The Power Of Using “I” Messages With Your Child

Last updated on August 26, 2021.

Wondering how to appropriately react when your child upsets you or does something unacceptable? Parenting expert Marie Marchand spoke to us about the powerful tool of using ‘I’ messages.

What are “I” messages exactly?

“I” messages defuse conflict by avoiding accusatory or escalatory language. In a parent-child interaction, an “I” message is a style of communication that focuses on the parent’s feelings rather than accusing the child, which is called a “you” message. It is a way of expressing your own needs and feelings in a respectful way that doesn’t shame or blame the child. Saying “I felt let down” as opposed to “you broke your promise” is less likely to garner a defensive reaction.

Why are “I” messages an effective parenting tool?

Parents can use an “I” message when they want to express themselves without blaming, judging, or negatively labelling their children. When applied correctly, “I” messages help parents state their feelings and needs so that their child can change their behaviour and cooperate. When used correctly, “I” messages foster positive communication in relationships and teach empathy. Sharing feelings and thoughts in an honest and open manner can help parents and children grow closer on an emotional level. In fact, ‘I’ messages are effective in all relationships. They encourage ownership of emotions.

How to use “I” messages?

There are usually four parts to a parent’s I-message:

(1) You state the problem/describe the specific behavior: When I see/hear…

(2) You explain how you feel about the problem/behavior: I feel…

(3) You describe the practical effect or consequences the problem/behavior has on you: because…

(4) You state your needs/appropriate behavior: I need you to…

Putting “I” messages into practice

Situation 1: A father wants his child to stop running across the street.

  • Common response: “How many times will I have to tell you, don’t run across the street!”
  • “I” message: “When you run across the street, I feel worried because you might get hit by a car or fall and hurt yourself and I need you to walk by my side or hold my hand.”

Situation 2: A mother becomes angry when her teenage daughter borrows her sweater and returns it with stains.

  •  Common response: “You ruined my sweater, are you ever going to grow up?”
  • “I” message: “When you return my sweater with a stain and try to hide it, I feel disappointed because I wanted to wear it today and now I can’t. I need you to get the stain remover and fix it please.”

The more you practice, the more natural you will sound! Remember to be very careful when using “you” messages as they can badly affect your child’s self-esteem.

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Marie Marchand, founder of Parenting Dialogue, parent, City Kids pre-school principal and co-author of bestselling children's book Home from Home, has over 29 years of international experience teaching in Canada, Switzerland and Hong Kong. She is asked by parents, schools and different organizations to run private sessions, workshops and seven-week courses on all matters relating to successful parenting and teaching.
This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and is not sponsored. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.