Allow me to provide you with a simple but powerful script that you can use as a template for having uncomfortable conversations when you need to hold boundaries... without walking on eggshells.
It's called the X, Y, Z method and it has three parts: When you did X in Y situation, I felt Z.
That might sound something like this; "When you came home an hour after curfew last night, I felt worried." Or to give another example; "When you left your coat on the living room floor after school yesterday, I felt frustrated."
What you don't want to say is something like; "When you left your coat on the living room floor after school yesterday, I felt like you didn't respect my time."
So what's wrong with this?
The problem is that saying you don't respect or value my time is not sharing a feeling, it's making an assertion. You're stating an assumption about your child's thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Your child not respecting your time may be one possible explanation for why they decided to drop their coat in the middle of the living room and leave it there, but it's not the only explanation. There could be others. Imagine you come to me and you say, "I'm hungry right now," and I respond by saying, "No, you're not. You're just tired." How on earth could I possibly know what you are thinking and feeling inside your own mind and body? How could I as an outsider be arrogant enough to think that I know more about your internal experience than you do? The only person who's ever lived inside your own mind and body is you. The same idea applies to your child and every other human being for that matter. You might have theories and questions, but at the end of the day your child's mind is a black box. It's impossible for you to know with any certainty what is or isn't inside of it. You cannot know exactly why your child does what they do, their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, motivations. All you really know for sure is what's observable on the outside, the behavior, or what was said, and you might make up a story about why you think that behavior happened, but it's a story, and it's a story that may or may not be true.
Simply put an I feel statement should never contain the word 'you.' 'You' is often perceived as accusatory. Therefore it usually triggers Defense Mode. By the same token, if you say, "I feel frustrated.", no one can argue with that. That is how you feel. And since you're the only person who has ever lived inside your own head, you get to be the final and ultimate authority on what you think or feel. Stories and assumptions on the other hand can easily be argued with. So your child might respond by saying; "No, no, no. It's not that I don't respect your time, it's just that I forgot." To summarize, with I feel statements saying I feel frustrated or I felt concerned or some other singular emotion word is good. Saying, I feel like you're an idiot, is not good.
Now, is it kind of awkward to talk this way? Staying neutral and calm describing things in conservative, purely factual language?
Yes. It's very awkward. People don't usually talk this way in normal everyday conversation. Is your child probably going to wonder what kind of weird parenting classes you've been taking? Yeah, they probably will, but that's kind of the point.
It's supposed to sound a little weird and a little awkward because weird things interrupt the natural flow. They catch our attention and they get us to sit up and pay attention to what we're actually saying or doing. When we speak extemporaneously saying whatever comes to mind in the heat of the moment, then chances are good that our frustration, our toxic internal stories and our sarcasm will bleed through and derail the conversation before even has a chance to begin. So yes, your child might raise an eyebrow and they might think that you're kind of weird. They might even complain that you sound like a robot therapist, but that is a much better outcome when compared with the risky alternative of explosive conflict, hurt feelings and damaged relationships. With time these communication patterns will start to come more naturally to you, and then you will be able to speak extemporaneously off the cuff without needing to follow this X, Y, Z script so religiously. But when you're first starting out, you need the practice, so please follow the script religiously. Make sure you've really mastered the basics before you start improvising and changing things too much. Think of it like the training wheels on a bike. They're put there to prevent you from crashing and getting hurt. Someday, with enough practice, you'll be able to take the training wheels off and ride around freely. But until then, training wheels help to serve a valuable and necessary purpose.
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