Ask Mary Jo

Tailoring messages for best results

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Q.When my children were teenagers, I took parenting training where I learned about “I-messages.” I thought using them was a great way to communicate. Now I’m a grandmother and my oldest grandchild is 12. It seems like 12 is more of a teenager than when my kids were growing up. Am I wrong about that? Also, could you please talk about “I-messages” in your column? My son and daughter-in-law do a lot of yelling at their “almost teen.” I think “I messages” would help, but I don’t want to be “that grandma” who butts in all the time. Thanks.


Grandma trying to stay out of trouble


Mary Jo’s response: Of course. As a Nonnie (Italian grandma), I know how grandchildren are beloved.


I agree with you. When I present professional workshops, I often share the reality that “childhood has been truncated” or shortened. The questions I received 25 years ago from ninth-graders are often asked by fifth- and sixth-graders today. Young people are exposed to many confusing images in today’s culture. Puberty occurs earlier. A 12-year-old may act like an adolescent. Parenting needs to adjust to culture; values should be upheld, but adapting to the changing messages children receive is important.


An I-message or I-statement is a communication tool taught by parenting experts and psychologists to break down barriers and encourage respectful listening. The communication method became part of Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training in the ’70s. Perhaps you attended a PET workshop when your children were young.


I’ve presented the I-message concept to young people to help them develop relationship skills. Often they think the idea is to make eye contact! In truth, the technique focuses on words. I-messages do not “lay blame.”


Compared to a you-message, a skillfully used I-message opens doors to communication.


The difference is simple: an I-message begins with the word “I” and focuses upon the feelings of the person speaking, while a you-message begins with a “you” and focuses on the person being spoken to. You-messages often put a person on the defensive. It’s important to remember that simply inserting the word “I” doesn’t make a statement effective. Turning the content of a blaming message around by restructuring the words and placing an “I” first doesn’t enhance communication.


I-messages usually have three parts:


1. I feel (state your feeling)


2. When you (state the behavior)


3. Because (state the way the behavior affects you).


A fourth component may be added to describe the preferred behavior.


Here’s an example: Your teen stays after school for a sport practice without telling you. You call the teen’s cell phone and eventually arrange pick-up. When you see your teen, your impulse might be to yell, “You never listen to me. How many times have I told you to let me know if your practice changes?” An I-message might be: “I was worried when you didn’t get off the bus. My job as your parent is to keep you safe. I need you to let me know when practice changes.” Listening is important. Did your teen try to connect with you? Was a voicemail left? Was her/his cell battery dead?


Respectful communication is a two-way effort. A common complaint from teens deals with repeated parent reminders about homework. A teen response might be, “Leave me alone!” The “you” is implied in that statement. The teen is blaming the parent for the annoying reminders. In truth, the teen may feel he/she is being responsible and can handle homework assignments. An I-message might be: “I feel angry when you constantly ask me about my homework because I think I’m a responsible person. My grades are good. I get my homework done on time.”


Adults may use I-messages in relationships, as well. An example: You car pool with a co-worker who is consistently late. A you-message would state: “You’re always late. I’m sick and tired of your insensitivity.” An I-message might say: “I feel frustrated when I’m late for work because of a late pick-up. I’d like to continue our car pool, but being late is affecting my work. I’d like us to be more punctual.”


I-messages are often used in therapy and with conflict resolution. A State Department information sheet is available at http://www.state.gov/m/a/os/65957.htm


Some psychologists and educators are talking about a dark side to I-messages. Concern has been expressed over the link between an adult’s feelings and a child’s behavior. If I-messages are used to manipulate and instill guilt, they can damage a relationship. Remember that adults have power. Many teens tell me how much they do not want to disappoint a parent. What if an adult uses an I-message to inspire a child’s academic performance by saying, “I’m sad when you don’t get good grades because I want you to do well in life.” If the child tries yet still receives a poor grade, does she/he feel responsible for the parent’s happiness? Saying, “I want you to do well in life. Getting good grades will help” removes guilt.


Dr. Jane Bluestein recommends eliminating a parent’s feelings from the message. If a child is angry an adult should validate the feeling: “I can see you’re very angry right now. I want to hear about your problem when you’re not yelling and screaming.” Dr. Bluestein’s ideas about I-messages are available in detail at http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/bluestein-student-behavior-i-messages-can-backfire.shtml.


Bottom line: We all should strive to communicate with respect regardless of age. Pause and consider your words. Honor and validate one another. If we wouldn’t scream at a co-worker, “Look at your cubicle! You have no respect for this office,” then we shouldn’t treat our teens disrespectfully when their rooms are a mess. Good luck and enjoy every minute with your grandchildren.


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