Avoid Conflict with an “I Statement”

How the I Statement Creates Effective Communication

Relationships between parents and their children can and should grow stronger during adolescence. There’s a chance, however, that at some point during the tween and teen years our children will disappoint us or even make us angry. Really. It could happen! The question is whether we use these moments to create opportunities for closer relationships or not. And a simple change in word choice — “I” instead of “You” — can help us avoid an argument. The I Statement can also be a real game-changer for effective communication.

When we are at our best, we want our children to grow from experience and would never want to do anything to harm their self-esteem or our relationship. However, our better selves don’t always guide our actions during heated moments. When we are disappointed, we sometimes want our kids to feel guilty. When we are angry, we sometimes want them to feel punished for what they have done.

Time Out and Time for the I Statement

Time out. For both of you. Parenting is not done well in the heat of the moment. And lessons are not absorbed in times of high tension. You want your adolescent both to grow from experience and to understand why what they did  bothered you. This is where an I statement comes into play.

It’s natural to begin discussions with “You.” “You did that…”,“You always…” or “You can be so…” — this approach tends to be non productive. These discussions almost always backfire because they generate responses rooted in defensiveness or shame — “I did not …”, “I do not…”, or “I am not!” When people feel defensive it takes only an instant before they become offensive — “You’re the one who…!” There is no winning those kinds of arguments.

We can learn to navigate challenging moments successfully in order to gain empathy, understanding and closeness. Heated moments offer insight into how others are feeling and give us an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of our own feelings. For example, we may learn that we feel most angry when we care the most. This means that our most frustrating, even maddening, moments offer us an opportunity to renew and deepen our understanding of how much we care for and about each other.

Turn Conflict Into Shared Understanding

Consider following these steps and using an I statement the next time you find yourself using a “You statement.”

  1. Take a time out. Regain your calm.
  2. Reflect. Remind yourself why you are so emotional. Why you care so deeply.
  3. Set goals that aim to teach, not punish and that work towards a strengthened relationship.
  4. Come up with an “I statement”  to tell your teen how you feel or how you understood the interaction. Some examples include, “I feel like…” or “When I heard that, I reacted like…” or “I am uncomfortable because…” or “What I experienced was….”

Statements like these help our tweens and teens understand our perspective. Rather than feeling defensive and saying something like, “No I didn’t,” they are more likely to respond with something like, “I’m sorry I made you feel that way.” They experience empathy. Shared problem-solving can begin.

Conflict Resolution Skills Last a Lifetime

Working together to solve problems is an important ingredient for healthy communication during moments of conflict at home. It is also a strategy that will allow our children to have successful future relationships at school, with partners, friends or in the workplace. Communication at home becomes the model for their lives. They’ll have developed skills of listening, building empathy, self-advocacy, and problem-solving.

“We” Support Teens Growing Independence

Many of the conflicts we have with our tweens and teens are rooted in their developmental need to push limits. This stretching is a sign of the growing independence we must celebrate. They are becoming their own person, separate from us. That is a good thing. But separate does not have to mean distant.  

The “I statement” is one of many communication strategies that allows our tweens and teens to earn independence, while still drawing them closer to us. “You statements” push us into our respective corners. “I statements” lead to “we” solutions.

If you think your teen would benefit from learning about how to use “I statements”, share Tips for Teens: Avoid Conflict With Parents: Try “I Statements” to get them started!

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit www.fosteringresilience.com.

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