The ABC's of Confronting Your Child

Confrontive I-Messages Handle Unacceptable Behavior

The three types of I-Messages introduced so far are most appropriate when the parent-child relationship is in the NO PROBlEM AREA. In fact, they tend to keep the relationship there by serving as "problem prevention" messages.

At those times when the parent is owning the problem with the child's unacceptable behavior, another, and very powerful, kind of I-Message can give parents relief and resolution. This is the Confrontive I-Message - a message that confronts the child with three elements. First, a non-blameful description of what the child is saying or doing that is creating a problem for the parent; second, the specific, concrete, and unwanted effects that the child's behavior is having on the parent; third, the strength of the parent's feelings about those ill effects on himself. The Confrontive I-Message is a powerful influencer of change because it avoids blaming while at the same time lets the child know in no uncertain terms how his behavior is hurting the parent, and that the parent wants the child to take some responsibility for helping the parent get relief.

Some examples of three-part Confrontive I-Messages:

  • "I'm afraid I'll fall and hurt myself if your skateboard is left here on the steps."
  • "When you kick your feet like that on the couch, I'm worried it'll get dirty and worn out and that'll cost me work and money."
  • "When I didn't hear from you that you wouldn't be coming, I spent time waiting for you. I sure didn't like that."

You-Messages Don't work

While the idea and form of an I-Message may seem obvious and simple on the surface, most of us fail to disclose ourselves in this way. Rather we often communicate in you-messages - we talk about "you - over there" instead of "me - over here," and thus fail to communicate what's really going on within us. You-Messages are statements, judgments, guesses, evaluations, labels and the like, of other people and things. And since no one likes to be labeled, branded, or put in a pigeon hole, you-messages generally create hurt feelings, defensiveness, and resistance in others.

No child, for example, likes to have a finger pointed at her and be told:

  • "Your ideas are all wrong;"
  • "You better not bother me tonight when i'm paying the bills;"
  • "You are lazy;"
  • "You're such a good little angel!" (yes, even "sweet praise" often leaves a child feeling evaluated or manipulated.)

Read and contrast the following you-messages and the alternative I-Message. Notice how you are reacting and feeling about these very different ways of communicating.

You-messages are not always ineffective or harmful communication. For example, in the no-problem Area, friendly, playful expressions such as: "you're such a dreamer! you've got to be kidding! you're the greatest!" are often enjoyable for both parent and child. You-Messages, however, always fall short of being clear, direct expressions. To some degree they fail to share the important thoughts and feelings of the sender, and too often they leave the listener wondering just what was meant, or worse, feeling judged or mistrusted.

Do what's Right For You

We obviously see many benefits for self-disclosure, both for the parent, the child, and others. But where do you draw the line? Should you disclose everything you think and feel? what should you share with your children? With your spouse or friend? Or with no one?

The best guideline we can offer is: do what's right for you, and what's right for your relationships. The ultimate purpose of self-disclosure, after all, is to enhance your effectiveness as a parent and a person.

Therein lies the rule of thumb: "will my thoughts and feelings here, now, and with this child or other person, enhance me and enhance them and contribute to the quality of our relationship?" When the answer is "yes," self-disclose. When the answer is "no," choose not to self-disclose; and when the answer is, "i'm not sure," we strongly suggest that you take a chance and trust that your honesty and humanness will pay off. We're convinced that children especially thrive when their parent is a genuine, open, and even vulnerable human being - not an actor in a carefully controlled and rehearsed "parent" role.


  • "You've got to be kidding! you can't be serious."
  • "What a good boy; you're mommy's little helper."
  • "You're being rude and inconsiderate, pat."
  • "If you kids don't let me know your weekend plans, you may not get any rides."


  • "I disagree with that. my opinion is ..."
  • "Oh, I'm so happy you helped me; I liked that a lot."
  • "Pat, I don't like it when you talk this loud during the news because I can't hear it."
  • "I want to hear of your weekend plans early so we can work them out with my plans."

I-Messages are effective communication techniques, but they are more than techniques. They are just the plain truth, and that's a powerful value to model for your children and others you care about - and for yourself!