When boundaries are challenged it will be for one of three reasons:

  1. There is a conflict of needs
  2. There is a conflict of hidden needs
  3. There is a conflict of values

For today we’ll start with the easiest one to sort out: a conflict of needs.

What happens when there’s a conflict of needs and how do we resolve it quickly, fairly and keeping our boundaries intact?

What is a conflict of needs?

We find ourselves in a conflict of needs when we want one thing and another person wants something else. 

Often this has come about because we haven’t stated clearly what it is we want. The other person has been blissfully unaware that the thing we want and are not yet getting is a problem for us. 

What does a conflict of needs look like?

In our house, for a long time, a conflict of needs looked like a very messy bench. The teenagers would come home from school and make themselves a variety of after-school snacks which they would then scoff. When they had finished scoffing, they would get on to the next thing they had on their lists – like homework (in theory) and youtube while chatting with their mates (in reality). When I arrived home from work with my mind on dinner I would be greeted with the sight of a messy bench and all the offending teenagers in their rooms and firmly denying the mess was theirs. 

My need to get dinner organised was in conflict with their need to feed themselves and do the things that were important to them. 

How did we resolve it?

Here’s the short version:

  1. I recognised it was a problem
  2. I called the problem out
  3. The kids took responsibility for their own, individual messes and cleaned them up before I got home

The longer version looks more like this:

  1. I stewed about the problem for a while. I was conflicted within myself – caught between wanting my kids to be responsible for tidying up themselves and working mother guilt that I wasn’t there to greet them after school and therefore cleaning up after my kids was the least I could do. The reality was, I really needed them to step up and pitch in. 
  2. I tried a variety of methods to ‘resolve’ this problem. They were all reliably ineffective. The methods I tried were: only having food available that was non-preparatory like fruit, nuts, and individual serves of yoghurt. The kids still left a mess though and this one was expensive plus it meant my shopping game had to be 100% on point. Then I tried being mad: that one took too much energy plus I didn’t like how it made everyone feel. I tried guilting which was also horrible. Then I tried nominating a child each night to be in charge of bench cleaning. This meant I had to follow it up. Then there were sports commitments that got in the way. 

A simple problem was a hard thing to solve!

Until …

I simply said, “When I get home from work and the bench is left all messy it means I have to clean up before dinner gets started and I’m frustrated.” 

And the kids said, “Oh. Sorry.” And they all made an effort to keep the bench tidy. 


So let’s have a look at the magic sentence I used. It’s called an I message and it was all about me. There was nothing that pointed the finger of blame at anyone. 

The beginning: “When I get home from work and the bench is all messy” was a pure statement of fact. I could have taken a photo of the messy bench. It wasn’t over-dramatised or understated. It was simply called for what it was. A messy bench. 

The middle bit: “it means I have to clean up before dinner gets started” this was another statement of fact of the effect it had on me. There’s no emotion in this statement and no fingers of blame or judgment or any jabs at character flaws. It’s just calling it for what it is. A time delay. 

The ending: “and I’m frustrated.” It names how it makes me feel. Again. No blaming. No accusations. Just a feeling, which is mine. 

27 words that had a life-changing effect

The I message worked because:

It stated my problem clearly, including the effect the problem was having on me.

Stated this way, the kids understood what the problem was. Being kids, they hadn’t realised the knock-on effects that not tidying their mess had on me. 

When I highlighted my need, my rangatahi were able to meet it. 

And they did. From that day on they all made the effort to keep the bench clean after they had finished making their food. 

Did requiring them to clean up after themselves make me less of a good mother? NO!!! If anything it makes me a better mother because the life learning they got from this lesson means they are considerate of others and apply this outside of our house. Giving them this need to meet was a beautiful opportunity to train them in basic household domesticity 101. 

The boundary of a clean bench is such a blatantly easy boundary to reinforce because it’s either done or not done. There’s not a lot of wiggle room for the bench being left messy. Setting this boundary effectively makes setting other, harder boundaries easier. 

An even bigger bonus is the modeling of the language pattern I used to highlight my need. When my rangatahi approach a conflict scenario they have had this language pattern highlighted for them. They’ve heard it and they’ve seen it being used effectively. So it becomes a natural way of talking for them. Again, life skills. 

And the knock-on effect is even greater: because the kids had this way of stating their needs we avoided so much of the sullen teen stage. In fact, it wasn’t an issue in our house. If something was bothering them, they had an effective way to say it and they did. 

If you’d like to change the dynamics in your family I encourage you to visit www.beautifulconversations.co.nz/courses and check out Teen Talk ™ 

Your family will thank you for the changes this one, simple course will make in their lives.