One of the most painful things that a parent can hear from a child is “I hate you.” Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, the words sting our soul. Our children use the expression as a release of ill-feeling when they are frustrated – usually at us – and things are not going well for them.
Our automatic response to hearing “I hate you” is defensiveness. We cringe, feel offended, and may even become angry that our child can be so ungrateful for all we do. Our feelings may be justified, but they are unhelpful.
Haim Ginott, one of the world’s most influential parenting educators, suggests that we help our children recognise that all of their feelings are ok, but certain behaviours are not. This means that if our child is feeling so upset she feels she hates us, that’s ok. The feeling is normal. Our child should not be shamed for having a strong emotion, and if we respond the right way, that emotion will go away far more quickly than if we respond the wrong way. It can also become an opportunity for us to teach our child, and grow closer to her.
How to respond
1. Accept the fact that children will sometimes be overcome with negative emotion, and that those emotions are ok.
2. Guide children through the emotion by showing that you understand how they feel, and why they feel it.
3. Allow them the time and space to work through their emotion.
4. Model loving behaviour – always. Even when you feel like you hate your child. Never say it yourself. (Your feelings are ok, and they are real. But your behaviour should be kind).
Here are some examples:
After your child becomes angry with you because you will not allow him to do what he wants, he screams, “I hate you.”
As the mature adult, you can respond kindly and gently by accepting the emotion and showing understanding. Get down on your child’s level, look him in the eyes, and offer understanding.
You might say something like:
“You feel angry about this don’t you. You feel really, really angry.”
“You wish mummy wouldn’t stop you doing that.”
“It’s ok to be upset. I know how badly you want to do what you want.”
“Sometimes I can’t have what I want either, and it makes me angry too.”
These responses show your child you understand. He may remain upset, but showing understanding will typically reduce his anger anywhere from a moment to a minute in most cases.
After showing that you understand, don’t try to fix things. Allow your child space to work through the emotion. You might ask him if he wants a hug or if he wants to be left alone. Honour that preference.
Once he has calmed down, we can begin to guide our child towards better ways to act. (If you try to do this too soon, he will resist. Emotions will still be too high. Teaching is ineffective when people are experiencing big emotions.)
“It’s ok to be angry when things don’t go the way we want.
“How do you think I feel when you tell me you hate me? It makes me sad.
“What could you say to me instead?”
By accepting our children’s emotions, giving them time to work through them, and asking our child to think through the situation at a later, less emotional time, we can teach good ways to act. Through having our children begin to take our perspective, and gently guiding them to more appropriate ways of expressing their emotions (even while allowing the feelings to exist), we can reduce the likelihood that our children will tell us that they hate us.
PS – If our children hear us speak unkindly towards them, they are more likely to do the same. Children are remarkable mimics. (This also goes for what they see on tv and in the environment more generally, so if your children are consistently saying they hate you, it may be because they’re hearing it from you or from others nearby).