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15 great ways to respond when a child says, ‘I hate you’

You never forget the big milestones: First steps, first words, that first lost tooth and the first time your beloved child looks you square in the face and tells you how much they hate your guts. If it hasn’t happened yet, just wait.

I still remember the first time that my daughter told me that she hated me. Mere moments before, my 3-year-old had been happily digging some Team Umizoomi in her favorite dinosaur PJs, cuddled up to me and pausing once in a while to kiss my cheeks. Then, I did the unthinkable. I told her it was time to brush her teeth. Suddenly: tears. Then: “I hate you! You’re a bad mommy!”

It stung, and I’m big enough to admit that later, even though I knew my toddler had zero concept of the gravity of hatred or cavities, I definitely cried. But not for too long; only about an hour.

Despite working in early childhood education at the time, where I was often told by kids my daughter’s own age how despicable I was, and being armed with enough understanding about child development to know how to respond when I was on the clock, I totally choked.

At the time, I couldn’t do much but stare at her, bewildered, before making it worse by laughing, which is what my lizard brain makes me do anytime I have no idea how to respond to something. Don’t be like me. There are much better ways to respond to a child who tells you how much they hate you.

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Toddlers and preschoolers

When kids are young, they don’t really understand what they’re saying to you when they tell you that they hate you, you’re the worst, they never want to kiss you again, wish someone else was their mommy, etc.

They’re typically just mad and their little lizard brains are really underdeveloped, so they just reach for the thing with the biggest impact. At this age, the most important thing is letting your child know that it’s not an all right thing to say, and that you’re not going anywhere.

  1. “That really hurts my feelings when you say that. We need to use kind words even when we’re mad, OK?”
  2. “I think that you are very angry right now. After you say sorry to Mommy, I’ll show you some ways to get the mad out without making sad choices like saying that.”
  3. “Wow, you sound really mad! Can you say, ‘I’m really mad,’ instead?”
  4. “I don’t think you really mean that. Let’s take some deep breaths and find out what you did mean.”
  5. “Would you like a hug or a bubble right now?”

This last one works particularly well for littler kids who might have special needs when it comes to handling their emotions. A hug is what it sounds like, and a bubble is an offer of alone time or space without making it a punishment. Sometimes even little kids need a break, so if they ask for a bubble, tell them you’ll be back in a few minutes to talk.

Some kids really just need the adult to end the drama with a hug that lets them know they are still loved, but you should never force a kid to hug you if they aren’t ready to.

Besides taking away whatever control they do have of the situation (which will likely just make them more upset), it also sends a message that their concerns aren’t important and are easily dismissed whenever you’re ready to be done with it.

School-age kids and teens

Once your kid is older, you might notice either an uptick in the frequency of how often your child expresses themselves through the age-old tradition of rage-filled diatribes themed around your guts and how much they hate them (spoiler: a lot), or a decrease. Either they’ve gotten in the habit of communicating in hyperbole (hello, tweendom!), or they realize that the words have a lot of heft and know to bring them out when they’re out of options.

Here’s where you want to make sure that you’re really hearing them before they get to that point. You also want to encourage them to identify the difference between pissed off and seething with hatred. There really is one. It’s also a good idea to encourage them to learn when to walk away and cool down rather than allow themselves to get angry enough to say things they’ll regret, which is something even some adults have trouble with.

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This is also the age where kids hope that they can fluster you enough to get their way. Boundaries and follow-through are just as important as when they were toddlers, though. The key is to keep it brief, keep your cool and don’t let the unacceptable stuff slide. Most importantly, even though it will sometimes be very tempting, you must never ever succumb to the temptation to shout, “Yeah? Well I hate you right back, you little monster!” because that will only make things worse.

  1. “I’m really sorry that you feel that way, but you’re still going to have to do that chore/finish that paper/give me your phone/whatever.”
  2. “Did you want to expand on that? I think you’re very angry and I want to help, but I can’t accept being spoken to like that.”
  3. “Wow, you’re clearly pretty mad. Why don’t you come find me when you’re ready to be just mad and not hurtful, too.”
  4. “I 100 percent believe that you hate cleaning the garbage disposal/not being able to go out with your friends/being grounded, but you need to not confuse that with hating me.”
  5. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that you have to do what I say. Why don’t you go do it and we’ll talk about this more when you’ve cooled off.”

Children with a sense of humor

Kids don’t always say “I hate you” because they hate you or are enraged or experiencing a surge in hormonal mayhem. Sometimes they say it for the same reasons we do as adults: because they know that you’ll know they don’t really hate you. They might hate your Adele impression in a busy department store or your terrible dad jokes or your vanity car horn that blaps out “The Entertainer” when you pick them up from school, but not you.

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Eye rolls pair well with declarations of despising you, so it’s better to respond in kind.

  1. “Does this mean I won’t be invited back to the prestigious Momicon ’16 as a guest speaker on how to win momming and make children adore you? And I was so looking forward to it, too.”
  2. “Sorry, kid, but I’ve got 13 years of macaroni necklaces that say otherwise.”
  3. “Wanna bet? Minimum ante is two weeks’ allowance, that nice little phone in your pocket there and the next three rounds of dishwasher duty. You in?”
  4. “Why, because I do this?” And then immediately double down on whatever it is that’s mortifying them.
  5. “Haters gonna hate,” then, in a whisper: “Hate, hate, hate, hate.” If they roll their eyes, follow that up promptly with a spoken-word rendition of the rest of “Shake it Off.” Repeat until they love you again.

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