Reasoning with a VeryYoung Child (3): When Parents are Unhappy with their Child’s Behaviour

Larissa Dann: posted 29 June 2015                                                           Image used under license from Shutterstock

Part (3) of the series: Reasoning with a Very Young Child

Giving your very young children a reason for your upset can help them understand and empathise with you.  They may even come up with a solution to help you (which may mean changing their behaviour).


When I am unhappy about my children’s behaviour, I need to avoid blaming or putting down my child with a ‘you’ message. Examples of ‘you’ messages might be: “you’re just being naughty”; “you’ve been told 1000 times” “you’re old enough to know better”.

Instead of ‘you’ messages, I need to use an ‘I-Message’ when I’m upset with my child. A three part I-Message looks something like this: “when . . .(describe child’s behaviour) I feel . . .(a feeling word) because . . . (describe how you have been affected) “. For example “When I see the toys on the floor, I feel concerned that I might step on them and hurt myself”.

I try to find another word for “angry” by searching for other feelings that may be underneath my anger. I realise that often feelings such as fear or frustration, when I feel them strongly, get expressed as anger.

Importantly, I have to remember to listen to my child if they get upset after my I-message.

Examples of I-messages with very young children

Here are some real-life anecdotes of using I-Messages with my children Ben and Phoebe* when they were very young, and some examples from parents in my class. 

Not wanting to take medicine

Drawing on fridge

Mum about to leave house

Hot coffee

Sticky hands

Not wanting nappy changed

A reflection on I-Messages and very young children

Not wanting to take medicine

Phoebe* was 23 months old. She was ill, feverish, and did not want to take her medicine. She was on antibiotics, and I was letting her know that she would have to have her 'pink medicine' soon. She began crying and crying, and was struggling against me as I held her on my hip.

Phoebe: "No pink medicine, no pink medicine!!"

Mum: "You don't want that medicine. It tastes yukky, and you don't want to have it."

Mum: “It will make you feel better”.

Phoebe continued to protest against having to have the pink antibiotic. I then decided to explain, in detail, why she needed the antibiotic.

Mum: "There are bacteria inside you that make you feel sick. The pink medicine will say to those bacteria 'go away, bacteria. Go away, and stop making Phoebe feel sick.' That's why you need to have the pink medicine, so it can stop the bacteria making you feel sick".

I felt Phoebe physically calm down and relax, and she drank her medicine with far less protesting.

Drawing on Fridge

Ben*, aged 22 months, was drawing on the fridge with a texta. I knelt down beside him, looked him in the eye as I held his hand, and proceeded with an I-message. Because he was so young, I decided to include a solution.

Mum “Ben, I get annoyed when I see you writing on the refrigerator. This is going to mean more work for me to do, as I’m going to have to get the sponge and clean up the mess. I don’t want to have any more work to do. If you want to draw, it would be best to only draw on paper, in the lounge room”

Ben: (with a wide eyed stare) “O.K”

Ben then proceeded in to the lounge room to draw, and never drew on the fridge again.

Preventive I-Message with 16 month old when Mum is about to leave the house.

It was evening. Phoebe was tired, and newly bathed. I wanted something out of the car, and picked up my car keys. Phoebe heard the jangle of the keys, and came running out to me, her little face red and screwed up in consternation, as she began to cry and reach up for me. Her Daddy came to hold her, but she shook her head vehemently. I took her down to the car with me.

The problem was, I had to go out shortly afterwards. So I decided to try a preventive I-Message. Preventive I-Messages are designed to try and stop problems before they start.

Mum: " Mummy has to go out soon in the car. You have to stay home, with Daddy and Ben to look after you. I won't be long, and I will come back, but you will be asleep. Daddy and Ben will be here with you...."

Phoebe: “Darr, darr?” (car, car?), and pointed at the car

I repeated this message a couple more times, in various forms, and Phoebe repeated her "darr, darr?", and pointing. I did not know what this meant - did she think she was coming with me? And how would she be when I went to leave, given her previous reaction?

It came time for me to go. I got my bag and keys, picked up Phoebe to give her a hug and kiss goodbye, then handed her to her Daddy.

There were no tears. Phoebe went happily to her father, and waved goodbye to me. I was astounded by the difference in her demeanour, compared to just 10 minutes earlier. I could only put it down to the use of the preventive I-Message, and explaining so that she understood what was going to happen.

15 month old and hot coffee

Phoebe was 15 months old. I was stirring my coffee, and she wanted my spoon. After it had cooled down, I gave her the spoon. Then she indicated, very forcefully, that she wanted to stir my coffee.

Mum: "I don't want you to stir my coffee. I'm scared that if you do, you might get hurt - ouch - because the coffee is very hot". I accompanied my words with gestures and an exaggerated tone of voice.

Phoebe looked at me. Instead of getting cranky, she initiated her own solution. She handed me the spoon, then pointed to the coffee cup. I interpreted this as meaning that she wanted me to stir the coffee for her, which I did. Phoebe was happy – this was her solution to my concern.

18 month old and sticky hands, as Mum is about to go to work.

This example came from a participant with an 18-month-old daughter. Mum was initially quite sceptical about how much her daughter would understand if she implemented the P.E.T. communication skills, as her daughter was so young.

One morning, her daughter wanted to eat an orange. Mum was not keen.

Mum: “I’m worried that if you eat that orange, your hands will get all dirty. Then you might want to hug Mummy, and my nice clean clothes will get dirty from the orange”

Her daughter initiated her own solution, taking into account Mum’s concerns. She bent forward, with her hands stuck out behind her, in order to eat the orange with only her mouth, straight off the plate!

Not wanting a nappy changed

A mother, sceptical of P.E.T. at the beginning of the course, had this problem. Her son, who was nearly two, did not like having his nappy changed. He would run away from her, then kick and scream - you know the story! She had tried everything - bribing, smacking, distracting with his favourite toy. So, she asked - how would PET handle it?? This was the first session, before we had covered any of the communication skills in detail. I spoke briefly about problem solving with Active Listening (acknowledge he didn't want to have his nappy changed) and I-messages.

The next session, the Mum told us her story. The day after the P.E.T. session, her son began the usual routine of running away when she went to change his nappy.

Mum: "You don't want me to change your nappy. You're having too much fun playing, and you don't want me to change your nappy. But I have to change your nappy, because it is all smelly, and uncomfortable for you to wear."

To her amazement, her son lay down stock still, and allowed her to change his nappy without complaint.

A Reflection on I-Messages and Very Young Children

I-Messages help children develop consideration for another person’s need – from a very young age. When we respectfully let children know how we feel about their behaviour, we show that we trust them to care.

Putting a reason for being upset into our I-Message shows respect. Rather than saying “because I said so”, a reason allows our children to understand how we are affected, and why we would like them to change their behaviour. Explanations give our children something to grasp on to – an understanding of what is happening for the other person.

If we avoid giving a solution in our I-Message, we allow our children to show us their empathy as they seek a way to help us. Even with small children, I encourage parents to let their children try and come up with a solution first, before giving any solutions.

*Not their real names

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (1): background; some development theories; and observed outcomes of respectful verbal communication with very young children

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (2): when your child is unhappy

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (3): when parents are unhappy with their child’s behaviour

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (4): when both parent and child are unhappy.


© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved

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