How Should I Respond When My Kid Says “I Hate You”?

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MOLLY: Amber added that her 3-and-1/2-year old says it every time he’s angry or frustrated, even when it has nothing to do with her. How can she help him learn more appropriate ways to vent his feelings?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): This is a very common thing to see in 3-year olds. I think it’s because they’re just beginning to understand that they have emotions and they’re trying to express themselves. They don’t have all the wherewithall to do it with any finesse, but, they’re actually trying to express their feelings in words rather than in actions like hitting, biting, kicking, or other violent expressions like that. 3-year olds might say “I don’t like you,” when they’re angry or frustrated, and that is good that they are using words rather than aggression, but it becomes a big issue because the parent or other recipient takes it personally and it feels hurtful.

MOLLY: Why does it come out as “I don’t like you,” instead of “I’m mad about…” or “I don’t want to do that….”

DR. RUTHERFORD: Because they haven’t yet learned the right words to express how they feel. You can encourage a child to say, “Mommy, you hurt my feelings,” rather than, “I don’t like you,” and this will help him learn a more appropriate way to deal with it now, and it will also help him later on as he grows up to know how to express his feelings in a more appropriate way. It’s actually a good sign that kids express themselves verbally, but it can be very hard for parents to hear.

MOLLY: What’s the best way to respond?

DR. RUTHERFORD: There are a couple of ways to respond. You can encourage a child to say, “Mommy, my feelings are hurt,” rather than saying, “I hate you,” or saying other mean words. This is actually a cornerstone for good interpersonal communication skills and this technique – addressing issues with “I” phrases, as in “I feel badly when…” – will be helpful when dealing with friendships in the childhood years and adult relationships later on.

MOLLY: But how do you encourage 3-and-1/2-year olds to have the self-awareness to do that?

DR. RUTHERFORD: You tell your child that it’s not nice to say that he hates Mommy. Tell him you understand that he is feeling mad or upset about something, and give him the words to express himself: “I feel mad!”

It’s a process thing. One time is probably not going to do it. You’ll have to do it a few times before it sinks in. As a parent or caregiver, you can say to a preschooler: “I’m glad you’re expressing your feelings. Can you tell me what’s making you angry right now?”

MOLLY: Ask the child what’s making him angry?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes. Tell the kid that you’re glad that he can verbally express his feelings, and then ask him what it is that’s making him angry. Sometimes the kid can tell you and sometimes he can’t, but you have to kind of help children along with this process.

MOLLY: What about that feelings game – when you show kids pictures of different emotions? How does that work?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think that’s very helpful. I remember doing that with your sister’s oldest child when he was very little. I drew pictures of different feelings – in a very schematic kind of way.

MOLLY: Like a happy face, sad face, mad face and scared face?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right. And say:  “What do you think this face is expressing?” “What does this face say?” And it really sticks. What my grandson did with this… he was pretty little when I did it with him. Afterward, he showed the chart to his mom and told her about the faces and described all the feelings. I think putting a picture to it is extremely helpful. There are some children’s books out there that can be helpful with this exercise.

MOLLY: So that’s another way we can teach kids to be expressive. But, as a mom, if my child said this to me, you’re saying I shouldn’t feel that this is something I did wrong, right?

DR. RUTHERFORD: No, I think that when kids say, “Mommy I don’t like you,” they don’t mean it in the same way that an adult would mean it. They’re just trying to test out how to express their feelings without biting you or kicking you or having a tantrum.

The whole idea of this strategy is that you don’t discipline a child for expressing their feelings. You don’t punish them for saying, “Mommy I don’t like you.”

This is opposed to actual bad behavior, where you deal with it differently.  You really want kids to learn how to express themselves verbally but you really can’t expect a 3-year old to express himself in the most appropriate of ways. Manners are not innate; they have to be taught.

It’s actually a positive sign when a kid expresses himself verbally; not a negative sign. As the child gets a little older, you will want to help him or her differentiate between expressing feelings and actually being mean. Meanness is a behavior issue and there will be later repercussions for this in a child’s life beyond the house, beyond the relationship with the parents. With kids at school, with teachers, with co-workers…

MOLLY: If the kid doesn’t learn how to express their feelings now, as a preschooler, what kinds of behaviors might we see later on in their lives?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Obviously, as people age it gets harder to teach them new behaviors. People can continue to learn and change as they get older, but it gets harder and they can become more resistant to advice or direction. You want to start molding behavior really early on.

Really, I understand how it makes parents feel badly when they hear their kids say, “I  don’t like you,” but you have to put it in perspective, and in this case, understand where the kid is coming from and that the words are not personal. Then you teach a child to express himself in different words that won’t hurt your feelings and move on from there. Remember that you are the grown-up and your job is not to take things a 3-year old says personally, but to help him learn better ways to express his emotions and communicate.

MOLLY: As an adult, if someone hasn’t learned how to express themselves appropriately, what might you see?

DR. RUTHERFORD: You probably have run into people who have said inappropriate things to you in your life. I know adults like this: they’ll say things in a very direct way that comes out as  hurtful which they might not even recognize as being hurtful. No one has ever taught them how to put their feelings into different sets of words, so they offend people and then wonder why people don’t want to be around them. Adults and children who never learn this skill end up alienating people by expressing themselves in ways that we don’t consider socially acceptable.


ding 6 comments on “How Should I Respond When My Kid Says “I Hate You”?

  1. For many years I have been a pediatrician and have heard this question many times. I tell parents to tell the kid you’ll get over it, or say That’s ok. I also like the “I love you,” said with a smile. Now we are not ignoring his emotions, He in fact at that time feels he does not like you. If he has heard the work “Hate” before, he may temporarily hate you, as far as he understands hate. And remember hate and love are much the same thing, passionate expressions of relationship feelings. But don’t try to explain something so complex as love and hate to a 3 year old, Or perhaps not even a elementary school child. We all know it is all but impossible to get a group of adults to agree on a definition of love. Many seasoned philosophers have given up trying to define it!
    Additionally, the more personal time you give your kid when he says something like that the more he will use it as an AGM, Attention Getting Mechanism, so you will have to deal with it for many more years.
    As doctor John Rosemond says, we spend too much time trying to play psychiatrist with out kids. Better to forget that “psychobabble”, his term, not mine, but a good one for parents to think about. I suspect parents have been hearing “I hate you” from their kids for for many centuries, and our society is not a lot better now than it was when the first settlers came here.

    • Dr. Rutherford clearly states: “Manners are not innate; they have to be taught.” I think this explanation is more about the fact that a child might end up thinking the phrase “I hate you” can be thrown about easily in any scenario, and these are pretty legitimate exercises to try out. Personally I think I shouldn’t ignore the fact that my kid might be trying to tell me something important. Ultimately, I think it’s up to the parent whether to ignore this behavior or not, but I’d certainly give Mom the benefit of the doubt on this one. Thanks for the advice Molly & Mom!

  2. Dr. Donahue,
    Thanks so much for your response. I agree that 3 year olds are famous for saying things like “I hate you” or “I don’t like you” to their parents in their early attempts to express their feelings. I think that telling a child to get over it will possibly stop the kid from saying it again, but won’t necessarily deal with their clumsy attempts at putting their feelings into words. From my point of view, seeing adults with this problem, helping put feelings into words is the name of the game. It helps people from acting out feelings that can get them into trouble in their youth as well as adulthood. So, in the short run I agree with you, but in the long run, I think that people need more help with expressing themselves.

    Susan Rutherford, Psy.D.

  3. Thanks for your reply. We really are not far apart. A short discussion about feelings will not hurt, as long as it does not become an AGM. Hate is such a strong, awful word and I would wonder where a 3 year old heard it. I suspect he is watching TV (any is probably too much at this age) or has “friends” at day care who use it. As a parent, I would look for the source and make some changes.
    Again, thank you for allowing a “Second opinion”. I would also like to call you attention to my parenting books, “Messengers in Denim” was released in 2010, and “Tools for Effective Parenting” will be out later this summer.
    Also, you may enjoy my parenting blog: Thanks again, Par

  4. Personally I feel that that’s too young of an age to be exploring and labeling feelings. Instead, I would draw up the boundaries, gently and without too much emotion myself, by saying we don’t use that word in our house. Which, funny enough, is what mom told us when liver was served growing up!

  5. It should be remembered that this happens not because there is bad parenting going on. Not at all – that your child is learning to express his feelings is a good thing. He just needs some guidance about the words he uses now, and that will hold him in good stead as he grows older. While telling your child that you love him is fine, this is not the actual issue at hand – it’s about the kid learning to express himself. He doesn’t even realize what the word “hate” means.

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