What to Do When Your Child Tells You “I Hate You”

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We can’t expect our children to feel lovey-dovey toward us all the time. There are going to be moments when they are annoyed and even angry at us.

But what happens when your child actually says, “I hate you” to you? It can feel like a punch to the gut. After all, you work hard to provide them with everything they need and love them as best you can.

Should you punish him or her? Should you take it seriously? And most importantly, what can you do to prevent it from happening in the future? Here’s how to deal with your child’s first “I hate you”.

Do They Really Hate You?

According to Meri Wallace LCSW, author of How to Raise a Happy, Cooperative Child, these three words sound much worse than they actually are in reality.

In her opinions, children have limited vocabulary, and are still learning how to process and understand their emotions. Therefore, a child who is very upset and angry will easily say, “I hate you” to express a profound feeling of anger or disappointment.

Is there any real hate involved? It’s unlikely.

It’s hard for adults to act logically and rationally in highly charged and emotional situations. So, it’s hard to expect children to navigate them with sang froid.

Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach
Ross W. Greene, J. Stuart Ablon - The Guilford Press - Kindle Edition - Edition no. 1 (10/18/2005)

Getting the One Up

Children hear the words, “I hate you” at school, on TV, and in conversations. They see that it’s negative and that it causes pain to others. If your child has ever been told, “I hate you”, chances are, he or she is still keeping that painful memory inside.

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So, when they say it to you, it can be their way to have power over a distressful situation by finally being the one who says this phrase.

Be a Peaceful Place Where Your Child Can Unload

You may feel that the best thing to do, as the authority figure and parent, is to punish your child, or at least, seriously reprimand her. This will certainly show your disapproval, but it won’t solve the deeper issue.

What’s the real problem?

Your child is emotionally upset and needs to express and expose these feelings. You as the parent need to be there for them. You need to be a calm presence while they unload all their negativity.

What Your Child Really Hates

Instead of taking it personally, try to see the situation for what it is: your child is very upset, and really hates the situation and the feeling they’re unable to cope with.

What is it that’s driving them to say such a thing?

Your child might feel very disconnected from you or misunderstood. He might feel that you’re not listening to him or seeing things the way he does. Maybe he feels hurt and it’s even worse when you don’t acknowledge the hurt.

So, instead of punishing them because you feel insulted or betrayed, focus on their anger, or whatever emotion it is they’re feeling. Here’s how.

Acknowledge Negative Emotions and Don’t Be Afraid of Them

You might feel threatened or shocked by your child’s first, “I hate you”, but instead listen to your child, and acknowledge the emotions he or she is presenting to you.

If they’re angry, acknowledge their anger. If they’re sad, their sadness, etc. You can say something as simple as, “You are so upset right now.” Another option is: “I know you didn’t like what I said or did.”

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Then, ask questions about how they’re feeling, and try to understand what caused their reaction in the first place. They might be open to discussion. They might also resist you and kick and scream, either literally and figuratively.

In that case, it’s never easy to stay calm and present, but try to simply witness your child’s emotional experience without going down with it. Your child actually loves you very much and needs you to be the strong, calm person so that they can learn to cope with negative, strong emotions better.

As a parent, you can take “I hate you” as a slap in the face. Or, you can see that your child simply doesn’t understand how to handle strong feelings without acting out with hurtful behavior.

How to Smooth the Relationship

Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach
Ross W. Greene, J. Stuart Ablon - The Guilford Press - Kindle Edition - Edition no. 1 (10/18/2005)

You may want to retaliate, punish, talk back or ignore your child’s “I hate you.” But this won’t heal the pain or prevent it from happening again.

When you’re dealing with this situation, you have the power to transform something negative into a moment of connection and understanding.

But be careful with how you try to connect and understand your child. Here are some simple tips:

  • It’s always a good idea to not say things like, “That’s not very nice because I love you”, or “I know you love me”. Why are these poor responses from a parent? Because it can either shame your child, or it can look like you don’t take them and their big feelings seriously.
  • Once everything cools down, let this opportunity become a teaching moment. Once you’ve acknowledged and discussed the emotion they were dealing with, help them learn to cope with these emotions better.
  • Let them know it’s okay to say, “I feel angry”, or “I feel sad”. You can remind them that there’s a difference between hating what a person says and hating the person.
  • You can let them know that it’s always okay for them to ask you for help.
  • You can also let them know that words like this can hurt your feelings, too, and that it’s better to say loving words to people, even if you’re upset.
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Stay Strong as a Parent

Staying strong doesn’t mean getting the last word in and maintaining your power in this little power struggle. Instead, staying strong means not beating yourself up about it. It means not feeling guilty, unworthy and rejected. It means rejecting the idea that you’re a failure.

Sure, maybe you weren’t the perfect parent, and you weren’t connected. Maybe you didn’t listen very well and take the time to understand your child.

But all parents slip up. So, instead of letting this “I hate you” bring you down, let it be an opportunity for you and your child to grow closer in love and understanding.