Take a moment for yourself
“It can really hurt when a child says something like, ‘You’re the worst mom in the world’ or ‘I hate you’ or ‘I want to go to dad’s because you’re mean’,” says Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness. These types of outbursts are hurtful to hear, whether or not you know why your child is saying it. “A lot of the time,” Carter says, “when someone says something so hurtful to you… your natural response is fight or flight, right?” But rather than responding in anger or, worse, in kind, with something like, ‘Well right now, I hate you, too!’, Carter advises parents take a moment to feel compassion for yourself. Your feelings are hurt, and that matters.
Carter says, “You can say, ‘Hey, you know what? I need a minute alone to regather my strength’ and take a moment of self-compassion.”
Realize it’s almost never what your child actually means
“As parents, we too often take these outbursts personally,” says John Duffy, a child and teen psychologist and the author of The Available Parent. “Usually, when our child is yelling something like that — regardless of their age, by the way — they mean something different.” He advises parents to exercise the presence of mind necessary to recognize that fact and find out what’s really going on. “Maybe not in real time,” Duffy allows. “Maybe you give it a few minutes and you come back and you say, ‘Now, I can tell that you are very upset and pretty angry with me. Let’s talk this out calmly.”
Carter, too, says that after taking a moment, parents should refocus their energy on the root cause of these hurtful words. “Just go back and say, ‘You must be really hurting to say something so mean, right? So tell me what’s behind that?’ Or you might actually already know what’s behind it and all you have to do is acknowledge the emotion.”
Help your child learn how to manage and communicate strong emotions
Think about honoring your child’s feelings while guiding them through modifying their behavior, advises child psychologist Erica Reischer. “Saying ‘I hate you’ is a behavior,” Reischer says. “But the feeling that I hate you, it’s something I would hold sacred and let them have that feeling,” she continues. “I would be okay with them having the feeling. I personally, as a parent, would not okay with the expression of that feeling in that way.”
So Reischer advises a two-part approach. First, approach your child with empathy. Try to calm them down by showing you understand they’re upset about something. Be open to a discussion about what’s upsetting them without fighting and pointing fingers. Second, think about creating patterns of communications. It’s about showing our kids that we really want them to be mindful of how they communicate their feelings, Reischer says. This is how they can learn to behave well in the face of strong emotions, intense anger, or frustration, she adds, all of which make them want to say, ‘I hate you,’ she says. Parents want to teach kids that their feelings are okay, but that they need to express their feelings differently. Say something like, “I am okay that you feel like that, but you can’t talk to me like that,” Reischer says.
“Kids are going to go through moments where they are really angry and hate their parents,” says Richard Weissbourd, Harvard psychologist and author of The Parents We Mean To Be. Weissbourd advises saying two things in response. First: “I understand you’re angry at me and it’s perfectly appropriate for you to be angry at me. We’re going to get angry at each other sometimes. Second: “Even if you’re angry at me, you need to talk to me respectfully…And saying ‘I hate you’, is not a respectful way of engaging a parent.”
How to react when your child says, “I hate you!”
It's rarely what a child of any age really means. But it stings. Here, four parenting experts offer advice for responding to a hurtful outburst from your adolescent.