I Feel Angry! Teaching Kids to Use I-Messages to Express Emotion

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Have you ever been in a situation where you were so overwhelmed with feelings of anger that you were at a loss for words? You had the presence of mind to know all of the things that you shouldn’t say, but weren’t quite sure how to express your true feelings without damaging your relationship. Adults often struggle with effectively communicating their angry feelings. For children, this challenge is doubly difficult; kids don’t want to get in trouble for expressing themselves aggressively, but often lack the skills for communicating assertively. You can help your child express angry feelings effectively by teaching her to use I-Messages.

Use I-Messages to Communicate Feelings Effectively

I-Messages are a form of assertive communication that model healthy anger expression. I-Messages maintain a respectful attitude toward the receiver of the message while also placing a responsibility for change in that person. When well-constructed, I-Messages are non-threatening and therefore unlikely to escalate conflict or provoke aggression.

Though I-Messages can take many forms, the following template can be helpful as you first teach your child this assertive communication technique:

  • I feel (feeling)___________
  • when ____(describe behavior)____
  • because __(concrete effect or consequence on situation)_____
  • I want _____(describe desired behavior)_____
  • I don’t want (describe behavior to be discontinued)_________

Imagine your son is angry with a friend for using his Nintendo without permission. His first instinct may be to yell, threaten, seek revenge, or even cry, but with prior coaching and some helpful role-playing, you can help him instead choose an assertive approach:

I feel angry when you take my Nintendo without asking because I am not allowed to let other people play with it when I’m not around. I want you to ask me before you play it. I don’t want you to play when I’m not in the room or without asking me.

I-Messages express anger in a verbal, non-blaming, respectful way. This staple technique of assertive behavior is an honest form of communication in which a person expresses their wants and needs without hurting or violating the rights of others.
One of the best ways to teach a child how to be assertive and when to use I-Messages is to consistently role model this communication style when expressing your own angry feelings:

I feel concerned when I see you hitting your sister because everyone deserves a safe environment. I’d prefer for you to tell me about a situation that is bothering you and let me decide how to handle it. I don’t want to see you acting out on your own in this way.

Learning to communicate using I-Messages can be a challenge, at first. Anytime a child replaces an old behavior with a new one, practice and persistence are required! When children understand that their behavioral choices elicit predictable responses from others and that the way they want friends to treat them begins with how they treat their friends, they gain all the motivation they need for learning to communicate their angry feelings in this new, more effective way.

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