When children feel disappointed, frustrated, angry or a host of other difficult emotions, they may lash out and shout “I HATE YOU!”
That small phrase packs quite the emotional punch – especially the very first time we hear it.
Last summer, while on vacation, my four year old son asked for a toy at a store and I declined to buy it. Promptly “I hate you” came flying my way. I had never heard it from him before and it was quite the surprise.
“I hate you” is often code for something beyond what we are hearing and may actually mean something more like:
- “you are really not understanding what I need right now.”
- “you are not listening to me.”
- “we are totally disconnected right now.”
- “I feel hurt.”
- “I have big feelings and don’t know how to explain them.”
- “I wish you would see things from my perspective.”
- “what you want and what I need are not in sync.“
As parents we give so much love, of course hearing “I hate you” can feel really hurtful. It’s tempting to be reactive or dismissive and say things like:
- “Fine! I hate you too”
- ”Nah, you don’t you are just saying that”
- ”Go ahead, hate me all I want but I’m not cooking you dinner!”
- ”How dare you say that, go to your room!”
- “Haha – good one, I’ve been waiting to hear that!”
The problem is none of those words help restore connection or help children learn to deal with overwhelming emotions.
Responding calmly to “I hate you” isn’t always easy but in that moment, our children really need us to be sensitive, compassionate, loving and empathetic. I remember reading once something that helped me a lot when I heard “I hate you” that first time. It was something like “When your child hates you, go ahead and have enough love for the both of you.” (I don’t remember which book it was but credit to whatever awesome person came up with that goes here!) My own version is: Conquer hate by being loving enough for both of you.
Luckily, I remembered that on that day and after a few deep breaths I said something like “Wow you must be really upset right now.” Tears started flowing and a tiny, shaky voice shared with me “I’m really mad that Jorgy died” (My inlaws dog had passed away that same day and we found out over the telephone) “now you won’t buy me the toy I really like” and more tears came about. The tears I believe were hardly to do with the toy and so much to do with loss and grief… “Sounds like a really tough day?” “YES” he answered huffing and clearly hurting. I asked if he would like a hug and he did. We left the store and there were more tears, more talking about the dog and more hugging. A few hours later he told me he didn’t hate me but he hated that Jorgy had died.
Some positive ways to respond to “I hate you”:
Say nothing but stay close: your child may have more upset feelings to unload.
Try saying something gentle and understanding:
- ”you must be really hurting”
- “my words weren’t what you wanted to hear”
Reflect what you think is happening:
- ”I can see that what I said/did/ may have been very upsetting to you.”
- “I hear you. You hate me right now.”
- “Ok. You didn’t like what I just said/decided.”
Accept that time to cool off may be needed:
- “I want to listen to you when you feel ready to share with me.”
- “I’m here for you, when you feel ready.”
- “I think you want space, so I will go now AND I’m happy to listen to you whenever you want to talk.”
Hearing “I hate you” is not easy and there are no magic words to say back to erase it, but listening, empathizing, connecting and remembering to be loving enough for the both of you can transform things back into a positive opportunity to listen and communicate.
Have you heard the three little words “I HATE YOU?” how did you react?
Peace & Be Well,
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