“You make me so happy!” At first glance, this looks like a positive thing to say to your child. But what about, “You make me so sad.” Or, “Hearing you whine makes me so frustrated.” What do these phrases have in common? They all use “makes me”. This blog explores reasons to avoid “makes me”, and looks at alternative phrasing.
We use the phrase “makes me” in situations where we are impacted by things our children do – by their actions, or their behaviour. Often, we’ll say, “makes me” with the best of intentions – we just want our children to know how we feel.
My question is: does my child’s action make me feel something? Or do I feel an emotion in response to my child’s behaviour? Am I a passive victim of their behaviour, or will I actively own my feelings about their behaviour?
I think there can be hidden consequences when we use “makes me” with our children.
“Makes me” blames our children, and stops us being responsible for our feelings.
When I walk into my four-year-old daughter’s bedroom and see pencils and paper strewn around the floor, I might feel annoyed.
In this scenario, my daughter just acted – she drew with pencils on paper, spreading them over the floor. I responded with a feeling.
The way I feel will be influenced by factors including: my own issues, such as whether I have a headache; my assumptions as to why the room was messy; my values around ‘mess’; whether I’d asked her to clean up her drawing material; whether I’d had a bad day at work; what time of day it was; and so on.
My daughter did not ‘make me’ feel annoyed. I felt annoyed because I was tired, it was just before bedtime on a weeknight, I’d asked her to clean up the floor, and my expectation was that she’d pick up her pencils immediately.
If I’d seen her drawing and it was the weekend, I may have felt differently. I might have been pleased to see her creativity, realised she was in the middle of drawing a picture of her family which she didn’t want to stop, and offered to help her tidy up when she’d finished.
My daughter behaved in exactly the same way each time, but I responded with a different feeling. I have to recognise that I am responsible for the way I react to her behaviour.
If I said, “Seeing that mess on the floor makes me annoyed”, then I am blaming her for the way I feel. I am not taking responsibility for the feelings that have emerged in response to her behaviour.
Instead, I am saying that my feelings are her fault. I think the subtle message I’m sending when I say “makes me” is:
“You are responsible for the way I feel”, or “You are to blame for my feelings at the moment”.
“Makes me” blames our children for our own personal difficulties.
“Makes me” stops me looking for the reason for their behaviour.
We’re all familiar with the situation of running late in the morning rush. Indeed, we might have said something like “You’re making me late when you don’t eat your breakfast”.
What if my 8 year-old’s reluctance to eat breakfast was because he was afraid to go to school – his best friend had threatened to break his leg yesterday? His need was to feel safe.
I suspect my son’s response to “You’re making me late” in this instance might be “You don’t care, you don’t understand anything!” And he’s just stop eating.
If, instead, I said something like “When I wait for you to finish breakfast, I’m worried I’ll be late for work”, I think it might be easier for my son to say “but I’m scared to go to school . . .”
I’ll be more open to listening to him (shifting gears), to discover the need behind his behaviour.
“Makes me” implies I am the victim, that I’m taking my child’s behaviour personally,
Rather than seeing our children innocently behave to meet a need, we can sometimes believe there is negative intent behind their actions – that they want to ‘get at us’, or ‘push our buttons’. Which actually means – we’ve taken their behaviour personally.
“You made me feel sad when I didn’t get a kiss goodbye”.
This statement says I am the victim of my child’s ‘selfish’ behaviour. I’ve taken her actions personally.
Instead of saying this, I could look at her behaviour differently, by looking for her need. In this case, her need was to socialise. My child was simply excited to see her friends, and, caught up in the moment, ran off to see them. I could say “I felt sad when we didn’t kiss goodbye, because I love our goodbye cuddles. But then I realised you were excited you were to see your friends!”
“Makes me”: the source of ‘emotional blackmail’?
Just about every time I teach parents about ‘I-messages’ (“when I see/hear [behaviour] . . . I feel . . . because . . . [cost to parent]”), a participant will say,
“But isn’t that emotional blackmail?”
A true I-Message is simply honest self-disclosure, which includes how you feel. I think that including “makes me” in an I-Message could be felt, and interpreted as, ‘emotional blackmail’.
When children are blamed for their parent’s emotions, they will feel responsible for the way their parent feels, and they will think it is up to them to make their parent feel better.
Children want to please their parents, so they will feel compelled to change their behaviour – to ‘fix things’. But they may feel resentful, because they have been manipulated – they’ve been told it’s their fault that their parent is sad/angry/upset.
“Makes me” stops us modelling self-responsibility.
Think about the way we want to see our children behave. Will we respond more positively to:
“You made me angry, Mummy, when you wouldn’t give me a biscuit”; or
“I felt sad, Mummy, when I didn’t get a biscuit when I asked”.
We need to help our children understand and own their feelings, rather than blame other people (such as us), for their feelings.
When we communicate with ‘I-Messages’ that say “I feel . . .” , then we are modelling self-responsibility to our children.
How to create an I-Message – without “makes me”.
Sometimes we parents aren’t happy with what our children are doing. In fact, we can get quite annoyed and frustrated with our children’s actions. They might leave their toys on the lounge room floor – and you just know that a tiny piece of Lego could find its way under your bare foot.
Sometimes we love what our children do. We feel their warm softness as they snuggle against us, smelling their just-washed hair, and could just burst with contentment.
What do we say in these situations?
- • A non-blameful description of their behaviour
- “When I see the toys on the floor . . .”
- “When we snuggle . . .”
- How you felt about the behaviour
- “ . . . I feel concerned . . .”
- “ . . . I just love it . . .”
- The impact or cost to you (or another person, such as a sibling, grandparent etc). This is the ‘because’ – where you give your child a reason.
- “. . . that I might step on a Lego block and hurt my foot”
- “. . . because it reminds me how lucky I am to be your Mum”
These ‘I-Messages’ are honest and congruent. Importantly, they are phrased in a way that is non-blameful.
I think the I-Message is the ultimate in self-responsibility. Describing and owning your feeling about what your child has done stops us blaming our children, and allows us, and our children, to grow a relationship built on trust and honesty.