As a parent, you work extremely hard to give your child the best life possible. You feed them, do their laundry, help with homework, drive them to soccer practice or piano lessons, and stay up all night when the flu strikes—to name just a few of the never ending responsibilities of parenthood. So the last thing you’d ever expect for your child to say is, “I hate you.” But, it happens, no matter how great of a parent you are. While we hope that you never have to hear your child speak these hurtful words, you should know how to pull yourself together and respond appropriately if and when it happens.
The first thing you should do? Take a deep breath before reacting. “Realize the words are only as hurtful as you allow them to be,” says Friedemann Schaub, MD, PhD, anxiety expert and author of The Fear and Anxiety Solution: A Breakthrough Process for Healing and Empowerment with your Subconscious Mind. Try not to take it personally and focus on figuring out what your child is really trying to express.
Once you’ve calmed down and taken a moment to collect your thoughts and emotions, you can then address your child and respond appropriately, which will depend on his or her age.
When a Younger Child Says, “I Hate You”
A six-year-old is most likely saying it without knowing the meaning behind the words, and it is usually a cry for help. Oftentimes kids need the person they push away most, so be compassionate. In other words, find out what your child is really trying to tell you and give him or her time to figure out what they’re truly feeling.
You can do this, suggests Dr. Schaub, by asking questions like:
- Why are you upset with me?
- Do you feel powerless because…
- Are you feeling sad or angry?
- What can I do to help you not feel this way?
“It’s important to realize that this ‘I hate you’ is simply the attempt of a child who doesn’t know how to put emotions into words to express him or herself,” reminds Dr. Schaub, so don’t take it personally.
When a Teenager Says, “I Hate You”
It gets a little trickier when your older child tells you they hate you because they are consciously and purposely using those words. “An older child knows how to express emotions more resourcefully than a younger one,” says Dr. Schaub. “In some ways, your 13- or 18-year-old may mean more with the word ‘hate’ because he or she knows what the word means and may be using it to inflict pain.” This isn’t to say your child finds enjoyment or fulfillment in hurting you, but he or she clearly know the implications of the words.
In this case, it’s best to let the situation cool down before speaking with your child. (Leave the room, and go for a walk, if you can.) In the heat of the moment though, Dr. Schaub recommends saying something like, “I want to understand what’s going on, but as long as you are angry, I don’t want to speak with you. Let’s take a break and talk later.” (Struggling with your teenager? Here are nine ways to deal with your moody teen without loosing your marbles.)
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Once you and your child have both had time to defuse the situation, you should have a serious conversation about boundaries. Calmly explain to your child that you aren’t going to tolerate them saying such hurtful words and next time their will be consequences. And if there is a next time, make sure to follow through on those consequences. That’s the whole point of setting boundaries. “You have to make it clear that this is not OK. That this is not just a way of not being able to communicate. This is a way of trying to inflict pain,” says Dr. Schaub.
To get at the root of what your teen is feeling, try asking open-ended questions, such as:
- You know how strong of a word “hate” is, so why are you saying it?
- What can we do so this doesn’t happen again?
- What other words can you use to express how you’re feeling?
- What are the consequences you think you should face next time you say this to me?
- What can I do to help you not feel this way?
Regardless of your child’s age, don’t freak out and don’t give him or her the silent treatment, and certainly don’t tell them that you hate them too, however tempting that may be. Remember, you are the adult here, so the impetus is on you to act like one. It’s also probably not a good idea to say something along the lines of, “How dare you after all that I do for you!” as this is shaming your child, and often makes the situation worse, according to Dr. Schaub. (Find out everything else your teen is really trying to tell you.)
If all else fails, grab a glass of wine and vent to your friends, who are surely facing similar issues with their children. After all, nobody said being a parent was easy. If you’re feeling down in the dumps, remind yourself of these 10 superhuman things that only moms can do.