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When Kids Say "I Hate You"

How to Respond to Hurtful Words

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An angry young boy

Learn how to respond when your child says "I hate you!"

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"I hate you." It's a phrase most parents hear at least once, and one that probably passes through our kids' minds more often than we'd like to admit. So even if you haven't had to deal with this issue just yet, chances are you will.

What to Do Immediately

You may be tempted to respond with, "But I love you" or "Sometimes I hate you, too!" But even when spoken in a lighthearted tone, sarcastic words have the effect of shaming -- which won't help you have a productive conversation about why she's angry.

Instead, use all the willpower you posses to stay calm and say something like, "I'm sorry that you feel that way." Then let the conversation go. You'll have much more success talking about what happened after you've both had a chance to calm down, so save your questions and teaching about the issue for later in the day.

In the meantime, continue to stand your ground on whatever issue initiated your child's outburst. If you had just announced that the TV need to go off, or your child would indeed be going on his regularly scheduled visit, don't let his hurtful words sway you. That would only demonstrate to him that using those words is an effective way to change your mind whenever he disagrees with you.

What to Keep in Mind

Just because your child has said these words doesn't mean she means them. "I hate you" is often a cry for attention. So see it for what it is: an attempt to snap your head in her direction so fast she'll know you finally heard her. It's not a declaration of war or an attempt to cut you out of her life forever. It's a poor attempt to get your attention.

Depending on your child's age, saying "I hate you" may also be his way of saying, "I'm angry" or "I'm frustrated." So consider whether he has the language to adequately express himself.

How to Talk About the Issue

After you've both settled down, talk with your child about the language she used. For example, say "Can we talk about what happened earlier?" while you're doing the dished together after dinner, or bring it up when you're tucking in your child into bed that night. As you discuss the incident, make sure you:

  • Show Empathy - Empathy is our ability to understand our kids' feelings. Because let's face it: we've been there. We probably thought the same things when we were kids, even if we didn't say them out loud. And the quickest way to reconnect and actually deal with what's causing your child to be upset is to show her that you understand what she's going through. This means demonstrating it with your words and your actions. Let your facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language communicate your understanding, too.

  • Acknowledge Your Child's Feelings - Simply saying "I understand that you were very angry with me earlier today. Can you tell me more about it?" can open the door to a productive conversation. Let your child know that everyone feels anger, and there are times when we should be angry. But we have to be careful about how we express that anger. Because when we use hurtful words or actions, we push others away right when we need them most.

  • Offer Alternatives - Introduce some steps your child can take when she's angry. Instead of saying "I hate you," she can take a deep breath, say something like "I feel angry right now because..." or ask for some alone time before talking about what bothering her. Emphasize that it's important to express our feelings in healthy ways so that they don't stay bottled up inside of us.

Finally, remember that as a single parent, you bear the brunt of your child's emotions. It's hard not to take that personally, especially when you're dealing with an angry child. But realizing that it's not about you makes it easier to face even the most challenging behaviors head-on, so that you can more readily help your child cope with what she's going through.

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