The Magical I-Message
By Eleanor Reynolds

An I-Message conveys a message of concern and caring, yet also signals that the undesirable behavior should change. I-Messages are anchored in relationships; relationships between adults and children. Without the foundation of relationship, an I-Message may pass right over a child’s head or be purposely ignored.

What exactly is an I-message? The I-Message was first popularized in Thomas Gordon’s P.E.T. (parent Effectiveness Training) as a tool of persuasion rather setting limits. An I-Message consists of three parts, usually interchangeable. It looks like this:

It scares me when I see you climbing on this table because it’s not strong and you could get hurt.

You can diagram an I-Message this way to demonstrate the three parts:

It scares me
(your feelings)

when I see you climbing on this table
(what’s happening)

because it’s not strong and you could get hurt.
(the reason)

This formula isn’t really magical, but something about the I-Message appeals to a child’s better self. An I-Message is a tool for teaching children how to express feelings effectively and accurately; you are role modeling the ability to connect feelings with behavior. It is also a tool for showing trust for a child’s ability to change her own behavior. In addition, the I-Message builds on the child’s need to be accepted by those adults with whom she has a caring relationship.

Children react in different ways to I-Messages. If a child is exposed to strict, authoritarian discipline at home, an I-Message may not be forceful enough to inspire change. On the other hand, if his parents are very permissive, his sense of empathy or responsibility may not be developed enough to motivate a response.

State your I-Message in a positive, neutral voice while making eye contact, and with a sense of expectation. If the child is in danger or destroying something, remove her physically from the situation as you talk. Otherwise, give her time to respond appropriately. If you I –Message doesn’t bring change the first time, restate it more firmly.

The I-Message is one of five limit-setting strategies used in problem solving; they are usually interchangeable. Each strategy fits a variety of situations and sometimes it helps to switch strategies in midstream. If you find yourself repeating an I-Message more than twice, it’s time to switch to either consequences, contingencies, giving information, or offering choices. As a last resort, there is also removing and sitting apart but that strategy should not be overused.

How do you figure our which feeling word to use in an I-Message? It’s easy to get into a rut and repeat, "I get frustrated when…" or "It scares me when…." After awhile these words begin to feel insincere. Kids sense insincerity right away so try to use words that accurately express how you feel. Here are some examples that include a variety of words to help you send effective I-Messages:

I get discouraged when it’s so noisy.
(your feelings) (the reason)

I can’t read the story.
(what’s happening)

When kids throw sand, I worry that
(what’s happening) (your feelings)

it will hurt someone’s eyes.
(the reason)

It frightens me
(your feelings)

to see kids throwing hard toys
(What’s happening)

because someone could get hit.
(the reason)

When I see so many toys left out
(what’s happening)

I get irritated
(your feelings)

because someone could trip on them.
(the reason)

It upsets me to see a book on the floor
(your feeling) (what’s happening)

Because it might get torn.
(the reason)

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at problem@blarg.com.