It’s hard for a parent not to feel crushed when a child says “I hate you.” After all, nobody enjoys hearing those words — and they feel even worse when they’re delivered by someone you love (and whom you spend your life taking care of). Unfortunately, plenty of kids — especially teens — pull out the I-hate-you bomb on the regular, especially toward their parents. So, what should you do when your kid says, “I hate you”?
Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, tells SheKnows, “Children have difficulty regulating their emotions. When they get upset or angry, they don’t have the maturity to express these feelings in an appropriate way.” No surprise there — and of course, it’s parents who bear the brunt of that emotional immaturity. So here’s how to respond without fueling the fire.
Saltz explains that “in the heat of the moment, parents may want to lash out. They might impulsively say, ‘I hate you too’ — even though, of course, they don’t mean it. Clearly, this is the worst way to handle the situation.” Because while a child may not yet have the verbal skills and maturity to accurately (and sensitively) articulate their feelings, parents absolutely do. As the grown-up, you need to set the example — even though you are feeling hurt.
But if you do lose your temper with your child and say something regrettable, cut yourself some slack. It happens, even to the most even-keeled of parents. Just immediately apologize to your child after you’ve misspoken, and let them know that you are sorry for your harsh reaction. Then, try to keep reminding yourself that this type of reaction is not the way to handle yourself should this happen again in the future.
Another mistake to avoid? Making the child feel bad about themselves for what they said. Saltz says, “Anger is a normal emotion that all humans have. If we shame children for acting out when they are angry, they will repress their feelings, and this is not healthy. Instead, we want to teach our children appropriate ways to express their feelings, including anger. The ability to regulate emotions is an important coping skill we need throughout our lives.”
Rather than saying to the child, “What a horrible thing to say. You should be ashamed of yourself!” try to explain how being on the receiving end of such a statement feels. Parents might say, “Ouch! That really hurts. I understand you are very angry with me. Let’s talk about your why you are upset.”
Address why they said it — not what they said
When a child says “I hate you” to a parent, it is the equivalent of a verbal temper tantrum. For young children, the statement is usually a reaction to something specific; they wanted to watch more television, but the parent said it was bedtime. They say “I hate you” because they are tired and frustrated; because they wanted to push the limits and did not succeed. But kids need those limits for healthy development. Saltz tells SheKnows, “Studies show kids whose parents set no limits tend to be more anxious. That said, even though children need limits, parents have to understand that it’s natural for children to rebel against these limits. It’s part of the child’s development process.” Without giving into their demands, parents can simply say, “I know you’re sad TV time is over, but we can watch more tomorrow. Now we need to take a bath.”
For older children, especially teens, the reasons behind an “I hate you” may be less straightforward. While it can be a reaction to something specific, such a disagreeing with a curfew time or a limit set on video games, there may be more to it. Saltz explains, “Adolescents are prone to impulsivity and heightened emotions. They are struggling between how to stay attached and how to separate into their own individual selves, separate from their parents, and this can cause conflict.”
Academic stress, social pressure, etc., can cause a sense of tension, stress, overwhelm, even depression in teens. And rather than deal with what’s frustrating them, it may be easier for teens to blame their parents for their problems. Or it may be that the parents provide the only safe place for teens to vent their strong emotions. Saltz says, “In dealings with peers or teachers, teens may feel powerless. Words such as ‘I hate you’ may make them feel more powerful, especially if they see they are getting a strong reaction from the parent when they say it.”
Just like with young children, parents need to explain to their teenagers that words can hurt — and help them to find other ways to express what is bothering them. Saying, “I know you’re are upset with me right now, but I love you no matter what. I am here whenever you want to talk about what’s bothering you.”
If your child is saying “I hate you” all the time, it may be a bigger issue that should be addressed with a family therapist. But if it happens once in a while, don’t worry about it. Saltz explains that “parents may be horrified or ashamed that their child would say ‘I hate you’ to them, but it’s really not unusual.” It may help nonetheless to confide in a close friend or a therapist — who will likely assure you that you’re not the only parent to hear these words from their child.
While your beloved kid screaming “I hate you!” at you will certainly sting, it’s important to remember: Your child doesn’t really mean it. It’s just the best and strongest way they can think to express their frustration in this moment. So instead of feeling crushed, think of it as an opportunity; move the focus away from what they said and onto why they said it. It’s your best bet for teaching your kids empathy, that we are not our emotions, and that we can handle said emotions in a healthier way.