Even if you’ve heard it before, even if you know that it’s coming, there’s no way to brace yourself for the emotional wallop of hearing your angry child scream “I hate you!”
Those painful words are an arrow straight to the heart. They stir up feelings of confusion, devastation, frustration, and emotional hurt. They’re an instant rejection of all the love you’ve lavished, all the sacrifices you’ve made, all the hard work of parenting. They seem to put into question the depth of your child’s love for you.
Fortunately, your child doesn’t mean what he’s saying.
“I Hate You” Means “I’m Angry”
Young children are baffled and overwhelmed by the fierceness of their own emotions. Recognizing and controlling feelings of frustration and anger doesn’t happen instantly. These skills have to be learned over time, which is why angry outbursts akin to toddler tantrums can stretch through the early childhood years.
Furthermore, as young children become more adept verbally, they learn to use words to express their wants and feelings. They also learn that words have power. Blinded by fury, a child may reach for the most hurtful words they know when all they’re really trying to say is “I’m mad.”
Address The Anger Not The Hurt
It won’t be easy to subsume the churn of your own feelings in the face of your child’s hurtful outburst, but remaining calm is crucial in order to de-escalate the situation. Remember that your child doesn’t really understand what he’s saying. If you feel you’re too upset, or your child is too angry, consider a cooling-off period before addressing the hurt and disrespect.
When everyone is calmer, consider taking the following steps:
- Acknowledge your child’s emotions by labeling them: “I see that you’re angry.”
- Pinpoint the source of the anger: “You’re angry because….”
- Address his use of hurtful words: “You didn’t like what I decided and that made you mad. While you were mad, you used hurtful words.”
- Explain how you felt when he said “I hate you” as a way of showing how words can cause pain: “Those words made me feel hurt and sad because they made me think you don’t love me.”
- Offer him an out: “Next time you’re mad, say ‘I’m mad,’ instead of using hurtful words.”
- Reinforce your love and acceptance with hugs, kisses, and reassurance.
Parenting certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted, but take comfort in the fact that as your child learns to identify and control his feelings, such outbursts should happen less frequently.