What to Do When Your Child Says "I Hate You"

What to Do When Grade-Schoolers Say, "I Hate You"

"I hate you" can be one of the hardest things a parent hears from a child. Circle of Moms member Suzanne S. even cries when her 8-year-old daughter says the three-word phrase. "At first it was just a few times, then it's been more and more [whenever she is corrected]," Suzanne says. "It hurts us as parents."

Mom Amanda P. is similarly distressed when her 8-year-old daughter says hateful words. "I'd have thought that she would know that it isn't right to say it," Amanda reflects. "I just don’t know how to teach her not to say it, or whether to let her see how much she is hurting me when she says it."

If you, too, find it difficult to not take it personally when your grade-schooler says, "I hate you," Circle of Moms members offer three tips to cope.

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1. Define the Difference Between Hate and Anger

When teens say I hate you, they often are trying to get a reaction from mom or dad. Grade-schoolers, on the other hand, may not necessarily understand what it means to hate, or how hurtful the phrase is, Circle of Moms members say.

"Depends on their age, but when they're small, I realized that they were using words they heard from the TV and not from me," Andra H. explains. "They didn't understand the context of the word 'hate.' They saw an angry face and thought it meant 'angry.'" Instead of getting angry back or feeling hurt, Andra would ask her child, "Why are you angry at mommy? I know you don't hate me. You love me and I love you. It's OK to be angry with me, but hating isn't nice. Hating means you don't love someone." Andra says that as her children grew older they learned that they can be angry with someone and then get over it. 

Andra’s not the only Circle of Moms member who defines what hate means when she hears hateful words from grade-schoolers. Christine M. rephrases her young children's statements, telling them, "You mean you are really upset at me for correcting you. You are allowed to be angry or upset, therefore say so [with] 'I am angry.'" She emphasizes that her grade-schoolers have a choice in behaving right or wrong, and tries to help them recognize their own feelings in order to better deal with them. "I don't dwell on the 'I hate you' because, to me, it's their way to say 'I am really upset.'" Jennifer A. responds with, "That's fine but I still love you," agreeing with the notion that grade-schoolers need to be taught other words and phrases to describe how they feel. Rachel replies to her son with: "I understand you are saying that because you are angry. Being angry does not mean it is OK to be mean. I love you."

Meanwhile, Victoria P. recalls when she once said "hate" when she was a child, her mother responded with, "Oh don't say that, you don't really hate anything. Hate is such a strong word and feeling. I hope you never know what hate is, in your life." Victoria adds: "[Her explanation] had such a profound effect on me, that I repeated it to each of my own children the moment they said 'I hate' whatever. I think they both understood, and it's not a word used in our vocabulary(ies), even casually."

2. Show It Hurts

When describing different emotions, Circle of Moms members also recommend that parents express how they are hurt by hateful words. Christina S., for instance, says she would explain to a younger child that such words hurt her feelings and then ask for an apology. Cheryl D., too, asks her son to think about how "I hate you" hurts people; she also treats it like a swear word that isn’t allowed in her house. "In today's world, certain words are used way too easily and people don't really think when they are using them," she says.

Cheryl G. admits she was crushed when her 12-year-old said she didn't love her anymore. "My heart was breaking, and I did the emotional thing because I was emotionally distraught; I broke down and cried in front of my child. To my amazement, my child put her arm around me, said that she was sorry and held me until I got my composure." Cheryl says her daughter never said such an unkind thing again. "My tears impressed upon my daughter how much her words hurt my feelings, which I think is a very important lesson to be learned," she says.

3. Consider Your Child's Feelings

When you show your child how they hurt you, it’s important not to discount their feelings in any way either, Circle of Moms members advise. Amy B. notes that even if hearing "I hate you" from a child is very hard on a parent, try to listen to whatever he says and how he is feeling. Jo P. tries to help her two daughters identify their emotions, asking: "Are you sure that you don't just hate that I'm not letting you have your way? I hate when I don't get my way too. In the meantime, I love you enough for both of us."

It’s important to identify the feeling and refocus on the real issue, Amanda P. says. She suggests the following conversation: "You sound upset that you got in trouble, but (insert behavior he is in trouble for here) is not OK." Then she recommends parents institute whatever the appropriate consequence would be without addressing the comments about hating.

"You have to respect them and their own little feelings. No matter how silly you or I think they are, to them they are legit and justified," mom Paige G. explains. Then after they have calmed down, you can talk to them about what made them angry and “also let them know that there are other ways to get what they want or the reactions they want,” she adds.

After all, Shelley T. says, the goal of parenting is to help your children to be productive, thoughtful adults. "We need to teach our kids to communicate better. They may hate the situation, but not the person. There's a big difference!"

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