Forget the terrible twos (which outlast the third birthday, for the record) — once your kiddos reach an age where they have an opinion, you’re in uncharted territory. Most of the time, your kids will remind you that you’re the best mom ever (duh), but when maturing hormones or sugar fixes result in spontaneous not-so-nice language, it can be difficult to know how to handle those cruel remarks. While your initial response might to be fight fire with fire, clinical psychologist, parenting expert and author Stephanie O’Leary says learning how to mitigate the conversation without losing your cool is key.
"The knee-jerk reaction to respond or even say something negative in reply is hard to resist because your child's statement likely shocked you. Going even deeper, it's important to consider that children are very good at identifying parental vulnerabilities and saying things that are powerful because they ‘hit you where it hurts.’ Putting the brakes on your emotions and your verbal response in this situation is hard, but it's definitely the best way to proceed,” she explains.
The first time — or the next time — your child says one of these hurtful statements to you, follow O’Leary’s advice on the best way to make it an educational moment instead of turning it into a big argument.
Wouldn’t let your preteen gal buy the cut-off shorts she desperately wanted for sleep-away camp? Or cut back on screen time so your soon-to-be middle schooler could get in his summer reading assignments? When a request doesn’t swing in their favor, your child’s love might feel lukewarm. When they say the H-word, though, it’s more about how they're feeling toward themselves and less about their feelings about you. “A child may say, ‘I hate you,’ because they're feeling badly about themselves, because they are struggling to tolerate a limit you set or because you are calling attention to something they would rather ignore, which leads them to feel embarrassed,” explains O'Leary.
In this situation, O’Leary advises taking a deep breath and doing your best to hold your ground, while ignoring the outburst. "Make sure to pay close attention to your body language and facial expressions because bulging eyes and huffy breathing says a lot to kids even when you're not saying a word," she notes.
First and foremost, you’re totally not, and don’t forget it. O’Leary says that kids will often be quick to criticize what kind of parent you are when they don’t agree with one of your decisions or you’re not allowing them to do something that they think everyone else their age is doing.
"A great way to respond here that both opens up lines of communication and requires your child to take accountability for his or her words is to say, ‘I know it's hard when I don't give you want you want or disagree with you. I understand you think I'm not a good mom/dad right now,’” she suggests. “This validates your child's feelings in a way that evens out the emotional climate of the conversation because you are not inserting your own strong feelings into the mix.”
You may strive to be the coolest mom on the block, but you also aim to provide the best-quality parenting you can. This might mean that sometimes you’re not exactly the most agreeable or modern (in your kid’s eyes, the parent who says ‘yes’ to every super-fun activity they want to do or try.) But while O’Leary says this statement shows they’re comparing you to another parent, it also could reveal a feeling of inadequacy or vulnerability: "Sometimes kids project their feelings and experiences onto those who love them unconditionally, so tread lightly before you react," she warns.
The key here is to, again, acknowledge their sentiment without arguing. O’Leary suggests saying, "It must be tough to feel that way," with as much sincerity as you can conjure. "Keep in mind that you're not lying. If your child does feel that someone else's parent is better, that's hard. I'm not saying it's true, but your response is both accurate and validating," she says.
Ouch. In the heat of the moment when you’re not granting the permission they so badly desire, they might actually wish they 'lived with a better mom.' But really, what they’re saying is, "Mom, I don’t feel like you understand me." Instead of coming back with an equally mean or dismissive statement, O’Leary says to kill them with kindness, saying, 'It must be hard to feel that way, and I love you no matter what.'"
In this moment, your kid probably feels like he or she has been pushed to their limit and feels out of control and powerless. Because they feel like they can’t change anything about the situation, they want to make sure that you feel trapped too. Here, O’Leary says to focus on respect and understanding even though your feelings are likely shattered. "Calmly say, 'I know you're upset. I want to hear what you have to say when you can use respectful words,'" she suggests. "It's not necessary to require your child to be 'nice' to you, but respectful communication should be a standard and will help your child know he or she can talk about negative things without being hurtful."
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