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Positive communication with children focuses on showing respect for a child. It leads to nurturing relationships, cooperation and feelings of worth. On the contrary, poor communication can lead to kids who “turn off” listening to adults, conflicts and bickering, and feelings of worthlessness.

Adults sometimes have difficulty communicating positively with children when feelings are involved —either their own or the child’s. But communicating in loving and caring ways is more effective than communicating with resentment, anger and frustration. It also models for children how to express feelings without yelling, demanding or punishing.

“I” messages are a good tool to communicate with your children when there is a problem behavior. “I” messages allow you to tell children you want them to change their behavior, without blaming them or putting them down. When we yell or criticize our children, they can get down on themselves or become even more rebellious. “I” messages create a positive atmosphere for communication and problem solving.

Breaking Down 'I' Messages

There are four parts to an “I” message. The first part is to say “I feel ___ .” (Fill in the blank with your feeling.) This allows the parent to express their own feeling, which refrains from blaming the child —blaming the child can lead to arguments and hard feelings. Think about the emotion you have when you child misbehaves. As an example, your child has not completed his or her homework before dinner. You might start the conversation with “I feel frustrated” or “I feel disappointed.”

Sometimes people will use an “I” statement incorrectly by saying something like, “I feel like you should work harder.” Just remember that “I feel” should be followed by the emotion you are feeling.

The second piece of an “I” statement is “when you ___.” This part should describe the situation or behavior that is causing the problem, such as “I feel ___ when you ___.” For example, a parent can say, “I feel frustrated when you do not complete your homework before dinner.”

Remember to be as specific as possible. Avoid blaming, lecturing or scolding. Just stick to the facts. This keeps the conversation from becoming a power struggle and makes it less likely that your child will become angry and defensive.

The next part of the “I” statement is “because ___ .” This part of the statement gives the parent the opportunity to give a reason why it’s important for your child to follow through. It helps your youth understand the impacts of his or her actions. The parent fills in these blanks: “I feel ___ when you ___ because ___ .” For instance, a parent could say this: “I feel frustrated when you do not complete your homework before dinner because homework is an important part of your education.” Young people are more likely to do what parents ask if given a good reason. Saying, “because I said so” doesn’t really state the “why” behind the request.

The last part of the “I” statement is “I want you to ___ .” This provides the opportunity to state what you would like your child to do now or in the future. For example, say “I feel frustrated when you do not complete your homework before dinner, because homework is an important part of your education. I want you to turn off the TV and complete your homework now.” It’s important to be specific when telling your children what you want them to do.

Keep in mind that “I” statements can also be used to acknowledge and praise your youth for good behavior. So, if your youth is completing his or her homework by dinner as you requested, then you might use this “I” statement to relay your feelings: “I feel proud of you when you complete your homework before dinner, because homework is important to your education. Keep up the great work!”

“I” statements are an important and effective positive communication tool. They allow parents to communicate without blaming or criticizing and provide an opportunity to show love and respect, while at the same time setting limits.

This activity has been adopted from Iowa State University’s Strengthening Families for Parents and Youth 10-14 (SFP 10-14) curriculum. SFP 10-14 is a multi-session family series that builds family cohesion and has been proven to reduce substance use in youth. Find out if your child’s school is hosting SFP 10-14. Or, for more information, contact your local Penn State Extension office.

Cynthia Pollich is a Penn State Extension educator working with food, families and health in Lancaster County.

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