Hearing your child scream the words “I hate you” can be distressing. But not to fret, moms and dads, chances are your child may just be having a hard time expressing their feelings. Young children, unable to verbalize their emotions, turn to harsh words as a way to express their hurt and anger. Developmental Psychologist, Becky Baily, explains that young children in particular feels one emotion at a time. And it is all-encompassing and extremely overwhelming. She shares that when a toddler is good, they are extremely good. But when they are not happy, the feeling may be so intense that logic becomes completely void. So if your child says ‘I hate you’, it’s probably in response to a negative feeling that they are not mature enough to deal with.
Children offload negative emotion through tantrums and tears. Outbursts, such as “I hate you”, are usually an automatic response birthed in the emotionally reactive part of the brain. This emotional reaction overrides logical and analytical thinking. So, it’s safe to say that in most cases, the child does not mean what they say. Children are still learning how to manage their emotions. The key is to figure out how you can help them do so.
What they really mean
Chances are your child is using “I hate you” as a way to vent their feelings about an underlying issue. More often, the hurtful words are a masquerade for “you don’t understand me”, “you’re not listening to me”, “you don’t care about what I want or need” and “I wish you could see things from my point of view”. Your child does not hate you, she simply hates feeling the way she does. And she tries to free herself the only way she knows possible. Author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!, Dr Sal Severe, urges parents not to take it personally. Children simply do not have the tools to communicate effectively.
How you should not respond
If you’ve been on the receiving end of an “I hate you” you’ll know that it’s a really hard blow to stand. Your typical response could be one of anger and punishment. You could even send the child away to “deal” with their anger, in silence. But, if you’ve tried any of these responses out, you’ll notice that they do not yield the best results. Answering with a “but I love you” or a “there’s no reason for you to say that”, might shame the child. And replying with silence or by disregarding the outburst may bring on feelings of abandonment or rejection. Dismissive phrases such as “Whatever” and “You don’t mean that” could only add fuel to the fire.
How you should respond
Pause, and take a deep breathe, but don’t go anywhere. The truth is that responding calmly to an “I hate you” isn’t as easy as it may seem. But it is the best way to deal with it. Psychology Today advises parents to acknowledge the emotion (i.e. “I can see that you are angry”), as a way to point out that there is something else at play here. Connect the emotion to the underlying cause, by repeating what had happened. (“I said no, and it made you angry”). Turn the situation around, by answering in love, instead of in frustration. But stand your ground! What your child needs, in this moment, is for someone to help her understand what she is feeling and not someone to allow her to give in to the feeling. Acknowledge the anger, while standing firm. Show compassion, while standing your ground. You don’t have to be a pushover, in order to show that you love them. Give your child a voice, by asking questions, as a means to get to the center of the problem.
Dr Severe encourages parents to explain to their kids that everyone gets upset occasionally, but it’s not right to take it out on someone else. Your child needs to learn about the power and effect of his words. Point out examples where saying the same words could hurt someone, and how changing the way it is said brings a better solution. Offer ways to offset their emotions. There are acceptable ways to express how they feel, but they may not be aware of it. Once the situation has been diffused, ask your child to think up other ways (or words) that they can use to express exactly how they are feeling in that moment. Put words to the emotion by helping them describe how they felt. For example: “So you felt frustrated?” Remember that their feelings of overwhelm and frustration have nothing to do with your quality of parenting.
Talk it out
Brainstorm solutions to the problem by writing out alternative phrases and scenarios. Role playing and using coping skills would be a great way to do this. Communication is key. And guess what, your child’s outburst can be seen as communicating too. Use it to your advantage! If your child feels disconnected or unable to communicate with you, an outburst could in fact bring you closer together. Use these moments of friction to smooth out your relationship and to get them talking about concerns that would usually be kept hidden. Parents, don’t forget to let your child know that speaking to you in a manner of disrespect is totally not accepted. It may be easier to address this when the situation is calmer and the child is ready to learn. Allow your child an outlet to unashamedly express exactly what they are feeling. Dealing with heavy emotion clouds their judgement and perception. But this can quickly be changed as they offload the upset in a safe space. In some cases, you are able to see an obvious weight be lifted, as the child reaches a point of revelation.
Choosing to be intentional and present, in every aspect of your child’s life, will eventually see you reaping a bountiful harvest. Children need guidance and grace in situations where they may not understand why they feel the way they do. Stay connected to your child by offering an understanding ear or empathetic shoulder to lean on. Even the most difficult and emotion-filled situation can be turned around for good. Use it to build a deeper relationship with your child and to offer them new and improved ways of thinking and doing things.