How do you respond when your child hurts you? Is loud? Is messy? Is destructive?
Is shouting your go to response when you can’t get a child to do what you want? When you shout, it is the result of not feeling heard (hence why you get louder). This holds true for children too.
Do you feel like your child has a problem that needs to be corrected?
The person with the actual problem is us. When someone’s behavior is unacceptable to us, we are the ones that own a problem. This is an important distinction to make when assessing a situation. Is my child crying because he can’t get his toy to work properly? In this case the child owns/has the problem. Is a child playing happily and being very loud (so loud that it hurts the parent’s ears?) If this is the case, the parent owns/has the problem. When a child owns a problem, our only job is to actively listen to their concerns. When a parent owns a problem, they are on the other side of the coin and are needing to communicate their concerns in a constructive and positive way.
A parent walking through the living room one evening and steps on a sharp toy.
Parent: “You always leave your toys out after I ask you repeatedly to put them away. You are so careless.”
Child: “I wasn’t done playing with them!”
Parent: “I don’t care! You left this in the walkway and someone got hurt. I’m packing these toys up. You can get them back after you show some responsibility.”
Child: “You are so mean! I hate you!”
Does this situation sound familiar? How about this.
2. Parent having a conversation with another parent. The child interrupts.
Parent to child: “I told you not to talk when someone else is talking. It’s not good manners.”
Child: “But mom I wanted to show you…”
Parent: “Not right now! I’m trying to have a conversation.”
3. Parent: “Will you please try and rinse your dishes off when you’re done? We’ve talked about this and talked about this. You cause more work for me every time you use a dish.”
Child: “I was going to rinse it. I just forgot!”
Parent: “Well you need to start remembering more.”
4. Parent: “Get your dirty shoes off of that couch!”
5. Child slaps parent.
Parent: “Ouch! Don’t you ever hit somebody like that!”
Have you noticed a common theme in these scenarios? Blame on the child. Shame. Guilt. Ordering around. Punishment. Name calling. These all come in the form of you-messages. You did this. You are bad. You are not accepted when you behave this way.
The same is true in marriages that are deteriorating. You-messages. You never. You always. You are a jerk. You are worthless. You don’t care about anyone but yourself.
So how do we turn this all around? With I-messages.
In the first scene the parent steps on a toy. Use I-statements that hold no judgement or evaluation on the child’s behavior.
Parent: “Ouch! I just stepped on a toy in the middle of the floor. That hurt a lot.”
Child: “Oops, I’ll get it.”
The child is given the opportunity to make things right without shame, judgement or punishment. They are given the opportunity to grow and learn ways to be constructive, as well as learn to communicate in an effective way.
Scene 2, the child interrupts.
Note – if they are the younger crowd, just stop your conversation for a moment and listen to what they have to say. Usually it is something small like “mom I colored this cat purple!” “oh cool!” and off they go.
When an older child interrupts, try not to speak about it in front of company. This could cause shame and embarrassment. Later, start out with I-messages.
Parent: “I was talking to John earlier when you started talking to me at the same time that I was talking. I feel frustrated when I’m trying to get my thoughts out and am interrupted because sometimes it makes me forget what I was talking about in the first place.”
Child: “I didn’t know that you would forget. I just had something to tell you and wasn’t paying attention to the conversation you guys were having. I’ll try to pay attention more.”
Scene 3. Dishes left without rinsing.
Parent: “I feel frustrated when there is food left on the dishes. It makes it realllly hard to get off.”
Child: “I didn’t know that. I’ll try to rinse them more.”
Scene 4. Dirty shoes on the couch.
Parent: “I don’t like shoes on the couch. They carry all the germs from where we walk everyday, like public restrooms. Gross!”
Child: “Gross! I didn’t even think of that!” Moves feet.
And 5. Child hits parent.
Parent: “Ouch! Hitting hurts my body! I don’t like to be hit.”
When you communicate with an I-message, it is infinitely more effective than punishing, blaming, shaming, name calling, ordering, etc. They allow the child the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions on their own instead of being forced, guilted or coerced into a behavior. Using I-messages won’t make children (or parents, if we’re honest) be less forgetful, but it allows them a continual opportunity to make things right. The important thing is to always use an I-message that is judgement, guilt and evaluation free. Children don’t need to be lectured, reminded, nagged about anything, just as parents don’t like these things.
Using I-messages will result in a more cooperative, open and honest household. It won’t necessarily reduce the guilt or shame one oftentimes feels when they are told they are causing someone else pain or frustration, but it will keep the relationship healthy and intact, as well as show the child how to communicate with I-messages when they are the ones feeling frustrated or hurt.
For a person to use I-messages, it can take a great deal of courage and strength. By saying how we feel to someone else, we are letting down our walls, (walls that say “I am tough. Nothing can hurt me”) and being vulnerable to someone else’s acceptance of who we are. By being honest with our emotions, we are laid bare saying “this is me.” And by being open we are modeling for our children how to be open with us too in a constructive way.