The Skill of I-Messages – What to Say When We are Upset

As important as it is to listen attentively to your children’s feelings, there are times when it is helpful to share with your children how you are feeling. It can be difficult to do this in a way that does not shame or blame them when you are frustrated or upset with them.

Using an “I” Message is a way to express your own needs, expectations, problems, feelings or concerns to your children in a respectful way that does not attack them.

Purposes of “I” Messages

letter IYou can use an “I” message when you have strong feelings, especially when your children’s behavior is not acceptable to you. The benefits of “I” Messages include:

  • helping you to get clearer about your feelings as you communicate them to your children
  • modeling healthy ways of dealing with feelings
  • providing a way for you to express anger without insulting your children or diminishing their self-esteem
  • informing your children of your reaction to their behavior
  • giving your children the opportunity to be responsive to your needs by acting differently, thus helping your children to become less ego-centric as they consider the effect of their behavior on other people
  • opening the doors to honest communication with your children
  • contributing to a healthy relationship, increase in trust and a sense of connection

How to Construct an “I” Message

  • Describe the specific behavior: When I see/hear . . .
  • Describe how you feel: I feel . . .
  • Describe the tangible and specific effect of the behavior on you.

“When I see you still playing with the your toys when I say our time is up, I get upset because I don’t want to keep your older brother waiting at school.”

“I” Messages can also be used to state your needs, your values, and positive feelings such as pride or appreciation. For example:

“I feel so proud of you for offering to help Grandma with her garden. I love seeing what a kind person you are.”

or

“I am really excited for you to learn how to cook! I expect that we will have a lot of fun being in the kitchen together making meals for the family.”

Some tips for Effective “I” Messages

  • Keep your words, voice and facial expressions consistent with the intensity of your feelings.
  • Be clear and specific and only talk about what is happening in the moment, not the past.
  • Don’t use the words “always” and “never.” For example: “You never do what I tell you to do.”
  • Do not dump very strong feelings in a way that scares your children.
  • Remember that if you use “I” Messages too often, it may seem to your children that their feelings don’t matter.
  • If the feeling you want to express is anger, keep in mind that anger is a secondary emotion; it can be more effective to use words that describe feelings underlying the anger such as frustration or disappointment. Anger often breeds more anger and defensiveness.

What comes after an “I” Message?

“I” messages are often a good first step in getting clear and being clear with your children about how you feel, but they don’t necessarily result in modified behavior. You may need to use some other approaches after the “I” Message in order to encourage the desired behavior. In the example above,

“When I see you still playing with your toys when I say our time is up, I get upset because I don’t want to keep your older brother waiting at school.”

You can clearly state your expectations or the rule:

“I expect you to leave when I tell you it is time to go.”

You can offer some alternatives:

“You can bring one of the toys with you if you get ready now or you will need to leave without any items. You decide.”

You can describe what you would like done:

“I want you to put on your coat now and walk to the door.”

You can impose a consequence:

“If you do not leave when we need to, then we won’t stop home next time.”

You may need to use active listening after you use an “I-Message” if your child becomes upset:

“I know it can be frustrating to not have as much time to play as you would like.”

 

________________________________________________

For more information about actively listening, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordan Stop Arguing With Your Kids: How to Win the Battle of Wills by Making Your Children Feel Heard by Michael Nichols

<recommended books about communication

<all our recommended parenting books

 

If you found this article helpful, click here to make a donation to The Center for Parenting Education. Your support will enable us to continue to provide quality information free of charge.

 

<return to top of page

<additional articles about healthy communication

<Library of Articles topic page