Oof. Those three words can hit you like a knife in the chest. You can feel your face get hot, your eyes tear up, and your chest grow heavy.
The pain you feel is valid, but the context is important here. Kids 10 and under lack the ability to express their feelings verbally – especially when they’ve “flipped their lid.” They can’t yet put words to their complex underlying feelings, so when they feel big feelings, they can express it in hurtful ways. Using these three words may be the only they know how to exhibit just how bad they’re feeling in that situation.
Know this first and foremost: your children don’t really mean it. And they often feel very, very ashamed about it afterwards (yes, even if they don’t verbalize that shame out loud).
Here’s what they really mean instead:
- I feel furious and don’t know how to express that.
- I feel powerless.
- I feel unsafe.
- I feel hurt and want to hurt back.
- I don’t think you care about my feelings.
- I’m ashamed of what I did to make you angry, and I don’t want to admit that.
- I’m hungry and tired and not thinking straight.
So what do you do if “I hate you” is said in the heat of the moment? Fight the urge to react by trying to gain control of them (which only makes your child dig in even deeper) or by trying to rationally explain why those words aren’t kind (which your child won’t be able to hear when they’re not thinking logically). Instead, take a second to remind yourself that these words aren’t a sign that you’re doing a bad job as a parent, or that your child is being a bad kid.
Take a breath and try to look for those underlying feelings beneath the “I hate you.” Trying to respond to those hidden messages head-on will get you further than simply reacting from your own feelings. Here are some examples of how you can respond (preceded by unhelpful examples):
Instead of: “Don’t talk to me that way!”
Try: “You’re letting me know you’re really angry with me right now.”
Instead of: “I can’t believe you would say that to me! I would never say that to you.”
Try: “Whoa, let’s slow down. Let’s take a break and try talking about this again in a little while.” (Don’t allow yourself to continue to get pulled into the argument!)
Instead of: “You can forget about going to your friend’s house later!”
Try: “You feel hurt, and now you want to hurt me, too.”
Instead of: “Go to your room right now!”
Try: “You know what, I think we’re both feeling ‘hangry’ right now. I’m going to try having a snack – let me know if you want one, too”
In the moment, you want to do your best to defuse the situation and use your calm to help THEM get calm. We don’t put out fires by adding more fuel! Later, take some time to get reconnected with each other and observe for when logic has come back online for your child. When things feel safe for you both, you can have a gentle (and brief) chat about words they can use when they’re upset next time. Make sure to take care of yourself too!
Note: If you feel really heated in the moment and fear you’re about to say something you’ll regret, it’s ALWAYS okay to take a break, get regulated, and return to it later. Aside from issues of safety, no problem ever needs to be solved urgently – it can always wait.)