When your young child gets angry with you, she may shout, “I hate you. You’re dumb!” This outburst might come after you’ve said she can’t go outdoors or have a friend over or do something else she wants to do.
A preschooler has a hard time putting her exact feelings into words. She doesn’t know how to say, “Daddy, I think you should let me stay up later tonight because…” or “I’m angry with you because you said…” She’s too young for such articulation and too young to show that kind of respect. Instead she expresses her feelings and anger by saying, “I hate you.”
Some parents accept and understand these words as the beginning of their child’s expression of angry, negative feelings. But all parents can feel betrayed when their child, after receiving love and attention, turns on them over a minor disappointment. It can be frustrating when adult reasoning, logic, and caring fail to keep a child from yelling, “You mean Mom!”
Parents may be tolerant of a three-year-old yelling, “You dumb Mom!” but it’s harder to be understanding when a four-or five-year old says, “I hate you.” A child’s words can feel threatening to parents who don’t like their children to be angry with them. And parents worry that a bad habit could develop.
It is common for parents who hear “I hate you” to say to their child, “That’s not nice! Don’t let me hear those words again.” But a child needs to release her angry feelings somehow, and if she isn’t allowed to express them verbally, she’ll find other, perhaps more destructive ways. She might turn to aggressive behavior such as hitting, or she might take out her anger by becoming deliberately slow, acting excessively silly, or pretending she doesn’t hear her parents. However, if her angry feelings are acknowledged and allowed to be expressed, she’ll eventually learn to state her feelings more appropriately.
If your child says, “I hate you,” offer her other ways to tell you how she feels. Suggest she say, “I’m mad at you,” or “I’m angry,” or “I don’t like what you did.” Acknowledge her feelings, but say, “I want you to tell me in different words.”
And remember, children are natural mimics. Your child uses the word “hate” because she hears it so often. Adults say, “I hate this dress,” “I hate when it rains,” or “I hate it when people do that.” It’s natural for your child to use the word to express her dislike of something or someone, or to point out when you’ve said the word: “Aw, you said hate.” You can take advantage of the fact that she’s a mimic, stop using the word hate, and gradually teach your child to express her anger in acceptable ways.
When your child says, “I hate you,” rather than make an issue of the words, simply restate her words and feelings. Say back to her, “You’re really angry at me, aren’t you? You don’t like it when I say it’s time to come in.” If she hears you express her anger and disappointments in this way, she’ll gradually begin to use similar statements herself.