When your child says 'I hate you'

A participant in my workshop Sameera shared this incident. “The other day when I took the phone away from my 6-year-old who had been playing for a long time, he said, “ Amma, you are so mean. You are the worst mother. I hate you!” I was so shocked and hurt I just didn't know what to do or say.” “So what did you do?” I asked her. “My first reaction was this strong desire to give him a whack, but then I have promised myself I will not hit my children.  I just yelled, “ How dare you talk to me like this” and went into my room and cried. After that, I did not talk to him for a day”. 


“ I can imagine how painful it would have been to hear that Sameera.” “ Yes”, she replied, “ I actually started doubting myself.  I was only trying to enforce some discipline.  It makes you wonder if you really are a bad parent. I work hard for them and put so much of myself in trying to do a good job. His words just made me feel like I am failing miserably.” After a pause, she added,  “You know it also doesn't help that when I was growing up, I was the younger sibling and whatever I did, I was not as smart as my older sister. I always felt like I was not good enough.  My son’s words brought up the same feelings of being inadequate.”   

The group sat in a heavy silence processing what Sameera had shared.  All of us could relate to this in some way. There are times when our children have said or done things which have triggered huge emotions in us, sometimes because of our own backstories.  


“First of all,'' I said to Sameera, “I would like to reassure you that what you have shared is not unusual. Many many children say things like this when they are upset or angry. Don't start thinking that this is a result of the way you are raising your child. You are doing the best you can!”  Sameera sighed with relief. “ Secondly, please do not take those words literally. Your 6-year-old does not really analyse your parenting skills or try to rate you as a mother. You are the center of his universe and your love and approval means everything to him. He says something like this because he is upset with the situation and he doesn't know a better way to express himself”. 


Let's look at what is going on in children when they speak to parents like this: 


  1. The child wants ice-cream and you said “no”. He wants to play on the phone for hours on end and you cannot allow it. He doesn't want to come home from the park and you have to make him leave. He is upset, disappointed and angry. He feels a loss of control when he has no say in things. With these big feelings, he takes it out on you   

  2. There is another situation where the child knows she has behaved in a way which is not acceptable. She has hit her sibling, broken something, refused to eat, got into trouble for not doing homework etc. You reprimand the child and she says, “You are so mean! You don't understand. '' Most often the child is fully aware of her wrongdoing and is actually feeling miserable about herself. These words come as a reaction because she wanted some empathy.


When children speak to us like this, we feel so hurt that it makes us want to retaliate by scolding, punishing or refusing to talk to them. But can we see what is behind those words and feel their disappointment or hurt. Understand that this is what many children do when they are angry. This shift in perception will enable us to respond with care and connection. Sameera could say to her son, “ I can see you are really upset that I am not allowing you to play on the phone. I know it's really hard for you to switch off when you are in the middle of the game. And yet, I cannot allow you to play for so long.”  He may cry, yell and still hit out at her. But if she can go beyond the words, she can stay calm and be there for him. Hug him through his tears. 


I ended the session by telling the group,” Each of you is the best parent for your child. Don't ever let their words make you doubt that”. Yes, we need to teach our children that speaking like this is hurtful and unacceptable. But, when we can be understanding and loving, we are in a better position to coach them in more appropriate ways to express themselves.


 For more ideas on how to do this, please refer to our earlier article in this column https://www.dtnext.in/Lifestyle/Wellbeing/2018/09/20023914/1089113/Parenthood-Make-teenagers-aware-how-their-words-wound.vpf  


Author: Kesang Menezes is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.