What to Say to your Child When They Scream, "I Hate You"
By Carl Pickhardt Ph.D
In general, understand that you should respond to talk of hate, just like talk of suicide, very seriously. Ignore either statement and you risk the possibility of destructive consequences – of harm being done. One scary responsibility of parenting is trying to prevent a child's desperate words, driven by desperate feelings, from turning into desperate acts.
Sometimes, because the quality of communication is the quality of family life, parents may have prohibited the use of certain kinds of language in the family, 'hate statements' among them. Thus, when the teenager uses "I hate you!" parents treat this as a violation of family rules and make a corrective response. "You have been told never to use that word between us. Now go to your room. We will discuss consequences later."
This is not a good decision. What is immediately needed is not punishment, but communication. Parents need to treat "I hate you!" as seriously as they would "I could kill myself!" Both are desperation statements, expressions of extreme unhappiness that need to be talked out to reduce the likelihood of being acted out.
At the same time, parents do need to understand that most statements of "I hate you!" don't really have much to do with actual hate at all. Actual hate is about abiding abhorrence and hostility, a complete or irrecoverable absence of love. "I hate you" from your child is neither abiding nor bankrupt of love. It is usually spoken in the moment in response to one or more of four upsetting issues.
- The young person is feeling frustrated by parental demands, restraints, or lack of understanding. "I hate you!" really means, "I am at the extremity of my anger at you!"
- The young person is in a hard emotional place because of unwise decisions made and wants to unload those feelings on someone else. "I hate you!" really means "I feel like taking my bad feelings about myself out on you!"
- The young person is feeling injured by what parents did or didn't do. "I hate you!" really means, "I feel really hurt from how you've treated me!"
- The young person is using extreme language for extortionate effect. "I hate you!" really means, "If you don't want me to hate you, then let me have my way!"
What the young person needs at this point is not anger or punishment from the parent, but an empathetic response to talk extreme upset out. Rather than attacking back to defend themselves, parents need to show empathetic concern. "I care for how you feel, I want to know how you feel, and I will listen to how you feel."
To that end, when your child says "I hate you!" respond with something like this: "Telling me you hate me tells me that you must be feeling very upset. Please talk to me about the unhappiness you feel."
Then after talking out has happened, make a request: "Since unhappiness and not hate is what was really going on, maybe next time life gets so painful or frustrating, you can simply say to me: 'I feel extremely unhappy!' And we can talk.
The problem with using the hate word between us is that it can scare both of us. It can scare me because I wonder what you might do. And it can scare you because when you believe you hate me you will feel unable to accept my love.
Also, "I hate you" can be dangerous to say. At the moment, what we say in anger can motivate hateful actions. Bad words state beliefs that can be used to justify bad treatment. Say 'I hate you!' and you can feel entitled to treat me in a hateful way that afterwards we both have cause to regret."
Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. is the author of 12 parenting books and is a psychologist in private counseling and lecturing practice in Austin, Texas. His most recent three books are: THE CONNECTED FATHER (about parenting adolescents), THE FUTURE OF YOUR ONLY CHILD (about growing up 'only'), and STOP THE SCREAMING (about family conflict.) His earlier book, KEYS TO SUCCESSFUL STEPFATHERING continues to be the definitive book on the subject. Carl writes a Blog for PsychologyToday.com. For more information visit www.carlpickhardt.com.