By Allison Wedell Schumacher
No, they’re not the latest technology on which kids can log hours of screen time. I-statements (also known as I-messages) are a method of communication that people have been using to resolve conflict for decades. And with some practice and patience, you can teach your kiddos to use this method at school, at home, or anywhere they experience conflict. Here’s how.
First, it’s important that both you and your child understand why I-statements are called what they’re called. They work because they take blaming language out of it: They are I-statements as opposed to you-statements. And anyone who has ever been accused of something—wrongfully or not—knows that hearing “You caused this problem!” is not remotely constructive. When we use I-statements, we tell the other person how his or her actions affected us—a simple way to help the parties involved feel less defensive.
Second, you need to know the anatomy of an I-statement. It consists of three parts:
Every I-statement needs to have all three elements, and always in that order. In other words, the other person behaved in such a way as to cause an event, which in turn caused your child to feel a certain way.
Let’s say your daughter’s friend Mia made fun of your daughter’s hair at school, someone else heard and laughed, and your daughter is feeling hurt and embarrassed about it. Shouting, “You’re mean and you have ugly hair too!” at Mia will not solve the problem. In fact, it might even make it worse. Instead, help your daughter express the problem using the three parts of an I-statement:
- Behavior: When you said, “Do you even own a brush?”
- Event: Sean heard it and laughed at me.
- Feeling: I was embarrassed.
When your daughter says these three things in a row, Mia learns that your daughter’s embarrassment is the direct result of something Mia did. It could be that Mia was joking and thought your daughter would laugh too; that’s why that third part is so important.
There’s one caveat to I-statements (and to human interaction in general) that you’ll want to remind children of: They cannot control others’ reactions. Your child may deliver the most elegantly crafted I-statement in the calmest, kindest manner possible, and the other child may still repay it with snark or anger. If that happens, encourage your child to walk away from the situation and, if possible, talk to an adult about it.
The last part of the I-statement method is to practice. You can pretend to be the other child and let your child be herself. Try coming up with a couple of different ways to express each element of the I-statement so that your child can remember them better on the spot when emotions are likely to be higher. One of the great things about I-statements, though, is that you don’t have to use them right in the moment. You can walk away from the situation and calmly use an I-statement the next day once you’ve had a chance to think it through and practice it a bit.
Another way to get accustomed to using I-statements on a daily basis is to use them for positive reinforcement. Let’s say your son did the dishes, and you’re absolutely thrilled about it (who wouldn’t be?). You can use an I-statement, with all three of its parts, and point that out to him afterward.
- Behavior: When you did the dishes,
- Event: That freed me up to make lunches,
- Feeling: Which made me feel happy and grateful!
Once children get used to using I-statements in various situations, they’ll be ready to use them to solve conflicts with peers. Chances are kids will think that’s better than any amount of screen time!
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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I think starting the “I” statement with the other person’s behavior (“when you”..) can cause that person to be become defensive right from the beginning. As a school counselor, I always teach my students to start an “I” statement with the word “I” followed by the feeling word, then tell the other person what they did to cause that feeling (“I feel upset when you …….”). I also encourage them to then tell the other person what they would prefer them to do instead. (“I feel mad when you tease me about my hair. Please stop teasing me.”)