Six Reasons Why Confrontive I-Messages Don’t Work

I-Messages carry fewer risks to a relationship than do You-Messages and have a high success rate; however, they don’t always work.

There are six reasons for this and actions you can take when these happen.

1.  Incomplete Message: While I-Messages with only one or two parts can work, many situations call for all three parts – Non-Blameful Description of Behavior, Effects on you and your Feelings.

What to do: send a second I-Message and include all three parts.

2.  Hidden You-Message: Included in your message is some form of blame or label, i.e. “when you are so messy…”. Or, you include your solution: “I’m frustrated because I can’t work when your music is so loud, so turn it off.”

What to do: Change the blame to a description of behavior, i.e. messy to – “When your toys are all over the floor.” Send your I-Message without a solution attached: drop “so please turn it off.” Remember, the goal is for the child to come up with his own solution (which is acceptable to you).

3.  Message is Too Weak. After a very unacceptable behavior has continued for several weeks, you say: “I am just a little frustrated because…” Or; too strong when your child’s behavior is relatively minor you say: “I am really furious because…

What to do:

Too Weak; send a stronger I-Message that reflects the importance and intensity of the effect(s) on you and your feeling(s). Sending an I-Message does not mean you need to be calm, collected and use a quiet voice. You can send a very strong message with a raised voice when the situation requires it.

Too Strong; reduce the intensity of your message to match the situation.

4.  Continuing Behavior is Meeting Needs. The child understands the effects of her behavior and your feelings but continues her actions because it is meeting important needs. This indicates it is a “Relationship-Owned” problem – you both have needs to meet.

What to do: Listen to the child, acknowledge you both have needs and use Method III problem solving to come up with a situation you both like.

5.  Behavior has no effect on you. You don’t like the child’s behavior but it does not seem to have any concrete effect on you.

What to do: This may indicate that you are in a Values Conflict. Use the PET Values Conflict Strategies to deal with the situation.

6.  Other Gets “Flooded” by your I-Message. I-Messages don’t blame or attack, however, people don’t like to be confronted about their behaviors. Your child may still feel picked on, hurt, guilty, etc. and react defensively.

What to do: Active listen to the child to reduce her emotional “flooding” before sending another I-Message. Continue this process of “Gear shifting” until she can hear how her behavior effects you.


While I-Messages produce less defensiveness from children than You-Messages, it’s obvious that nobody welcomes hearing that his behavior is causing someone else a problem, no matter how the message is phrased. Even the best constructed message may cause your child to feel hurt, sorry, surprised, embarrassed, defensive, argumentative, or even tearful. After all, he has received a message loud and clear, that his behavior is unacceptable, troublesome or hurtful to you. Often, your child’s first reaction will be one that lets you know that now he has a problem. On the chart to the right, he would have a high “emotional temperature”.

You will almost always defeat your purpose if you continue to repeat your I-Message when your child reacts negatively to it. If you do, his emotional temperature will go even higher and he will resist hearing you even more strongly.

To increase the chances that your child will hear your I-Message, you’ll need to Active Listen and acknowledge his upset feelings. This shifting helps the child deal with his newly created problem and it also demonstrates the parent’s understanding and acceptance of the child’s reactions. It says: “I see that you’re upset and want to hear you.” Listening gives the child a vent for his feelings, a chance to go deeper and if necessary an opportunity to do problem-solving. It lowers your child’s emotional temperature.

So as soon as you become aware that your I-Message has caused a problem for your child, you’ll want to shift gears from talking to listening. It’s a temporary shift and doesn’t mean that you are letting go of your needs, but it shows that you are interested in his needs and feelings as well. When your child feels heard and accepted, the chances are much greater that he will be able to hear and accept your I-Message.