Effective Communication with Children (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

Using Active Listening to Respond to Nonproblematic Behavior

Even though active listening is a valuable strategy for letting children know that parents hear and care about the problems they express, this approach is equally effective for responding to children's efforts to convey their feelings related to positive experiences in their lives. In response to the child who runs into the room and says, "Dad, I hit a home run, today!" the parent can send the following active listening response. "Wow, you're pretty excited about hitting a home run. Good for you!"


As previously explained, when the parent owns the problem, an "I-message" is used for the purpose of expressing the parent's feelings regarding the child's behavior. I messages are not blameful; hence, they are not you messages. This is the main objective of the strategy, not to blame the child for the feelings the parent is having regarding a particular action or lack of action of the child. I-messages have three parts: (a) the feelings of the sender, (b) the unacceptable behavior of the recipient, and (c) the tangible effect of the recipient's behavior on the sender. An example of an effective three-part I-message goes something like this: "Kelly, I have a problem I would like to discuss with you" (problem ownership). "When I went into the kitchen and saw the peanut butter and jelly jars with the lids off, and the bread and milk not put away (unacceptable behavior of the recipient), I felt frustrated (feelings of the sender) because I knew that I would have to either clean up the clutter myself or ask you to do it" (tangible effect of the recipient's behavior on the sender).

Notice that the parent in this case has not sent a blameful you-message such as: "Kelly, you never clean up after yourself. Get in there and clean up that mess you made." Children and adolescents are much more likely to respond favorably to a parental I-message delivered in a warm, nonthreatening manner than to an angry-sounding, blameful you-message. When children and adolescents feel parents are criticizing their personalities (you-messages), they feel put down and misunderstood by their parents. In these cases, they are likely to respond defensively. The purpose of using I-messages is to express dissatisfaction with a child's behavior, not to attack the child. Sending a three-part I-message to inform a child of how that child's behavior affects the parent might sound as if the parent is telling the child what the child already should know. People in relationships often believe that others ought to be more considerate without being told, should know how some behavior would affect them, and so on. Even though it would be wonderful if all family members could guess how other family members feel and act accordingly, that simply does not occur in real life. People in close relationships are continuously affected by each other's behavior and do all sorts of things without considering the ways in which their actions affect the people they care about.

Although children's behavior is sometimes unacceptable to parents, the behaviors of parents (as well as siblings) often cause difficulties for children. Thus, it is important that both parents and children learn to use effective communication skills. One of the positive outcomes of the parental use of I-messages is that parents model for their children ways in which to express their feelings related to others' behaviors that their children find bothersome. When children learn to use I-messages, they have a skill that makes it easier for dealing with the annoying behaviors of other family members as well as the behaviors of peers.

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