Responding Lovingly to “I Hate You!”
“I hate you,” sobbed three-year-old Emma. “I want that!”
“I hate you,” eight-year-old Luke yelled, slamming the door, after reaching his limit on video game time.
“I hate you,” spat out eleven-year-old Katie. “Why can’t I dress like Roxanna and Sara? They wear lots of make up.”
Sooner or later, almost all of us, whether our child is 3, 8, or 12, have had our child vehemently tell us “I hate you!” We are often shocked or angry, or maybe flooded with doubt or guilt. Thoughts such as “Am I a bad parent?” or “After all I have done for her, this is what I get?” may run through our minds.
As with many parenting moments, it is great if we can take a step back and a few deep breaths. Children learn quickly that these particular words carry a strong message, but the message they are sending to us is less about hating us and more about the circumstances of the moment. Maybe we set a limit they didn’t like or just happen to be there after a friend said something hurtful to them. “I hate you” can mean “You won’t give me what I want. I hate that!” or “I’m really upset and I don’t know how else to express it.”
Think of the times in your life when you felt like saying “I hate you” to a coworker, boss, or family member. It was likely more about the pressure of the moment than the individual. As adults, we have alternatives in expressing our displeasure.
Like us, these are actually the times that children need a loving arm around them, some soothing words, or just a chance to be listened to. Saying “I hate you” means that something has gone wrong and they need help trying to figure it out. It is less about you as the parent and more about how children see themselves in the world.
We should try not to overreact, and if we do, we should try not to be too hard on ourselves either. We can always discuss it with our child later and explain our reaction. “When you said ‘I hate you’ I felt really bad and said something I wish I hadn’t said. Can we talk about it now?”
Remember that “I hate you” isn’t an expression of their personal feelings about us. We are trusted and dear. It is about the intensity of the emotions and a call for help and support. Summon as much patience as possible and move in with the kindness that children need to help them through the momentary crisis.