How do I react when my child says, “I hate you, Mommy”?

  When a young child gets angry with her parents, she shouts, “I hate you. You’re dumb!’ This outburst might come after her parents have said she can’t go outdoors or have a friend over or do something else she wants to do. A preschooler has a hard time putting her exact feelings into words. She doesn’t know how to say, “Dad, I think you should allow me to stay up later tonight because…” or, “I’m angry with you because you said…” She’s too young for such articulation and too young to show respect. Instead, she expresses her anger by saying, “I hate you.”

Most preschool children say, “I hate you,” to their parents. Some parents accept and understand these words as the beginning of their child’s expression of negative feelings. But all parents can feel betrayed when their child, after receiving love and attention, turns on them over a minor disappointment. It can be frustrating when adult reasoning, logic, and caring fail to keep a child from yelling, “You mean mom.” Many parents are tolerant when their two- or three-year-old yells, “You dumb mom,” but feel less understanding when their four- or five-year-old says, “I hate you.” A child’s words can feel threatening to parents who don’t like their children to be angry with them.

Parents who can’t stand to hear “I hate y you” often say, “That’s not nice! Don’t let me hear those words again.” But the child needs to release her angry feelings somehow, and if she isn’t allowed to express them verbally, she’ll find other, perhaps more destructive ways. She might turn to aggressive behavior such as biting or hitting, or she might take out her anger by becoming deliberately slow, acting excessively silly, Pretending she doesn’t hear her parents, or finding other ways to annoy them. However, if her angry feelings are acknowledged and allowed to be expressed, she eventually will learn to state her feelings more appropriately.

If your child says, “I hate you,” offer her other ways to tell you how she feels. Suggest she say, “I’m mad at you,” “I’m angry,” or, “I don’t like what you did.” Acknowledge her feelings, but say, “I want you to tell me in different words.”

Children are natural mimics. Your child uses the word “hate” because she hears it so often. Adults say, “I hate this dress,” or, “I hate it when people do that.” It’s natural for your child to use the word to express her dislike of something or someone. You can take advantage of the fact that she’s a mimic and gradually teach her to express her anger in acceptable ways. When your child says, “I hate you,” rather than make an issue of it, simply restate her words. Say back to her, “You’re really angry at me, aren’t you. You don’t like it when I say it’s time to come in.” If she hears you express her anger in this way, she gradually will begin to use similar statements herself.

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