February 20: My Child Said 'I Hate You': Now What?
Over the past few weeks several families I work with have wanted to talk about explosive moments when a child says something extreme such as, “I wish I weren’t part of this family,” “You’re the worst parent ever,” or “I hate you.” How do you manage a moment when a child says something that feels really awful to hear?
For the purposes of this conversation, I want to focus on extreme language. Even in the best of times, it can be really difficult to hear a child say something like, “You’re a terrible parent.” Currently, when parents are so depleted and are expending so much energy cooking, cleaning, helping to manage online school, and trying to support children’s growth and development in any way they can, hearing these words from your child might feel like a slap in the face.
The first thing I encourage you to do when your child makes a hurtful comment is to pause and take a moment before you respond. Creating a moment of space between your child’s words and your response allows you to briefly re-set. Take a couple of slow, deep breaths (you might try box breathing). Even if circumstances only allow you to take one deep breath, this provides a useful way to create some distance between your child’s hurtful words and your response. Next remind yourself that the comment your child just made is not a referendum on your parenting. Rather, it is an expression of emotion blurted out at a time when your child feels overwhelmed. It might be useful to have a brief script to repeat to yourself in these situations, for example:
“This is a tough parenting moment, I’m going to do my best.”
“My child is really elevated. I’m not going to take it personally.”
After you have taken a moment to calm down, use language to describe what your child might be feeling in the moment – I have written about this previously here and here. It can be useful to hold in mind some go-to parenting scripts such as:
“Yikes, that was mean.”
“That’s rude. I won’t speak to you that way and please don’t speak to me that way.”
“What you said was hurtful. Please try again.”
Often in heated moments parents say things that they regret. When this happens, it might be time to declare a do-over: “Yikes, that really didn’t go well – let’s try that again.” If you shouted or said something you wish you hadn’t, once everyone has calmed down this is a good time to model apologizing and, if appropriate, making amends:
“I’m sorry I yelled. I’d like to give you a hug to show you I’m sorry.”
“In this family even when we have big feelings we always love each other.”
Finally, once the moment is over, do your best to put it behind you. Families that work with me often hear me talk about how everything that happens is like a chapter in the life of a family, and it’s important to know when to close a chapter and put it behind you. This doesn’t mean that the hurtful moment didn’t take place: it means that you can close that chapter and move on rather than dwelling on a painful moment.