Getting Through to Your Child

Submitted by PeterAKenny on February 11, 2020

The biggest mistake we make in our effort to control the behavior of our children is our tendency to blame them.  We wrap our verbal discipline inside a message that sounds like good parenting. It may sound good to us but it often fails because our child responds by shutting us out or automatically defending himself or herself.

“Do your homework!”  “Don’t talk back to me like that.”  “You’re late again” These three attempts to communicate and control all have the same basic problem.  They fly in the fact of our child’s basic instinct to defend himself or herself.  We may be correct logically but our child perceives our statement as an attack.  That may invite a spoken or quiet negative response in return. 

What we say and what our child hears are often different messages.  To communicate and get a better response, we need to understand the mind of our child. No matter how good our parental direction may sound to us, we fail if the message does not get through. Perception is our child’s reality.

We fail primarily because the above messages begin with the second person pronoun.  They start with an implied “You.”  That causes our child’s self-protective wall to go up. Beginning a verbal attempt to correct our child with “you” is always judgmental.  The message is about what is wrong with your child. So we shouldn't be surprised when our child ignores us, tries to defend himself, or even attacks back.  After all, he knows better than we do what is going on in his life, how he feels, and why he does what he does. 

To be more effective, try using “I” messages. Send the same basic direction but from your own point of concern.   Tell the child your own thoughts or feelings.  For example, you might say “I need your homework done now.”  Or “I feel angry when you talk to me like that.”  “I worry when you are not home by nine.” This may take some courage as the “I” message leaves you wide open to a personal smart-aleck response telling you to quit worrying. Don’t take the bait.  Instead, respond with a smile and tell them: “I’m your dad (or mom).  It’s my house and I get to set the rules.”

Obviously, good discipline involves more than I-messaging.  For example, parents need to set a time for homework, have rules for appropriate speech, and set curfews ahead of time. And there need to be simple non-punitive consequences for failure to comply. However, “I” messages offer a better chance at success, because they offer personal information about the sender rather than blaming the receiver.

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