There’s nothing sweeter than the first time your baby says “Mama.” And there’s nothing more shocking than the first time she screams, “I hate you!”
Maybe this doesn’t happen in every family, but in ours, it’s a fairly regular occurrence, whenever my 6-year-old daughter gets really, really mad. If I deny her something she desperately wants, like one more episode of Paw Patrol or candy for breakfast,”I hate you!” is her go-to response, and it does break my heart a little.
So what’s a mama to do when confronted with such vitriol from someone so young and so loved? First of all, don’t overreact, says Betsy Brown Braun, a child development specialist and the author of You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your 4- To 12-Year-Old Child. “It’s well within the range of normal for kids to express big feelings this way,” she explains. Though it’s not pleasant to hear those words, “You have to say to yourself, ‘I’m not taking this personally,'” she adds. ‘”This is not about me. Of course my child doesn’t hate me.'”
According to Braun, younger children are still learning the power of their words and their effect on other people. So when your kid says “I hate you,” what he really means is, “How can I get you to understand what I want?” As the parent, you need to put aside your own hurt feelings and try to use the outburst as an opportunity to help your child develop emotionally. “Don’t squelch what needs to come out,” advises Braun. Instead, “Validate their feelings. Say, ‘Wow, you are really angry. Tell me what you’re so angry about.'”
After all, lashing out verbally is actually a step in the right direction. Parents spend years teaching little kids not to hit, kick, or bite when they’re mad and to use words instead, so when they do finally use words — even words we don’t like — we shouldn’t shut them down. “Would you rather your kids use a not-nice word or haul off and sock you?” says Braun. In other words, cut your little monster some slack.
The exception to this parental latitude would be if your child starts calling you names. “I don’t think it’s okay for kids to say, ‘You’re stupid,'” says Braun. “‘I hate you’ is describing a feeling. Saying ‘you’re stupid’ is calling someone names.” So if you’re on the receiving end of such an insult, Braun advises parents to walk away, giving the name-caller no attention. After a cool down period, explain: “‘You don’t have to like me. You can be mad at me. But you do not call me names and I don’t call you names. There is no name calling in our family.'”