The Most Helpful Parenting Response When a Child Says “I Hate You.”
When children feel disappointed, frustrated, angry or other difficult emotions, they may say hurtful words. Sometimes those words are “I HATE YOU!” or “I hate you so much mom!”
That small phrase packs quite the emotional punch – especially the very first time you hear it.
Last summer, while on vacation, my four year old son asked for a toy at a store and I declined to buy it. My son’s eyes squinted and his face tensed up as he said ever so clearly “I hate you!”
I had never heard such words from my son before and it was quite the surprise.
The secret message behind hurtful words
“I hate you” is often code for something beyond what we are hearing. Children aren’t always able to express all their feelings in eloquent ways. Especially when they feel overwhelmed or upset. The words they use tend to represent more of how they feel on the inside than what they really think about us.
What these hurtful words from our children actually mean is more like:
- “you are really not understanding what I need right now.”
- “you are not listening to me.”
- “we are totally disconnected right now.”
- “I feel hurt.”
- “I have big feelings and don’t know how to explain them.”
- “I wish you would see things from my perspective.”
- “what you want and what I need are not in sync.“
As parents we give so much love, of course hearing “I hate you” can feel really hurtful.
It’s tempting to be reactive or dismissive and say things like:
- “Fine! I hate you too”
- “Nah, you don’t you are just saying that”
- “Go ahead, hate me all I want but I’m not cooking you dinner!”
- “How dare you say that, go to your room!”
- “Haha – good one, I’ve been waiting to hear that!”
The problem is none of those words help restore connection or help children learn to deal with overwhelming emotions.
Responding calmly to “I hate you” isn’t always easy. In that moment, our children really need us to be sensitive, compassionate, loving and empathetic.
Transform the hate by being loving enough, in that moment, for the both of you.
On that day when I didn’t buy a toy for my son I said to him: “Wow you must be really upset right now.” Tears started flowing and a tiny, shaky voice said “Mom, I’m really mad that Georgy died”
My in laws dog had passed away that very same day and we had found out just a few minutes before going inside the store. My son went on, “now you won’t buy me the toy I really like” and more tears came about.
The tears had hardly anything to do with the toy I wouldn’t buy and so much to do with loss and grief so I offered some kind words. “Sounds like a really tough day?”
“YES” my son answered clearly upset.
I asked my son if he would like a hug and he melted into my arms. He had no hate in his heart at all. He didn’t mean to be disrespectful. He just didn’t have the right words or the maturity to handle his sadness.
Some positive ways to respond to a child when they say “I hate you”:
Say nothing but stay close: your child may have more upset feelings to unload.
Try saying something gentle and understanding:
- “you must be really hurting”
- “my words weren’t what you wanted to hear”
Reflect what you think is happening:
- “I can see that what I said/did/ may have been very upsetting to you.”
- “I hear you. You hate me right now.”
- “Ok. You didn’t like what I just said/decided.”
Accept that time to cool off may be needed:
- “I want to listen to you when you feel ready to share with me.”
- “I’m here for you, when you feel ready.”
- “I think you want space, so I will go now AND I’m happy to listen to you whenever you want to talk.”
Hearing “I hate you” is not easy and there are no magic words to say back to erase it. Listening, empathizing, connecting and remembering to be loving enough for the both of you can make a difference. The aim of disciplining children when they use unhelpful words can be to create opportunities for understanding and connection. Hate is a powerful word, with big feelings behind it. Our children need guidance in these moments so they will be able to do better. Don’t be afraid to show kindness to a child that is feeling hate.
What you give to your child will grow.
Peace & Be Well,