Hearing your child say “I hate you!” for the first time can be a shocking and upsetting experience for a parent.
“When coming from a child in whom there is generally a love-based relationship, ‘I hate you’ is a normal part of emotional and psychological development,” said psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “How parents deal with it models for the child how difficult emotions are managed. If we can learn that I can ‘hate you’ and continue to love you, we are learning some very healthy lessons.”
So how exactly should parents approach hearing “I hate you” from one of their children? Below, McDermott and other experts share their advice.
“First, don’t panic. The phrase, ‘I hate you!’ out of the mouth of a 4- to 10-year- old is very different from the same phrase out of the mouth of your adult partner,” said clinical psychologist John Mayer. “The child is trying to use an emotionally laden term out of anger or frustration. Yes, they are trying to get a reaction from you or something from you — to get what they want.”
He noted that children are still learning how to express frustration in a healthy and productive way, just as babies and toddlers tend to cry or throw their food away when they don’t know how to say they dislike it. Try not to take it personally, and resist the urge to spiral and act rashly when responding to your child’s “I hate you.”
“Practice any helpful coping strategies you can think of,” suggested clinical psychologist Nuanprang Snitbhan. “Like finding someone to vent to, doing a breathing exercise, reminding yourself ‘Parenting is not supposed to be easy. Good enough is OK for now,’ imagining a joyful time you had with your kid, looking at old pictures of the two of you. Engage these strategies before you sit down together.”
Understand what it means.
“The ‘I hate you!’ phrase is an immature, undeveloped way to express an emotion that they are feeling at the time,” Mayer explained. “It is important to also note that at these ages the concept ‘hate’ is not even cognitively understood by the level of brain development they have. They have picked it up through modeling as a tool.”
When children say “I hate you,” it’s usually out of frustration, disappointment or loss of control. Often they’re upset because the parent denied them something they wanted. They may also be hungry or tired, which can add to the intensity of their feelings.
A parent might say, ‘I can see that you are so angry at me. I want to understand why. Let’s talk again when both of us are in a better space.’ Clinical psychologist Nuanprang Snitbhan
“It is an expression of feelings rather than a description of actual feelings about you,” said clinical psychologist and art therapist Robin Goodman. She noted that “I hate you” is generally code for “I am mad,” “I hate feeling like this,” “I hate this situation,” “You don’t understand,” “You’re not listening,” or just “I can’t handle these big feelings in a better way right now.”
“Parents work hard at differentiating between feelings about a person and something a person did ― ‘I don’t like your behavior right now (yelling about bedtime), but I still love you,’” Goodman added. “So it can help to realize your child feels the same but does not have the same skills to verbalize the other side.”
Be a “mirror.”
Validate your child’s feelings by noting that it’s OK to feel angry and frustrated at times.
“Parents should remember to be a ‘mirror’ for their children’s behavior,” said Craig A. Knippenberg, a therapist and author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.”
“Start with a mirror statement: ‘I know that you are feeling frustrated right now about ___. You don’t have to like all of my decisions but it is my job to parent you in ways I feel are best.’”
Tell them you want to understand why they’re so upset. Or if you think you know the reason, show your understanding and empathy.
Goodman advised saying something like “I understand you really wanted to go with your friends and are mad it’s not happening,” “I know you are angry that I said you can’t hang out with your friends over the weekend because we are visiting your grandparents,” or “I know it was a tough day and this made it feel worse.”
Take a moment for you both to cool off.
It may be helpful to suggest taking a break to calm down in the moment. Note that you can talk more about it later and you will listen to what they have to say.
“A parent might say, ‘I can see that you are so angry at me. I want to understand why. Let’s talk again when both of us are in a better space,’” Snitbhan said. “By saying this, you are not only validating their feelings but also admitting that you also need time to process.”
Take this time to make sure you and your child are safe and perhaps move to a better location for a discussion if the outburst happened in a supermarket or while walking near traffic, for instance.
This break is not always necessary, however, according to McDermott.
“There may not need to be any processing,” he said. “The immediate moment and your response to it might be enough. In fact allowing things to blow over and be forgotten is a useful skill. Often the most underrated skill of parenting is learning what to ignore.”
Be age-appropriate in your response.
Tailor your “I hate you” response to your child’s age and developmental level. If you’re dealing with a toddler who doesn’t like hearing the word “no,” Goodman advises active ignoring so as not to engage in a battle of wills.
“With school-age children, avoid any tendency to mimic or mock ― ‘I hate you too’ ― or use hurtful words back,” Goodman said. “Again, it’s best not to engage or show your reaction which may signal they have won the round and had the last word so to speak by hurting you in return for you having hurt them by setting a limit or ‘making’ them stop doing something fun. You can always try a more neutralizing ‘I know you’re upset but I still love you.’”
Keep in mind, the job is to accept their feelings as valid, but that does not mean you accept how they were expressed. Clinical psychologist and art therapist Robin Goodman
For tweens and teens, she recommended not taking an “I hate you” personally and not engaging in an argument in the moment if they share the reason why they “hate” you, like the fact that you won’t give them an iPhone.
“There can also be a tendency to take the bait of their never and always arguments ― ‘You never let me…’,” she added. “But it is about their real feelings rather than the reality of it. Don’t get bogged down by the comparison syndrome either ― ‘All the other kids in my grade have…’ It may be better to listen and validate their feelings, hear them out, explain your views even though they still may not like the decision.”
Explain that it’s hurtful.
Parents can explain the problem with saying “I hate you” and other hurtful phrases in moments of frustration.
“Keep in mind, the job is to accept their feelings as valid, but that does not mean you accept how they were expressed,” Goodman noted. She suggested saying something like, “That language hurts my feelings. I know you’re upset but and there are other ways to tell someone you are angry.”
Knippenberg advised identifying other ways to express emotions and giving rewards like stickers when kids handle their frustration more thoughtfully. He said he teaches his students to not use the word “hate” unless it is directed at moral injustices like poverty, childhood hunger, racism or child abuse.
“Parents would benefit from creating and sharing family standards of not saying hurtful things or acting hurtfully toward others when upset,” he added. “This includes not saying hurtful things about one’s self either. These hurtful and heightened responses can be an over-the-top reaction and need to be tempered by reality and calming discussions.”
Discuss the underlying issue.
This kind of outburst is often a manifestation of something else brewing beneath the surface, so it may be helpful to discuss any underlying issues.
“Talk through the situation that fueled the reaction,” Goodman recommended. “Use words to not only talk about feelings other than anger but also what led up to the outburst. Look at all sides of the situation. Understanding the cause can help you both talk about things to prevent it from happening again. Talking about what feelings erupted can lead to discussion about better ways to cope with unpleasant feelings.”
Parents of younger kids may also want to find out where this kind of language is coming from and the kind of behavior they’re observing in other adults around them. If the this behavior is part of a new pattern, try to determine if it’s a sign of a problem at school or with friends ― and if professional help may be needed.
“When trying to figure out if there is a problem, it’s best to look for patterns of behavior rather than one-off events,” McDermott noted. “We can all have moments and lose it, that’s okay, but if that’s a regular thing it might suggest there are other problems.”
Let them know you love them.
“Kids don’t hate their parents,” Snitbhan noted. “They might not like their parents’ behaviors, but it is quite rare that kids truly dislike their parents and want nothing to do with them. Even kids who were done wrong by their parents still seek love and acceptance from them.”
With this in mind, try to refrain from punishing your child for this kind of outburst, as they likely feel guilty enough for saying something hurtful. Punishment and anger can escalate the situation and strain communication.
“After the child’s emotions have calmed down, immediately give a hug and let them know you love them,” Mayer advised. “This is crucial to help them recover their hurt feelings and self-esteem. They are not bad people for doing this, they just did something wrong, made a mistake. And this is a teaching moment.”
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.