I-Messages Help Teach Expected Behavior

“Tom drives me crazy,” Caroline said as she went on and on about how upset she was with her son’s behavior.

“When did you decide to let your son drive you crazy?” I asked.

“What are you talking about? I’m in control of my emotions.”

“I thought I heard you say Tom drives you crazy.”

“That’s what I said.”

“I have a picture of your three-year-old son driving your car, with you in the back seat in the starring role of Driving Miss Crazy.” There was a moment or two of awkward silence.

“Wow. I hadn’t looked at it like that. How do I get in the driver’s seat?”

“First agree that no one can make you make sad, mad or crazy, unless you give them permission. A communication technique called I-messages can help you decide how to deal with Tom’s behavior.”

I–messages can turn sentences such as “You drive me crazy” into a message about how you feel and what behavior you expect in a situation. I-messages have four parts. First, you name the behavior or situation, how you feel, the reason you feel that way and then what you would like.

“Caroline, can you give me a behavior and how that makes you feel? Then we’ll rewrite it into an I-message,” I said.

“When Tom sticks his tongue out at me, I just want to scream.”

We rewrote this as: When you stick out your tongue at me, I feel angry because I think it’s rude. I would like you to use words and keep your tongue in your mouth, please.

Caroline and I worked from a worksheet that looked like this:
When you _______
I feel____________
I would like _______

After completing ten I-messages, Caroline read them aloud to me.

“Amazing,” Caroline said. “Saying these things out loud makes me feel more in control already. I see how I can choose how to deal with Tom’s behavior instead of getting upset.”

“I also see that some of my frustration is from trying to control Tom’s behavior in situations I shouldn’t have put him. Like going to restaurants, shopping and friends’ houses. Or up too late or too early. Take this one: ‘When you cry at a restaurant, I feel irritated because I think you should be able to sit and wait. I would like you to play with your toys.’ The truth is Tom only cries when it’s late and he’s tired and hungry. My expectations have not been realistic.”

Caroline discovered while writing I-messages that she would have to think about what the problem truly was and who owned the problem. I-messages are effective only when the problem belongs to the parent or the sender of the message. If unacceptable behavior persists after an I-message, then the next step in teaching expected behavior might be to use logical consequences.

For example, if Caroline sent an I-message to Tom about sticking out his tongue, and Tom responded by sticking out his tongue, it’s probably time for Caroline to use logical consequences.

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