Toddler Conflict Resolution Tool: Well-Constructed ‘I Statement’

This is one of the most popular parenting tools that I’ve shared with others: using a well-constructed “I Statement” to gain a child’s cooperation. Perhaps what is most beneficial to people is the insight on when to use it. I start using it at 2 years, 10 months, which is Toddler Milestone 11, “Budding Morality.” It can likely be used slightly before this as well.

I use it at this milestone because of the child’s much more matured sense of empathy and the desire to do what’s right, based on an external standard. These factors are is why I called this milestone “Budding Morality.”

Many parents ask when their child can understand empathy. Well, it’s something that grows incrementally. At 2 years, 1 month (Toddler Milestone 5: “Persistence and Insistence”), big emotions grow in the child, and they can also see these emotions in others. That’s beginning empathy. At 2 years, 7 months (Toddler Milestone 8: “Sequence of Events”) they start to show that they want to help others. This is partially why it is called “Sequence of Events,” e.g., “The baby is hurt, thus we need to … help him or her.” They grow in sophistication of how to help others after this. By Toddler Milestone 11, “Budding Morality,” they can commit to an action based on not wanting to hurt someone else.

People sometimes ask me how I get children to behave if I don’t use punishment on them. I tell them: It’s already in children to want to not hurt others. You can assume they are mostly good, not beat into them to not be bad. I will say that at this young age, appealing to their empathy is not always going to get the desired outcome. However, I do use it as a first approach. It applies when a child is doing something you don’t like.

A well constructed “I Statement” needs three parts: (1) the offending behavior, (2) how you feel about it, and (3) why. I learned it from Dr. Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training. He says the “why” part is the part people most leave out. At our house, we focus on including it: it gives a reason to why we are asking our children not to do X. This infuses our entire conflict resolution paradigm: giving reasons and focusing on solutions, not demanding blind obedience. This tool appeals to the best within children. It’s best explained by a story, from something that happened at exactly this age. This is a story from my Facebook page, The Observant Mom:

“I start using “I” statements with my children at very young ages. I use them at all ages, because I think they are the proper way to set boundaries, but I find the statements start to “work” with children who are in their very late twos. In my documentation on cognitive growth, children start to understand simple notions of right and wrong in an abstract way starting around 2 years, 10 months (and slightly earlier in a very subtle form). They go through a developmental milestone at this time—a really irritating and frustrating one by the way. Using an “I” statement worked today for my daughter, 2 years, 10 ½ months:

She had food in her mouth and was playing this silly game where she bounced on my chest with her hands and back while showing me the food in her mouth. Whatever—she’s 2, this is what she is interested in, and I try to respond to her, as I think it’s a bid for connection. But when she bounced on me, she kept hitting my nipple. It hurt. I don’t always respond in a calm way in these situations. Sometimes I respond with, “OW!” But I was in a rested and calm sitting position, and I was able to think in the split second that I needed to form a thought. I said, “I see your food. But when you hit me right here [pointing to where it hurt] it hurts me.” This is an “I” statement, with its three parts. I showed her what she was doing (bouncing), how I felt about it (it hurt) and why it upset me (it hurts).

She started bouncing on me with only one hand, such that her other hand did not touch me where I said it hurt!

They absolutely are capable of respecting your boundaries! I made the investment to use this type of boundary setting with my first son, who is now 5, and his ability to handle conflict resolution is impressive. It’s a worthwhile language to learn. It can bring a lot of calm to your house—eventually. It’s a process to get there, and one I try to put into place as early as possible.”

However, as noted, giving information in an “I” statement like this doesn’t always have a desired effect. Children become much more strong-willed. They understand plans are being made, and they want to be part of them. If I gave information and they do not respond well, I still use “give choice where inaction isn’t a choice.”

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

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