I Hate You! When Your Child Lashes out
The first time your darling young child declares that you are “the worst parent ever, I hate you!” can be devastating. This may occur as early as age three. Before you decide that there has been a mistake at the hospital, consider the developmental stage of your child. The minute he learns the word “no,” his first word of defiance, he begins to test boundaries.
In young children, emotion is all-encompassing. Frequently, there is only good and bad, black and white…with no gray area. Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman, child development expert, reminds parents, “Our children are new here. They haven’t been here, done that.” By trial and error, she tests new concepts: how this language thing works, how using words will get what I want, how to push buttons to get what I need. Not having a handle on using words to express feelings, she may add physical outbursts to her verbal explosions. To deal with these episodes, parents need to develop a plan to assist their child to see consequences and move beyond this anger.
The response of the parent is key is assisting your child’s emotional growth. The first time your child directs his frustration toward you (and you pull the dagger back out of your heart), remember, this is normal. Don’t take this statement personally. Although your child is directing his words at you, you are likely not the direct subject.
Stay calm. Don’t react in anger or with lectures. Childhood education and developmental psychologist Dr. Becky A. Bailey explains, “When a child says ‘I hate you,’ a parent may be tempted to retort, ‘Well, I love you.’ Often, instead of reassuring the child, she may feel even more shame for what she perhaps knows instinctively is an inappropriate statement. This can merely elevate the level of anger in the child, escalating the situation.”
Another temptation may be to respond to the “I hate you” with “Oh, you don’t mean that” or “No, you don’t.” Again, Bailey said, “In the mind of the child, this may show that you are denying his feelings, adding to his frustration.”
So what is a “hated” parent to do in the heat of the moment? Take a three-step approach. First, acknowledge her feelings. “I know that you are angry.” Remind her of the appropriate behavior. “I don’t like the way you are talking” or “You know we don’t speak to others that way.” Tell her how she can influence the outcome. “When you can speak to me with respect,” or “When you calm down, we’ll talk about what is upsetting you. When you have accomplished this, I am willing and happy to listen to you.”
Give your child safe time alone to quiet down.
Parents can help both their children and themselves through this developmental milestone. Parents can equip their children to vent their temper by teaching them coping skills. Parents can help themselves by understanding their child’s triggers and how to handle them. You can’t expect a children to immediately grasp how they can calm themselves down. You need to start with teaching moments before the incident occurs. Dr. Silverman suggests a multi-step approach for parents and children.
Learn what your child actually is saying.
Have you imposed a limit on her which she finds difficult to accept? Is she attempting a task and finding herself unable to successfully complete it? I hate you may simply be a way to say “please help me” or “give me another option or distraction.” Your growing child may be experiencing a first: a brand new challenge that she doesn’t know how to solve. Identify the source of the frustration to determine how best to diffuse it. Parents have to try to find the issue behind the words.
Help your child recognize his physical signs of anger.
Does he clench his fists? Do his shoulders rise? Does his face get hot? In younger, less verbal children, it may be easier for them to name these body signs. In a quiet time, ask him how his body feels when he is mad. Have him show you his angry face and posture, “What would you look like if you were angry?”
As your child’s vocabulary increases, she can learn to express her feelings more accurately.
She needs to continue to learn new words to match her emotions. When you have started to identify her concerns, you can supply more appropriate words to help her pinpoint what she is feeling. Use quiet times as teaching times. When you are reading a story together, talk about how the characters handle their frustration. Explain that you get angry sometimes, too. Talk about better solutions to make the anger go away. Remembering an “I hate you” moment, ask about what she might do differently next time. If she doesn’t know, lead the discussion with alternative words she could have used. You want to correct the behavior, but your child needs to participate in the solution.
Using words alone may not be sufficient to calm your child.
Silverman suggests teaching simple relaxation techniques. Count to 10, run in place or take a deep breath, using a statement like “Smell the roses (breathe in), and then blow the clouds away (breathe out).” Practice these tactics with your child in calm moments, so he will be equipped with tools he can use under pressure.
Help your children see that they have options.
One problem can be solved in a variety of different ways. If they are having difficulty mastering a task, they can ask for help, try a different approach or move on to another activity. Be willing to help them see alternative ideas to solve their problems.
Advance planning can stop the rage before it begins.
If, in specific situations, your child has issues, prepare him before you arrive. For example, if you are going to a children’s arcade, you may mention, “The last time you got really frustrated because other children weren’t sharing or you had to wait your turn. What do you think you might want to do if you start to feel that way again?” Suggest alternate actions (go to a different game where there is no line) and remind him of his verbal and physical tools.
Be aware of your own use of the word “hate.”
Hearing a parent say “I hate my job” or “I hate waiting in line” may indicate that hate is an acceptable term with little impact. Establish and practice rules of respect within your household to set the standard you want your child to attain.
When your child says “I hate you,” realize that she is probably trying to say something very different to you. As you help your child identify, modify and rectify her feelings, you will find that you will be able to communicate more effectively.