When My Child Says 'I HATE YOU'
“I HATE YOU!” “YOUR STUPID!” “POOPY DADDY!”
These are just some of the insults my six year old child has shouted at me in the past week. As a parent, it’s pretty tough not to get reactive. You’ve put untold care, love, time, and energy into your children, and so “I hate you” can feel like a slap in the face. You might also be angry that your child could be so disrespectful, and feel the need to set a firm boundary.
Why Children Say These Things
After hearing these words, the best advice is to take a breath, sit down with the child, and have a go at identifying the underlying issue. Family Therapist Meri Wallace explains that young children don’t have the vocabulary to articulate their feelings, and so big emotions bubble over and they blurt out “I hate you”. Underneath these hurtful words, however, is a valid emotion that needs to be addressed. They might feel rejected by an older sibling, angry that they are not allowed cake for breakfast, sad that grandma isn’t coming over, or scared of a bully at school. Whatever it is, having a go at identifying the emotion is a great first start for dealing with issue.
How Parents Can Respond Appropriately
Meri Wallace also reminds us that this is a good learning opportunity for our kids. By responding with “I wonder if you are sad that Nan isn’t coming over”, for example, you are coaching them on how to express their emotions appropriately.
Letting the child know how those words might have affected us as parents is also very important. By saying “I felt sad when you shouted at me”, we are modelling appropriate emotional expression, building connection and giving our child an opportunity to apologize if they are ready. This is also a good time for a hug.
When to Set the Boundary
Once the emotional air is cleared, it is still important to set an age appropriate boundary. This isn’t an article boundary setting, but it is important to identify that if we try and set the boundary before the emotions have been acknowledge, it either won’t work, or the problem will crop up somewhere else.
Setting the boundary too early is very tempting, and we’ve all done it. The old “how dare you, go to your room!” is a classic, but if the child hasn’t had an opportunity to express their true emotions, they won’t learn the things that we want them to learn. They might be feeling that this is “so unfair”, and learn that mum and/or dad doesn’t care about their emotions.
On the flip side, however, once the emotion has been acknowledged, and everybody has calmed down, we can talk with our children about what is not ok, and identify some appropriate consequences. This will look different in every home, and at every stage of development, but the basic principle stands… acknowledge the feeling, model appropriate emotional expression, then set the boundary once things have calmed down.
Don't Be Too Hard on Yourself
There will always be situations and contexts where we, as parents, are unable to respond in the perfect way. The same is true for our children, who may or may not play ball, when we attempt to calm things down and talk through the emotions. The advice in this article is a guideline only, something to bring into your repertoire as appropriate.
Another great learning opportunity for our children is when they see mum or dad break out of reacting badly, smile at their own mistake, apologise if needed, and get on with the business of good parenting. This is arguably one of the most important gifts we can give our children.
About the author: Parent Village aim to provide parents with relevant and research based information. Rowan is co-founder of Parent Village and a family support worker.