are effectively used when your children’s behavior is interfering with your wants or needs. The message becomes the means for addressing a problem without making the children feel wrong, punished or misunderstood.

“I-messages” do not tell children what to do. They do not remedy a problem or provide a solution. They do not reprimand. They only indicate how you feel. Sending “I-messages” demands that you become increasingly aware of your feelings--recognizing and communicating the feeling that comes before the thought. Sending “I-messages” is risky because you must reveal your truest self.

Let’s say that you receive a call from the school saying your fourth grader got into a fight on the playground. Your reaction might be to punish him because his behavior “makes you angry.” Although you might be angry, on closer reflection, your first feeling was probably fear. Fear that he might have hurt someone or been hurt himself. Fear that you might have to take time off work to attend a meeting with the principal. Fear that this behavior would continue. Fear that you would be considered a “bad” parent. The anger you experience is a result of thinking about these ramifications.

So when addressing the situation, instead of saying, “Oh, you make me so mad. Why can’t you behave yourself?” Try an “I-message.” Say, “I was scared when I learned that you had fought at school. I was afraid that you might have gotten hurt or hurt someone else. I was afraid that I would have to miss work to meet with the principal. I was also afraid they might think I was a bad parent.” This message relays your feelings and concerns. It shows your vulnerability. It opens the door for your son to share his side of the story and his feelings. It provides the opportunity for brainstorming solutions.

Let’s look at another example. Your third grader is at risk for retention. She cannot control her behavior in class, thus she misses instructional time. She fails to turn in her homework. She has not learned the third grade curriculum. Your first thought might be to blame her for this behavior. You might want to say, “Oh, you make me frustrated. We’ve talked and talked about listening in class. Why can’t you just settle down and learn like everybody else?”

A more appropriate response is using the “I-message.” “I was sad when your teacher told me you would need to repeat third grade next year. I was afraid that it was partly my fault because I didn’t know how to help you.” This response allows your child to feel safe in sharing her own sadness, fears, or embarrassment. It provides a space for looking at options.

When parents first begin using “I-messages,” they feel awkward. They feel like they are play-acting. All new behaviors and skills require practice. New communication patterns are no different.

There is a recipe that can be used when first practicing “I-messages.” It give parents some security in the beginning. Here it is. “I feel _______ when you _________because _________. “

Imagine that your teenager comes home after curfew. You are scared that she is not okay. Then immediately you are angry because she has not followed the rules. Your feeling, before the thought that she has not followed the rules, is fear. When she arrives home, you are relieved.

In the recipe, the blanks might be filled in like this. “I felt scared when you were so late because I was afraid you had been in an accident. I’m glad you are home.” When you approach your teen with a message like this, she is more likely to tell you the real story about why she was late instead of making up an excuse.

The pitfall in using “I-messages” is that they become disguised as “You messages” that instill blame. Starting communication with “I” does not make it an “I-message.” In the above example, a disguised “You message” would sound like this. “I feel so mad when you come home late because you never keep your curfew.” This message fills in all the blanks, but it blames the adolescent for your feelings. It does not open the door for positive communication.

These are points to remember about “I-messages.”

  • They show that you take responsibility for your feelings and reactions.
  • They do not blame.
  • They decrease defensiveness in the listener.
  • They lead to effective problem solving.
  • They open the door to rich and meaningful communication.

When parents incorporate the use of “I-messages” into their repertoire of parenting skills, they notice that their children begin using them, too. They are learning effective communication by modeling your positive behavior.

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