Few phrases are more difficult for me to hear as a parent than “I hate you.” Whether one of my boys directs it at me, his brother, or even a toy, hearing “I HATE YOU” always triggers a response.
It’s important to be able to stay in the “parent place” when it happens. Here are some tips and insights that help me.
First, (as always) be self-aware. I use Daniel Siegel’s C.O.AL. acronym for this.
- Curiosity: What feelings am I having? Why did he say that? Did I ever say that as a kid?
- Openness: Can I respond with humor, insight, compassion, silence etc.?
- Acceptance: His emotions are valid. My emotions are valid. I can’t change the past. The future will be fine. Stay in the present moment.
- Love: Connect with my heart. Follow its lead.
What it feels like “I HATE YOU” means:
- He hates me.
- He doesn’t appreciate everything I do for him.
- He can’t handle his emotions.
- He’s going to grow up to be a violent kid.
- Him and his brother will never get along.
- If he says that here, he’ll probably say it in public.
- He’s depressed.
- I’m depressed.
- The list goes on.
It’s important to note that many of my automatic emotional reactions above are fueled by fear, anger, or sadness.
What “I hate you” REALLY means:
- I don’t like the boundary you set on my behavior (even though that’s what I thought you’d say).
- I’m sad (mad, afraid etc.) and don’t have the words to say it another way.
- I need to save face, so instead of crying I’ll be angry.
- Will you always love me, even if I say this?
- Since you can read my mind, I know you’ll understand what I really mean.
- I feel powerless, and saying “I hate you” gives me the power fix I need right now.
- I want attention, and this usually gets some.
- I’m having a testosterone surge and it’s making me crazy.
- My brain can’t process emotional data fast enough, and I need to say something NOW.
Responding during the situation:
- Keep your cool. By keeping my response calm, I stay in the parent role and model for my boys the best way to handle strong emotion and maintain their dignity.
- Remove energy from “hating.” By responding with as little energy as possible (not yelling, jumping up, making faces etc.) I send a message to my son’s brain that there is no reward for that kind of behavior here. For more info on the energy match, check out Nurtured Heart Approach and Present Moment Parenting.
- Validate his emotions: “It sounds like your frustrated.” “Is it a tough day?” “I know this is disappointing.” By acknowledging his feelings, I show my son that it’s okay to have emotions and that I have respect for what he’s feeling and processing.
- Use non-verbals. Observe his body language and subtly mirror it by being calmly present with a similar (appropriate) posture, position, or action. If he needs space, move away, but don’t disconnect. Give a pat on the back, or just sit. These nonverbal often communicate better than words that I care, I understand, and I’m here for you.
- Use humor. No demeaning sarcasm, but don’t miss the chance to lighten the mood if you can. “You hate me? Well I HATE MUSHY PEAS!”
- Do something unexpected. This is one of my favorite Adlerian Child Guidance Principles. Have fun as you tailor it to your own style and relationship. For instance, I might start singing loudly “I am Henry the Eighth I am. Henry the Eighth I am I am. I got married to the widow…” If he says, “SHUT UP, I HATE THAT SONG,” then I might say “Well, at least you’re not hating me now.” Start throwing popcorn in the air and catching it in your mouth. Do the cinnamon challenge.
- Delay teaching and lecturing until later. When emotions are high, the lizard brain is in charge. There’s not much higher-level thinking, learning, or emotional processing going on. Wait for calmer times to do your instruction.
Responding after the situation:
- Especially for boys, set up teaching moments in the right container. Doing some kind of physical activity, eating, or driving often works well. Barry MacDonald has great resources on Action Talk.
- Teach feelings language. For boys in particular, avoiding phrases like “I hate you,” requires that they be given the right words to use. Help them think about what their feelings really were and what shades of emotion best describe it.
- Make a plan. Think together of a couple different ways he could respond to the things that stress him into hating. Give him some of the basic strategies like deep breaths (for younger kids I use snake breaths), positive self-talk, or taking a break. If I don’t use these techniques often enough myself, I start modeling them.
- Practice other responses. Actually play out a situation or two and have him practice the new response. It’s amazing how powerful and effective this is. This can even be done with older youth, especially if points 5 and 6 from above are used.
- Try using the Incredible Five-Point Scale. Talk about what it looks and feels like when emotions are at a 5. What it looks and feels like when they are at a 4, 3, 2, 1. Collect ideas about how to move down a step. Then, during heightened moments say, “It feels like a 5 right now, and I’m going to bring myself down to a 3.”
- Provide healthy opportunities for power. If “I hate you” gets an angry response, it’s a real power trip for him or her. Learning to get power in healthier ways reduces the need to automatically to hating. (See the Adlerian Mistaken Goals Chart for specific ideas on this).
- Provide healthy opportunities for attention. Similarly to the above point if the mistaken goal of saying “I hate you” is attention, consider healthier ways to meet the need for attention.
- Give energy to success. Whenever I see my son managing emotions, I always recognize it and let him know he’s using his skills. In fact, even if I know he’s likely going to need to manage emotions, I try to set him up for success by reminding him of how much I appreciate it when he uses his skills. This is a proactive approach from the Nurtured Heart Approach and Present Moment Parenting. After all, why should negative behaviors have all the fun! Right?