How to Respond When Your Child Says, “I hate you!”

Here are some Valentine’s Day thoughts and ways to think about this that I hope will be helpful:

  • When your child says, “I hate you,” he or she may mean many things and might be trying to express other feelings. Your child may not have the sophisticated emotional development or emotional vocabulary to communicate what was behind that “I hate you” exclamation. For example, when your child did not get the toy he wanted when you went to the grocery, they might be feeling, “I feel so disappointed because I had my heart set on that toy and I want it because my friend has one.” When your child is frustrated because they can’t find their backpack and you are rushing them along, they might be feeling: “I am so frustrated because I can’t find my soccer ball/hairband/shoes and I know I did not put them back where they belong, like you said, so now I have to spend time looking for them. Plus, I think I am going to be late!”

  • When your child says, “I hate you,” he or she may mean many things and might be trying to control or manipulate you (I know that comes as a shock!). When your child asks for the candy at the Kroger checkout, and you say no, they might learn that if they say mean things like that in public places, you will sometimes give in to their demands (usually to quiet them or avoid the scene or conflict).  Sometimes that control is an attempt to have influence and control over their life. Sometimes they are using power to prove that you can’t “boss or make me”.

  • When your child says, “I hate you,” he or she may mean many things and might be trying to get revenge and express his or her anger or hurt. Hurting people hurt people and children learn that saying, “I hate you” are hurtful words. Sometimes, children lash out with hurtful words because they don’t feel loved or have a sense and perception they are not loved. Sometimes children are angry at parents because of divorce, not enough time with you, cell phone competition and too much control. Sometimes children are seeking to “get even,” and it comes out as a scream of “I hate you” when they are trying to scream something else.

  • When your child says, “I hate you,” he or she may mean many things and might be trying to push your buttons. Children frequently and regularly push back, look for the limit, and test boundaries. It is almost instinctual and part of normal growth and development. Think of them as “testers,” and they have a need to discover what they can and cannot do. You will also help them discover who they are. Sometimes children scream, “I hate you!” to see what you will do or not do and what they can or can’t say to you. Sometimes they will try this with other adults and children too. Sometimes, they may not really mean to push your buttons, but your own past experiences have you reacting to those “triggers.”

  • When your child says, “I hate you,” he or she may actually be feeling that at that moment. We frequently use the “hate” word in our vocabulary, so children learn from our model and apply the word with people too. They hear us say, “I hate that” when we hear that someone has been wronged. They hear “I hate brussel sprouts” when your friend responds to your dinner menu.  Then they learn to use the word and use it appropriately. Is it possible that at that moment when you will not give them what they want when they want it, that they might be feeling a bit of hate? It is probably true that they hate that they cannot have their way, get that thing they want, and that is usually expressed in the one who is setting the limit or making the decision, so “I hate you!” seems spot on in the situation.

There are several important questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is it possible that my child might actually be feeling and expressing hatred or some other negative emotion?
  2. Am I uncomfortable with this emotion so am I reacting to that?
  3. Can I hold it together emotionally when my child says, “I hate you” so I can help my child grow?
  4. Do I know how to respond in ways that might be healthy and helpful to my child?

Maybe you have heard parents (and grandparents, babysitters, and neighbors) respond with, “No, you don’t really hate me. You love me.” or “Don’t say that again.We don’t use that word in our family.” or some parents have even been brought to tears with those words, “Look at mama’s tears. You have hurt me so much with those words.” Instead of these less effective ways to respond, I offer these:

So what can you do when your child says, “I hate you” that might be helpful?

  • Acknowledge the feeling. You don’t need to deny it, talk them out of it, or correct it. “I can see that you are really disappointed that you did not get that toy when we went to the grocery. I can see you really wanted it. I know it would be so fun to have matching toys with your friend. Sometimes, I get disappointed when I don’t get things I want too.” And then let it be...let her experience that disappointment (they need to learn how to handle that emotion when the stakes are low (did not get the toy) so they can handle it better when the stakes are higher (did not get the job). You can even agree with the feeling and relate your own, “I hate it when I forget things and am late too. I know how you feel because I feel that sometimes.”

  • Allow the feeling. This is where your own feelings, past, upbringing, and issues can influence your responses. Feelings are just feelings; they are not good or bad, and they are not behaviors. You have a right to feel your feelings and your children have a right to their feelings too. Note this is not behavior-children have a right to the feeling but do not have a right to hit their brother in response to that feeling. Emotions are feelings and behaviors are actions. When your own feelings well up inside you because of your past experiences, it might trigger reactions in you. For example, if saying “hate” was not allowed in your home and you were shamed or punished for that, then when you hear your child say that, it triggers those past emotions. In fact, the “ghosts” of our past often have us unconsciously reacting and re-enacting our childhood psyche.

  • Empathize with your child’s feeling. You can be empathetic whether or not you agree with the feelings or like them.  You want to consistently send the message that your child’s emotions are acceptable—including his anger, hatred and sadness and his happiness and gladness! Empathy sounds like, “I know you are feeling mad (or sad) about leaving the playground.  It is so much fun to play, and you don’t want to stop.” “I know you are feeling so angry with me because I said that you could not get that toy.” You then set the limits empathetically: “I know you are feeling mad (or sad) about leaving the playground, and it is time to go home.”  “I know you are feeling angry with me that I did not get that toy, and we will leave the store now to go home for dinner.” “You are having so much fun on the playground, and you don’t want to stop, but the clock says it is time to leave to go pick up your brother.”

  • Stay calm, self-regulate and model for your child. This is where you have to keep your act together so they can learn to do that too! It is so very difficult to stay calm in the midst of a storm, but know that your child will learn to regulate their emotions as they watch you do that too. When you use calm words and tone, it helps you to stay calm, and you are helping your child get calm too. If you need to take a few minutes to calm yourself, do it! Then you are better able to help your child.
  • Offer a hug or warm physical contact. You might offer a hug or a soft rub on the arm; sometimes this helps with reconnection. Usually, when your child is screaming, “I hate you!” they feel out of control and even unloved and unlovable, so a non-verbal affirmation can help. Sometimes, you might note that they will even collapse and cry when you offer that emotional relief. Sometimes in the middle of the “hate” moment, they don’t want a hug so always ask and ask again, “I can see you are really angry and I wonder if a hug might help?” “Can I give you a hug or rub your back?” “Do you need a hug?” If they say no? “When you are ready for that hug, I have it ready because I really love you and want to help.” Remember to wait a while (5, 10, 15 minutes or 1 hour and then ask again).
  • Wait and revisit later. Please note, you do not need to address the “I hate you” at that very heated moment. You will have much more success when you teach through the experience later. You can wait because you see the “bigger picture” is what they were feeling and didn’t have the words for expressing. They really can’t hear your “lecture” in the midst of their emotion (or yours) so let some time pass, so everyone returns to a calm state. Later you can go back and talk through their feelings. “I would like to hear about what was happening inside you today when we were getting you ready for school, and you said, ‘I hate you.’ I could see you were really upset with me. Can we talk about that so we can work together on a solution so you don’t have to just yell that, so you can tell me what you are feeling, needing and wanting?”
  • Teach through the experience. Your goal is to teach through the behavior/mistake rather than to punish for it. Whatever the cause of the “hate”, take time to teach your child other alternatives.  It involves checking out your child’s understanding or knowledge, “What words can you use to help me understand better what you need?” “What needs to happen before we read our bedtime story?” “What was your understanding of how to respond when you are frustrated? During the week, try to express your own emotions to teach and model when you feel disappointment (not in her) about things that happen to you or hatred, “I was so disappointed that my blouse got stained because it was one of my favorites and now it is ruined.” I hated hearing the news today because someone was treated unfairly and that really bothers me.”
  • Provide appropriate alternatives to saying “I hate you.” and you do this with your child. “Let’s make a list of all the things you can do when you are feeling like you hate me.” “Would it be helpful for you to take some time to yourself so you can help yourself feel better?” “Would you like to yell at your stuffed animals when you get frustrated like that?” Since we have agreed that we want to express our feelings with more words, what are some of those feeling words we can express? The more ideas they can generate, the better! You can even post the list (words or pictures) so they can see it and use it and so you can too.

I know raising children to be healthy, whole, capable, responsible adults is the hardest job you will ever have. I suspect you will hear an “I hate you!” a few times. I can also assure you that the efforts you make, the time you devote and the personal growth you do will make a difference! You are your child’s first and most important teachers, and on Valentine’s Day and everyday, you are loved, valued and respected by us at Virginia Chance School.