By Alyssa Blask Campbell
When your child says “I hate you!” it can really hit a nerve. You might find yourself getting defensive (“How could you say that to me? I do everything for you!”). You might feel the urge to assert control over the situation (“You’re not going to speak to me like that!”). Narratives you hold around obedience and respect may come up and you may have fears that you aren’t raising a respectful child.
Here’s the thing: a child's hurtful words often come from a place of frustration or lost control. While adults use "hate" as a permanent feeling, children use it fleetingly to express a big emotion.
The key to connecting with your child and getting to the root of the challenge is to look beyond the hurtful words to figure out what’s going on for them emotionally. What are they really saying?
Maybe when they said “I hate you” they were really trying to say:
“I feel embarrassed.”
“I’m disappointed that I didn't get to do things I was expecting to do.”
“I don’t feel included.”
When we can see the emotion beneath the behavior and respond to that, that’s where the magic happens.
“It seems like you might be feeling embarrassed. I’ve felt that way before, too.”
"It really stinks to be excited about something and for us to not have time to do it right now."
"You are allowed to be angry. I won't let you scream in my face. I will be in the living room if you want help feeling calm."
Validating those experiences doesn’t mean you move the boundary or change the outcome. It does mean a child can feel safe and seen. When kids feel safe and seen they are able to regulate and process their emotions.
Looking Toward The Future
“I’m not okay with my child speaking to me like this. How am I going to let them know that this behavior isn’t okay?”
The heat of the moment is not the time to talk about the behavior. Let’s dive into some neuroscience to understand why. When a child is having a big feeling, they are operating out of their amygdala, their feelings brain. In order for them to talk about the behavior and learn a different way to express their emotions, we need to support them with regulation so they can access their prefrontal cortex. This can take some time. We want their nervous system to have time to process the stress hormones that are produced during a big emotion so that they can really absorb the new skill we are trying to teach them.
This might mean that we circle back after 30 minutes or so.
“Hey pal. Earlier today when you said “I hate you” I noticed you were really mad. I’ve felt that way before too. You’re not in trouble. I want to help you make a different choice next time.”
Building Different Ways To Express
The goal is for kids to feel safe to express their emotions and the reality is that kids often need support and scaffolding to learn how to express in a way that is safe and pro-social. We can start by collaborating with them and asking them what they could do differently next time. Kids can be amazing problem solvers when we give them the opportunity.
Sometimes kids aren’t sure what to say, or they’re feeling embarrassed about the behavior. They may not know what they could do differently. This is where we’re going to give them some examples (remember that the goal isn’t that your child won’t express hard feelings. Allowing kids to feel and express their feelings is a key part of helping them learn to process emotions and foster emotional intelligence).
“Next time you’re feeling mad, you can open and close your fists, take some deep breaths, or come ask me for help.”
The thing about helping kids build skills in early childhood is that we often don’t see results for a while, making it hard to stay consistent when we are wondering, “Is this even working?” It’s like going to the gym or starting a new habit for ourselves. It takes time and consistency to see changes in patterns or new skills emerge.
Every time your child has a big emotion and you respond with intention and support them in calming, you’re building their toolbox so that one day instead of saying “I hate you” they’ll be able to say, “I’m feeling so mad!” or “I’m feeling so disappointed” or “I’m feeling so embarrassed.”
When kids have the tools to express and process their emotions in a healthy way, those skills don’t just serve them in childhood, they will serve them for the rest of their lives.