If you are parenting a child who slings insults, name calls, “wishes you were dead”, then you know that few other behaviors burn to this degree and challenge your ability to remain calm and composed.   You may be familiar with the jumble of emotions that follow: Confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, and hurt, just to name a few.  You may have tried your best to respond with “You don’t mean that”, “Well, I love you” or, on the flip-side, “That’s it! You’re grounded!” Unfortunately, you’ve probably found that these responses don’t usually work. In fact, sometimes they make things worse.  So what should you do?

What to do when your child says “I hate you!”:

First, when your child starts hurling nasty words your way, put on what I call your “mental muzzle”.  Be silent.  Seriously.  SILENT.  A pause is the best gift you can give yourself as a parent. You are going to say nothing aloud for a few seconds although it may help to say, “I love you” in your head while you pause and breathe…to combat the instinct to shout a nasty retort!

Next comes the infamous empathy statement.  I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this suggested but it really is THAT important.  Label the emotion to help your child feel understood.  “You are really angry right now.”  “You are really mad about that.” I understand that it feels artificial and contrived but it is essential.  That may be sufficient.  Your child may be satisfied at that point and start to de-escalate.  Sometimes, kids will calm down enough that asking a question may be appropriate.  That would look something like this:

Child: “I hate you, dummy!”

Parent:  “You are really angry.”

Child:  “Yeah, I am.” *

Parent:  “You are angry about the snack I brought for you.  What’s up?”

Child:  “I don’t want any more carrots! I want cookies!”

*(Child has not escalated into the red zone from the yellow zone and remains calm enough to talk-see Zones of Regulation http://www.zonesofregulation.com)

Problem solving strategies after an “I hate you” moment:

At this point, you are ready to move forward with problem solving strategies (which will be addressed in another post) but, suffice it to say, most “I hate you” moments do NOT shake out this way.  More often than not, your child’s emotional state is too heightened and problem solving can’t occur until she (and you) have calmed down.

While your child is still escalated, you can re-state the empathy statement but this time with a firm boundary letting them know that the behavior is not okay.  “I see that you are really angry and that phrase is hurtful.”  At this point, you have a couple of choices:

  1.  Choose to ignore from that point forward (technically called putting the behavior on “Extinction”), but be prepared to see a swift escalation that can be mighty unpleasant.
  2. Use some verbal prompting to encourage them to use more appropriate language such as “I am able to hear what you are saying when you use respectful language”, but only if you feel that your child would be more likely to de-escalate with this type of support.

The approach you choose largely depends on where your child is at with skill acquisition.  Have you already taught them some replacement words?  Or is this a brand new skill you’ll be introducing (after the dust has settled)?  When in doubt, pop on your mental muzzle and ride out the storm.   Much of this isn’t a one-size-fits all solution and the precise sequence you follow with your child will depend on his or her abilities.  The most important thing to hang onto is the knowledge that these words that they are spewing are just that–empty words.Remember that your child is lacking the language to say what he really means. The words “I hate you” are often an automatic response. They are easy to say and require little to no thinking. Plus, they pack an emotional punch. These words come from an emotionally reactive part of the brain, not a logical, thinking part.

When your child is calm, when you are away from the situation, that is the time to focus on helping them to find alternative words to use.  The goal is to teach your child to be specific.  I know this is not easy task but it’s essential and there are many creative ways to teach this.  Through the use of family rules, social stories, visual prompts with a menu of words from which they can choose, role plays and video modeling to name a few.  Here are some alternatives you might teach:

  • “I need your help.”
  • “This is unfair.”
  • “I don’t know how to tell you that I’m upset.”
  • “I don’t like this plan.”
  • “I am sad.”
  • “I feel rushed.”

Being specific is hard for children and adults alike.  The more we practice using clear and specific language, the more we model whatwe want our children to learn.  I encourage do-overs for parents. If I have said something unclear and unkind (“We are always so late for school because no one listens to me in the morning!”), I can stop the clock and model a do-over (“Let me be clear-what I meant is that I am worried about getting you to school late which will make me late for work so I need you to get your shoes on quickly today.”).

Some tips for responding in the moment:

  • Respond with Empathy:  Put yourself in your child’s shoes. What was going on? How do you think they feel right now?  “I know it seems unfair.” Or, “I can tell you disagree with my decision.”
  • Set Firm Boundaries:  Remind your child about acceptable ways to express their feelings by being assertive, and still empathetic,  “Whoa!  I can hear that you are upset and that phrase is hurtful.”
  • Let the Dust Settle:  Sometimes you can move forward with the conversation, but sometimes you need to give everyone a chance to cool downThis is not the time to try and teach or give a consequence.
  • Of course saying, “I hate you” is not OK, and the disrespect needs to be addressed. However, when your child is in a heightened emotional state they are not ready to learn. They aren’t going to take your teaching to heart. And it won’t change their future behavior.

Once everyone is calm, you can address this unwanted behavior.

  • Do-Over:  Once everyone is calm, you can ask your child to express their feelings another way. If this is difficult, you can model it for them until they feel more comfortable, “You really wanted me to understand your story, and I was feeling confused. You felt frustrated.”
  • Problem-Solve:  Sit down together and talk about the underlying problem or the things that usually lead to your child saying, “I hate you.” Brainstorm solutions to the problem together. Role play different scenarios. Write out alternative phrases they could use or coping skills they could try.
  • Build or Repair Connection:  Sometimes, this phrase is a sign that your child is feeling disconnected from you. Instead of pushing your child away, bring them in closer! Focus on ways to strengthen your relationship. As your relationship improves, you may see a decrease in these angry outbursts.

I know you want a quick fix. You want your child to just stop saying it because you told them to stop saying it. Unfortunately, choosing a different response over the easier “I hate you” is something your child needs to learn and practice.