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September 1, 2014
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“I hate you!” And Other Things Kids Say That Hurt

All kids say things that hurt their parents at one time or another. Find out why kids say these things, and the best ways to respond when they do.

I don’t remember the first time it happened, whether it was age 4 followed by a tantrum, or age 14 followed by a door slam, but I know both my kids at one time or another voiced those dreadful words. What I do remember is how it felt — like a direct kick to the heart.

It always hurts when someone says something mean to us, but when it’s our own kids, it’s a real blow. Our equally emotional responses vary from retaliation: “Yeah? Well, I’m not so keen about you right now, either!” to martyr: “Do you realize all I have done for you?” to discounting: “You don’t mean that!”

According to Clinical Psychologist Lara Mattox, Ph.D., the best initial response to the hurtful things kids say is to pause.

“If you get that emotional rush when you are really worried, scared, or hurt by what they said, it is time to take a breath and try to reason out how you are going to respond,” Mattox said. “Usually the first thing that pops into your mind is going to be the worst. Trying to tell the kid, ‘You don’t mean that,’ or responses that indicate that you do think the child meant what they said are not helpful.”

Here are some other angry kid statements that benefit from a pause:

“I wish Mrs. Anderson was my mommy!”

“Parents take things a lot more personally than children mean them,” Mattox said, adding that young children may make this statement as a way of saying they are having fun with another adult. “The child’s perspective is such that having fun now means having fun all the time.”

Though it stings, the best way to handle it is to simply label the feelings the child is having by saying something like, “You are really having fun with Mrs. Anderson right now, aren’t you?”

“You don’t love me!”

This gem is usually stated in response to the child being denied something he wants. Don’t worry about trying to reassure the child of your love; it’s really not about that. Mattox encourages parents not to give in and to keep their response brief by saying something like, “I think you are mad because I didn’t give you that piece of candy.” Or, if you are not sure how your child is feeling, you can ask, “Are you feeling angry that I didn’t give you the candy?”

“I hate myself!”

“Young children don’t have a great deal of perspective,” Mattox said. “Kids think that whatever they are feeling in this moment is always true.” According to Mattox, the usual parental response is, “That’s not true! You don’t hate yourself!” Instead she advises parents to “take a breath, calm yourself and try to think about what feeling your child is having. Then you can respond with ‘Oh, you are feeling bad,’ or ‘You are ashamed,’ or ‘You are embarrassed.’ Get to the root feeling and label it,” she encouraged. “They know they are feeling bad, but they don’t know exactly what they are feeling. It can be part of a learning process for them.”

Mattox added that the response to “I hate myself” is also dependent on the age of the child. If an older child or teen says it, the parent may need to do some additional questioning after the child has calmed down. This is also true with the most upsetting statement a child can make:

“I feel like killing myself!”

If an older child or teen says this, it is important to stay calm, take a breath and wait until the child has calmed down. Then, according to Mattox, the parent will want to gently ask, “I know you were really mad when you said that, but did you mean it?”

“Try to start a conversation,” Mattox said. “If you think it may be a serious threat, then move to getting some professional help.”

Children seem to instinctively know how to push our buttons and by giving statements like these too much attention you can actually increase the likelihood that they will be repeated. According to Mattox if your child tends to use such statements often and you’ve found yourself reacting emotionally, it might be better to just downplay them with, “I know you are mad, but let’s move on.”

Finally, though we like to think we are always going to be mature adults and respond appropriately to our children’s hurtful remarks, sometimes we blow it and react in ways we aren’t proud of.

“It is never too late to go back, label feelings and apologize,” Mattox said. She encourages parents to say something like, “Son, I think you were feeling angry with me earlier and I was feeling angry, too. I’m sorry.”

Mattaox said that apologizing is an excellent way to model what to do when you have made a mistake, so parents should not be afraid of apologizing to their children when the situation warrants it.

And then, the next time your overly emotional child says something hurtful, you may later hear, “I’m sorry, Mom. I was feeling angry when I said that. I really love you.”

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