Running Into Resistance to I-Messages

So you have decided to confront your child about a problem you have. You deliver a perfect, three-part Confrontive I-Message, but your child replies, “So what? Who cares?” Or maybe they deliver an I-Message of their own.

What do you do next?

Confrontive I-Messages do not always solve your problem immediately. When we deliver an I-Message, the person we are confronting may react to our message defensively.

“So what,” “who cares” and other responses like these are coded messages.

“Who cares!” does not really mean that the child does not care; it is a coded message for other feelings that the child is experiencing, such as being hassled, picked on, or embarrassed.

All spoken words and the accompanying behaviors are purposeful; they are a way for a child or another person to try and express something else. This is where you have the opportunity to shift gears to Active Listening.

By shifting from your Confrontive I-Message to Active listening, you can help the child identify and express her real feelings and, in so doing, help her to become unflooded so she is ready to hear your I-Message.

Take a look at this excerpt from P.E.T. for a better understanding of what happens when a child responds with resistance to an I-Message:

“Children…frequently respond to an I-Message by sending back an I-Message of their own. Rather than immediately modify their behavior, they want you to hear what their feelings are, as in this incident:

MOTHER: I hate to see the clean living room all dirtied up as soon as you come home from school. I feel very discouraged about that after I’ve worked hard to clean it up.

SON: I think you’re too picky about keeping the house clean.

At this point, parents untrained in P.E.T. often get defensive and irritated, rebutting with, ‘Oh no I’m not,’ or ‘That’s none of your business,’ or ‘I don’t care what you think about my standards.’ To handle such situations effectively, parents must be reminded of our first basic principle–when the child has a feeling or a problem, use Active Listening. We call this ‘Shifting Gears’–temporarily changing from a confronting posture to a listening posture. In the preceding incident, Mom’s I-Message gave the child a problem (as these messages usually do). So now is the time to show understanding and acceptance, since your I-Message has caused him a problem:

MOTHER: You feel my standards are too high and that I’m fussy.

SON: Yeah.

MOTHER: Well, that may be true. I’ll think about that. But until I change, I sure feel darned discouraged about seeing all my work go down the drain. I’m very upset right now about this room.

Often, after the child can tell that his parent has understood his feeling, he will modify his behavior. Usually, all the child wants is understanding of his feelings–then he feels like doing something constructive about your feelings.”

So don’t feel discouraged when your I-Message is not instantly received as you wish it would be. Step back and listen to your child and let her know that her feelings are appreciated as well.