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5 Things to Remember When Your Child Says, "I Hate You."

It’s never easy to hear your child say, “I hate you!”

While there’s no ‘right way’ to respond to hurtful words, an emotionally intelligent response would be informed by a desire to connect. Here are a few things to remember as you create a space for connection.

This is about your child, not about you.

When your child says hurtful things to you, it is because they are emotionally hurting or have an unmet need. Leadership expert Steven Covey says, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” These emotionally charged moments become an invitation to understand the situation through your child’s eyes. Kids often convey their hurt or frustration in the hopes that they will find someone who can help them process it. Instead of taking the words to heart, take them as information and an invitation.

Application: Shawn stubbed his toe while riding his scooter this morning. This afternoon his sister accidentally stepped on it as they passed each other in the hall, and he reactively shoved her. You saw the shove and sent Shawn to his room. Shawn, feeling overwhelmed and in literal pain, screams, “I hate you!” as he slams the door. Shawn’s response tells you that he had reached a pain threshold, meaning he couldn’t manage the painful sensations he was feeling. This example is physical pain, but the principle also applies to emotional pain. Shawn’s reaction is an indicator (information) that he doesn’t have the necessary awareness and tools to manage this situation skillfully. The invitation is to help him cultivate the skills he needs.

Take a deep breath and find your empathy.

Your initial reaction might be to yell or punish. This is normal. No one likes to hear hurtful words. Even the most mindful of parents can be triggered by them. When you feel strong emotion or an inclination to yell at your child, use that awareness as a reminder to take a deep breath. Feel what you’re feeling and then use it to cultivate empathy. The hurt you feel is probably very similar to your child’s pain. If you can tap into that felt sense of hurt, you will develop your emotional awareness capacity and create an environment where intentional connection can happen.

Application: After Shawn has a chance to cool down, you might have this conversation. “Shawn, I was so sad when you yelled at me. As I thought about it, I realized you were probably in a lot of pain too. I saw you shove your sister. Please, help me understand what happened.” The key here is to create a safe space for the experience to be shared. Kids need a lot of scaffolding to develop emotional intelligence. If you’re stuck in your emotional response, you won’t be able to create a safe space. Kids benefit from having a calm adult who can ask questions and help them understand why they’re feeling what they’re feeling.

In terms of emotional intelligence, diffusing an argument is winning an argument.

Traditional parents want to come out of a verbal exchange feeling like they have the upper hand or have taught the kids a lesson. When it comes to kids and emotions, a win is when we allow them space to process what they are feeling and invite them to greater awareness. When kids feel threatened, they don’t learn. When kids feel seen, heard, and understood, they gain skills and confidence, and you get to build a stronger relationship with them. Everyone wins when you diffuse an argument and create a safe space to process emotion.

Application: Shawn says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” If you are new at this emotional intelligence stuff, you might get frustrated and think it’s not working. Be patient and extend empathy again.

“It makes sense that you are frustrated right now and probably feel misunderstood. I want to understand your perspective, so I’m ready to listen when you’re ready to share.”

The conversation might get more uncomfortable before it’s resolved.

What Shawn needs at this moment is someone to guide him to new skills that will help him articulate, soothe, and respond skillfully to the pain he’s feeling. Because he’s still learning how to do this, he will likely say some things that frustrate you. Remember that you “win” this argument by making space for communication and sitting with the discomfort of the interaction. Don’t rush through the discomfort; embrace it as part of the process.

Application: Shawn comes to you and says, “Fine. I’m ready to talk. You got mad at me without even listening to what happened. You just assumed I did something wrong.”

As much as you may want to argue, you take a deep breath and reflect back, “So you feel like I was reactive and didn’t listen?”

“You didn’t! You just yelled, ‘Shawn, go to your room!’ She stepped on my toe, and it hurt because I already hurt it this morning, but you didn’t care about that at all.”

Again, avoiding the impulse to get defensive, “I can see that I didn’t have all the information. It makes sense that you would react to pain by inflicting pain. Do you think Sarah meant to hurt you?”

“No, she just wasn’t paying attention because she was on her phone. I just wish she hadn’t stepped on me because it really hurt.”

“I wish that too. I don’t want to see either of you hurt.”

“Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have shoved her.”

You may not need to “fix” anything.

It’s easy to feel like punishment is the only way to change kids’ behavior, but when we create space for our kids to process emotions, they frequently come to solutions on their own. When we offer empathy to kids, we make it easier for them to extend empathy to themselves and others, engaging the part of their brain that can problem-solve. Instead of acting as a referee, you can become a wise facilitator. As you accept the full range of emotions your children express, ask questions to help them understand their emotions. Then, act in ways that reflect their newfound awareness.

Application: “It can be hard to realize you made a mistake. I made one too. Maybe we could have a do-over. [A do-over is when you re-enact the situation with the new information and the things you’ve learned.] Do you think Sarah would be up for it?”

“I’m not sure, but I could tell her sorry. I really didn’t mean to hurt her. It just really hurt when she stepped on me.”

“Yeah, I hear you. It’s normal for us to be reactive when other people hurt us. I’m glad you’re willing to make things right with her. Is there anything I can do to help you protect that toe?”

“I’ll go get a bandage, and I guess I’ll just have to look both ways before crossing the hall [laughter] and try not to push her next time. And I’m sorry I said I hate you. I really don’t. I was just mad.”

“I know. I appreciate you saying that. It sounds like you have a good plan. I love you, Shawn.”

“I love you too.”

While you may be unable to imagine your child responding with so much empathy, you might be surprised. Kids shown empathy consistently, especially when they’ve made mistakes, have a much easier time admitting their mistakes and seeking resolution. So, the next time you hear those three words come out of your child’s mouth, remember that it’s an excellent opportunity to practice using emotional awareness to create connection.


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