When Young Childen Say "I Hate You"

Knowing and feeling the difference between intense anger and hate, in the heat of the moment, is a life-long learning task for most of us. Even as mature adults, we may have moments when we experience hateful or even violent feelings towards the people we love dearly. For most of us, these moments seem surreal and uncomfortable in retrospect. We have a hard time believing that we had such extreme and negative emotions about someone that we care about in a such a deep way. When we look back at these moments, we know clearly that in our heart of hearts we do not actually hate these people, but were, for some reason, extremely angry with them at the time. At times the intensity of our anger might blind us to the fact that we also love and hold dear the people toward whom our anger is directed. But in retrospect, we marvel at how we could have lost touch with our love for them, even for a brief period.

When young children say “I hate you” to their parents, they are often voicing that same difficult emotion that we, as adults may also experience. It is not that they do not love us, but they are overwhelmed with feelings of anger and may have lost touch with their love for us for the moment. As adults, most of us have a strong filtering mechanism not to act or speak in hateful ways, even as we experience such emotions. But children do not yet have such a filtering mechanism. Children simply voice, in an uncensored way, that complicated, uncomfortable feeling with which we might be familiar.

• It is important that we, as parents, are absolutely and completely clear about the fact that our children do not actually hate us when they say “I hate you.”

• Children up until approximately the age of 8 do not understand the concept of hate. They can switch quickly between feelings of intense love and anger.

• We can guide and support our children in understanding and managing their feelings more effectively when we help them gain perspective about their feelings as opposed to reacting to their words.

• Giving our children a sense that “You're so upset that you think you hate me” or “You want me to know how angry you are so you're saying you hate me” allows them to put their feelings into perspective and learn to understand their emotions better. On the other hand, shaming, punishing, becoming angry, feeling or acting hurt, or saying “I hate you” back, is not only unnecessary and hurtful, but detracts from what the child needs to learn.

• It is helpful in circumstances like this to give our children the sense that we do not hate them no matter what. Demonstrating to our children that they have not hurt us, that they have not damaged our relationship, and that they do not have to anticipate any negative reactions from us, allows them to know that they can move on.

• Moving on from “I hate you” allows us to explore why our children may have been angry in the first place. When we help our children look inside and support them in putting words to their experience, they gain a sense of competence in handling their emotions and gradually find more effective ways of dealing with similar situations in the future.

-- Dr. Haleh Stahl

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