Communicating with Our Kids – How to Speak Effectively

The other side of the coin in good communication is effective speaking. It is important to look at what behaviours to avoid, especially in communicating with our children who are vulnerable. The top five parent miscommunication behaviours, together with their effect on the child, are:

  1. Accusing or blaming lowers the child’s self-esteem.
  2. Nagging, yelling or lecturing causes the child to become “parent-deaf”.
  3.  Threatening not only scares the child, but if you do not follow through with your threat, the child will not believe you. This renders the threat ineffective.
  4.  Bribing centers more on extrinsic rewards rather than intrinsic motivation. Rewards may work sometimes but won’t be of much help in the long-term. Remember that one of the important things we can do for our children is to help them develop self-control and learn to motivate themselves.
  5. Labelling affects the self-image of the child. If he accepts the label, “I’m useless and lazy,” then it influences his beliefs, actions and behaviour. Labelling shows a lack of confidence in your child.

There are other behaviours to avoid:

  • name calling (Pat Fatso, Josie Grossie, etc.)
  • sidetracking (“What score did your friend get on the exam?”)
  • martyrdom (“You are so ungrateful, and I have sacrificed so much to get you into a good school and these are the grades you give me?”)
  • comparison (“Why can’t you be neat and tidy like your sister?”)
  • sarcasm (“It’s a miracle you got accepted into that school!”)
  • prophecy (“You’ve got my genes; you’ll never be good in Math.”)


These are all destructive to good relationships.

Using I-Messages for a More Effective Communication

In their parents’ guide Systematic Training for Effective Parenting: Kids and Teens, esteemed psychologists Don Dinkmeyer and Gary McKay suggest that parents use I-messages rather than You-messages. The table below differentiates between the two kinds of messages.

Describes how your child’s behaviour makes you feel. Lays blame and conveys criticism of your child.
Focuses on the parent, not the child or teen. Suggests that the child is at fault.
Does not assign blame. Verbally attacks.
Example: “When you come home late, we worry.” Example: “You are so inconsiderate. Why didn’t you even just call?”
Example: “When you do not pick up your things, they are an added load for me. I get tired doing everything by myself.” Example: “You are such a messy and lazy person.”

So how can we construct an I-message? Here are three steps in order:

Step 1: Describe the pertinent behaviour. Just describe, don’t blame.

“When you stand on the chair…”

“When you come home late….”

“When you do not study….”

Step 2: State your feeling about the consequence the behaviour produces for you.

“I worry that you might fall…”

“I get really worried…”

“I am concerned…”

 Step 3: State the possible consequence.

“…. and hurt yourself.”

“…. because I don’t know where to look for you.”

“…. because you may have difficulty in the exams and your grades can go down.”

This takes time especially when we’re used to speaking You-Messages. I know I found myself adjusting a lot to accommodate more I-Messages in my language. One thing I found helpful was writing things down. When I feel that I’m about to blow up over a certain behaviour, I give a pre-discussed signal to my child. This signal tells him that I’m feeling a bit intense and need time to gather my thoughts.  I get our “Communication Notebook” and there I write an I-Message. I give it to him and he replies with a written message. This goes on until one of us says “I’m sorry” or “I love you”.

I find that writing things down helps prevent a lot of painful and negative statements from being said out loud. When we write, we pause to gather our thoughts and read what was written. There’s a time for a review and a time to change what could potentially be a defeating statement to our children.

I’ve included a fee printable of notes for such situations. The first page contains notes with templates that you can just fill out. The second page contains blank notes when you feel more confident about making your own I-Messages. You may download I-Messages-Note-Cards here. I hope you find this free Printables by Jan helpful.




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