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How to Solve Problems with Your Teens

Amanda Kowal, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Human Development & Family Studies, Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri


Parents and teens usually don’t see eye-to-eye about everything. Conflict is a normal part of life, but it can be hard for parents and teens to discuss problems. These discussions can be angry and frustrating for both parents and kids. How can parents communicate with teens about problems?

“I” Messages
When you try to solve problems with your kids, you can talk to them using “I” messages or “you” messages. “I” messages describe problems and let kids know that you trust them and believe they can help you solve the problem. “You” messages blame kids and can make them defensive or angry – so kids are less likely to be interested in solving the problem. For example, let’s say that 17-year-old Judy comes home after curfew. Here’s how her mom could respond:


  • You message: “You are late again! You should be home on time. What were you thinking?”
    Judy’s response: “Leave me alone Mom! You are always yelling at me!”


  • I message: “When you come home late I get worried because I’m afraid something has happened to you .”
    Judy’s response: “I didn’t realize how worried you get.”

Can you see how, with the “you” message, Judy may become defensive and angry? She is more likely to understand the importance of her curfew with the “I” message – and more likely to come up with possible solutions. Judy’s mom may be angry that Judy didn’t follow the rules, but her real emotion is concern about her daughter’s safety. If she really wants to solve the problem of Judy coming in late, the “I” message has a better chance of working.

How to make “I” Messages
An “I” message includes descriptions of:


  1. the problem behavior
  2. your feelings about the behavior
  3. the effect of the behavior

For example, let’s say that Joe and his younger brother Jason are fighting in the car and disturbing their dad who is driving. To solve this problem using an “I” statement the dad could say: “When you two fight in the back of the car I get worried about driving safely because your fighting is so distracting.”


  1. When you two fight (description of problem behavior)
  2. I get worried about driving (description of feelings
  3. because the fighting is distracting (effect of the behavior)


The key to making an “I” statement is figuring out what your true feelings about the behavior are. There are times when you simply feel mad – but if you really examine your emotions you’ll probably find that more often you feel worried, concerned, frustrated, or afraid. Identifying your true feelings, and not just telling kids that you are angry at them, helps you make an effective “I” statement. Of course, sometimes you can have such strong feelings about a situation that it’s hard to think calmly. In this case, talk a break and wait to discuss your feelings.



Gordon, T. (1976). P.E.T. in Action. Toronto: Bantam Books.



Last Updated 05/05/2009









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