A Parenting Dialogue: What Do You Do When Your Child Says "I Hate You?
Lately, my daughter is going through a phase where she says, “I hate you! You’re the worst mama there ever was!” whenever she doesn’t get her way. Depending on my mood, I’ll reply with either “That’s fine, I still love you and always will,” or “Don’t talk to me like that, it’s not nice and it hurts my feelings!”
The behavior isn’t changing, though, and I worry that I’m being a pushover and that it will ultimately make the behavior worse. Just wondering what to do when my child says “I hate you”? I hear this is common among kids so maybe someone here can share their own experiences. How did you change this behavior?!
The New Mom
With my 3-year-old, I respond more to what he might be feeling than his actual words. The words are just their attempt to communicate feelings that they don't know how to articulate. I respond with something like "Wow, you must be really upset to say something so hurtful. What's going on?" If he's too upset to respond right then, I tell him that I'll let him think about it and give him some space. (If he's too hungry to admit he's hungry, I start chopping up an apple "for myself" and then "let him share" when he comes over and asks to. That tends to help a lot.) After he tells me what's upsetting him, I say something like, "I see, you didn't like when I ____. I can understand that. Hate is a very strong and hurtful word. Next time, you can tell me 'Mom, I'm really mad!' instead of 'I hate you'."
At the same time, I also expect him to still say things like that sometimes. It's developmentally appropriate and building new skills is a work in progress. I trust that in time he's going to have the restraint and the emotional regulation to use more diplomatic words when he's upset and that the skill teaching will kick in to give him a better way to communicate. I think my lack of an emotional response to his words will make it less likely he will say things like that to get a rise out of me. I try my hardest not to take anything he says personally and to reassure him that I love him whenever he's having a hard time.
-- Shawn, mother of one toddler
The Experienced Mother
I'm a little different, I guess. I don't combat their hate with my love. I never told my kids that it's okay for them to say they hate me. I never told them that feeling hatred is okay… because it's not. Anger is normal. Frustration is normal. Irritation is normal. Hatred is an ugly emotion that I never wanted them to think was normal for them to feel. I believe the more you allow yourself to hate, the less you allow yourself to love. You can be mad at me. You can be angry with me. You can be frustrated with me.
That being said, whenever my kids would tell me they hate me, I would ask them if they really hated me, or if they were feeling something else that they didn't know the words for. Nearly every time, they said they didn't know the words. Then I'd tell them, "Oh good. Now that we know that, let's figure out the words you need." After we figured out how they were really feeling, I reminded them about boundaries. When they were really little (around 4 to 6-ish), we called them "Self Rules" because they knew they were rules for themselves. And I told them that I don't allow people to hurt me. Just like I wouldn't allow someone to hit me or push me, I don't allow someone to say hurtful things to me.
I always allowed my kids to say almost anything. They spoke their minds all the time. But if they ever said they hated someone, even if they weren’t saying they hated me, we always had a talk about it.
-- Katie, mom of four grown children
The Psychologists’ Approach
A child still loves you when they say hurtful things. They’re just feeling extremely angry about something that is happening. Their limited verbal skills make it challenging to express themselves, and they burst out with “I hate you.” As they grow older and discover the strength of words, they may use this phrase to feel more empowered. Here’s what psychologists advise about how to react when your child says, “I hate you.”
- Concentrate on the emotions your child is probably feeling. Try not to see it as a personal attack (although it sure feels like one).
- Use statements that recognize and validate their feelings. For instance, saying, “I can tell that you’re really upset right now” can help your child hone in on what they’re feeling.
- Try to tie together their feelings with what just happened. For example, you might say, “I told you that you couldn’t have any candy, and you got very frustrated and angry.”
- Offer an alternative phrase for your child to use. You could suggest something like, “When you feel frustrated or angry, say ‘I’m upset’ and I will try to help you.”
- Talk to your child about the power of their words. Let them know that “hate” is a very strong, hurtful word. Ask them whether anyone has ever used that word toward them and how it felt. This can help your child develop a sense of empathy.
- Don’t chastise your child by reprimanding them with phrases like, “How could you say that?” or “What’s wrong with you?” These types of comments shame a child and send them the message that whatever they’re actually feeling isn’t acceptable. Your aim should be to establish boundaries without hurting their self-esteem.
- Don’t say “I hate you” back to them. It doesn’t teach them a lesson and can be harmful, causing a child to actually question your love. If you do accidentally speak these words, it’s essential to apologize and explain that you were only feeling upset.
Ideally, psychologists recommend parents encourage their children to talk about what they’re feeling and help them learn more constructive ways of expressing those emotions. Learning how to manage difficult feelings effectively will help your child throughout their entire lifetime.
The Holistic Approach
A:Dr. Becky Kennedy, parenting guru, New York Times best-selling author and founder of Good Inside, offers a holistic approach to what to do when your child keeps saying “I hate you.” She asserts that when kids are exhibiting undesirable behavior, it’s because they are struggling with emotional regulation. She argues that their behavior should be viewed as a clue about how to help them regulate their emotions – not as an indicator of what type of person are or who they will become.
Dr. Becky reasons that by remembering that our children are good on the inside, parents can take a step back and show more compassion. This allows parents to brainstorm different, better solutions for behavioral problems than by simply viewing that behavior as a personality trait.
You may feel the need to punish or reprimand a child who says, “I hate you.” After all, they need to learn that type of behavior isn’t allowed – you can’t go around saying that to your supervisor at work when you’re an adult! However, Dr. Becky argues this way of reasoning is backward. A person who says, “I hate you” to a supervisor was never taught how to manage hard feelings, like anger or frustration. Supporting children through their emotions allows them to effectively build that skill. It’s not letting them “get away with” bad behavior. It actually works.
For example, she suggests imagining you had an especially challenging day where everything went wrong. When you arrive home, you yell at your partner. Imagine your partner validating your emotions by responding, “It’s not alright for you to scream at me, but I understand you’re going through something. Let’s take a breather and try to figure it out together.” You probably wouldn’t continue yelling. You’d likely feel more supported, more trusting, and more inclined to manage your emotions differently in the future. Children react the same way, and addressing the emotions gives kids the room and the skill to actually modify their behavior over time.
Hearing your child say "I hate you" can be a hurtful and frustrating experience. However, by staying calm, listening, validating their feelings, setting boundaries, and modeling healthy communication, you can help to de-escalate the situation and show your child that their emotions are important. Remember, parenting is a difficult job, but by approaching situations like this with compassion and understanding, you can help your child grow and develop into a healthy and well-adjusted adult.
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