“I hate you” (or any variation of that) are three dreaded words no mom or dad should ever hear from their children. The H bomb can cut like a knife and feel like a point of no return.Yet the truth is, these words are more common than you think and rarely mean that you’ve failed as a parent. Far from it!
Here’s a thought experiment. Can we all pause for a moment to remember what it was like to be a tween or teen? The mood swings, race to be the coolest, constant need to belong IRL and on social media (okay, maybe not that last one), and academic pressures of scoring high grades are just scratching the tip of the iceberg. The baby you shared cuddles with is growing up fast, and let’s be real – navigating who they are is oftentimes messy. You’re probably thinking: After all I’ve sacrificed for my kids, they can’t possibly get away with it. If they’re capable of speaking such profanity, who would I be if I let them get away with this?
While you have every right to want to lash back, let me fill you in on a little secret. There’s no way to dodge the searing pain of any menu item titled “You are the worst mom, ever” or “I can’t wait to get the f– out of this house!” But, the word ‘hate’ is being used as filler for something much deeper, hidden just below the surface. More chances than not, they don’t feel they owe you anything because their brains haven’t yet developed to do so. And psychologists agree.
“While teens may mean it in the moment, they’re not in their right minds. They’re flooded with emotions that they’re learning to master,” says Elizabeth Sullivan, a California marriage and family therapist.
So, what’s left over when we strip ‘hate’ from the equation? Translation: “I feel out of control and I am not sure what to do, so I am going to hurl words at you to keep you engaged. I want to know if you will be here even when I am showing my worst.” It’s more like an animal instinct for expressing frustration or loss of control. When you take it back to science, there’s every reason to believe that our kids mean no harm. They’re just lacking the basic skills of emotional maturity to meet their anger with good stuff, like kindness and calm.
A little compassion goes a long way here. Remember that long list of sacrifices we make when we sign up as parents? Well, consider this an important addition. With your kids’ long laundry list of meltdowns, pressures and growing pains, you still remain their number one safety nest to be themselves in their most vulnerable state. The best thing you can do is hold on tight, and let their hateful words be your guide into what’s really going on below the surface.
What to do when your teenager says, “I hate you”
Yep, that’s the million dollar question. Permission to give yourself a big hug by now for being curious and open to change. Surely, what we’re about to share is much easier said than done when you consider how easy it is to lose your cool and let fight or flight get the better of your actions (think: yelling, screaming, punishing, commanding, threatening, you get the gist). But that won’t stop us from trying.
If you’re still reading this, it’s safe to say you’re the kind of parent always striving to do better. We all want to imagine ourselves as the mom or dad who can do it all, and go beyond the triggers to find what’s really at the root of our child’s distress. Are you up for the challenge?
Clinical social worker Natasha Daniels makes a case for tracking the words that follow, “I hate you.” This is key. Usually there’s a trigger to watch out for that can clue you into context, and give you grounds for working out the root problem. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Before tapping into our inner therapist, consider trying this out:
Step 1: Calm down and take a deep breath
Nothing bad ever comes from taking deep breaths, yet we often forget to breathe! Please do yourself a favor, and make this your number one go-to action. When those daggers are flying at you in the form of hateful speech (important reminder: not actually about you), our brains and nervous system need to feel safe. Whatever comes out of your mouth next should defuse and not fuel the already intense dynamic at play.
Clinical social worker Lindsey Sherer says, “It’s a perfect opportunity to model how we can stay calm and use coping strategies rather than impulsively reacting to others.” The more space you create upfront, the better.
Step 2: Validate their pain
This is a crucial and often overlooked step. As humans, we’re wired to jump right into solution mode without taking a healthy pause to acknowledge and feel what’s there. Invalidation usually winds up as a dead end street, and can have longer-term consequences like increased aggression, lower self-esteem, higher anxiety and depression among others.
A simple, “wow, I get it. You’re really mad at me right now,” can quickly dial down those heightened emotions and set the stage for your child to be open to what comes next.
Step 3: Name your pain
To take validation a step further and model healthy coping, don’t shy away from owning your experience in the moment. Remember, you’re leading by example. To train up your kids’ capacity to be better communicators and emotional regulators, they would benefit from seeing this in action, by you! Andy Brimhall, a professor of human development and family science at East Carolina University, underlines this point: “Your child simply needs to learn more productive, thoughtful ways to share their feelings, give themselves breaks, respect boundaries, get their needs met, consider your feelings, and think about what they’re saying before they say it.”
This can take the form or variation of, “ Those words really hurt, and I feel it.”
Step 4: Reaffirm the love
Here, we shift from noticing those emotions out loud towards words of reaffirmation. Just a few moments ago, your kid was triggered into a fight or flight response which came out as strong, reactive emotions of anger, frustration, self-loathing and disappointment. Whatever the root really is, we’re not quite ready to have a deeper conversation just yet.
“No matter what, I love you and we’ll work this out,” can make them feel safe again and confident to open up.
Step 5: Model self care and walk away respectfully
Check in with yourself at this stage. Maybe you’re ready to enter constructive dialogue, maybe you’re not. There’s no prescribed timeline for when to be ready, but 20-30 minutes are advisable for all parties involved to collect their thoughts. Feel free to take a walk, lie down on your bed while focusing on your breath, or really cool off wherever it best suits you.
Communication here is key. The last thing you want to model is escapism or distraction. Give a clear answer for why you think more space would benefit this moment. “Okay, why don’t you and I take some time for ourselves and talk about this later when we’ve calmed down.”
Step 6: Come back together from a resourced place
Pretty much all healthy and constructive conversations should start from this place. Before entering dialogue, silently check in with yourself: how am I coming across right now with my body language? Your thoughts, words and actions should feel like one united front for the message to land in the most positive way.
Begin by deconstructing this word ‘hate’ from a curious place: “You don’t actually hate me. I know that we don’t always see eye to eye or that it feels like I’m in your way or don’t understand where you’re coming from. And guess what? You are right! I don’t always understand and we won’t always agree, and that’s okay. My job as your parent isn’t for us to agree on everything, but to support you in every way I can until you’re ready to take care of yourself. Even though I’m your parent, I’m not perfect.”
Next up, be clear about boundaries and guide them towards healthier behavior: “My hope is that we can always talk through what makes us angry, without resorting to hate. Using the word ‘hate’ does not help me hear what you have to say in the way I think you want to express. It builds walls and makes it hard to listen. So, let’s agree not to use the words ‘I hate you,’ no matter how angry, frustrated or stressed you feel. Instead, let’s work on communication. From now on, can you be open to telling me how you feel from a calm place? I want to listen.”
A positive response is a good sign you’re both making headway. Allow for natural dialogue and deeper curiosity to emerge. Needless to say, kids respond better to inviting questions than they do commands. Here are some examples to keep handy in your back pocket as you continue to practice:
- What can you do next time to make sure you are heard?
- What can you do to express your frustration better?
- Are there any other ways to release your anger that you won’t regret later?
Get the feeling that these 7 steps could work in pretty much any situation where emotions run high – say, with a partner or colleague you’re about to lose your mind with? If you’re nodding along ‘yes,’ give yourself a big squeeze as you graduate from feeding the bad wolf to feeding the wise and mature wolf.
How not to deal with your teenager when they say “I hate you”
You might’ve guessed this by now, but there’s no “i hate you” shortcuts to circumvent these sometimes difficult and awkward conversations. The hard-won rewards of watching your child build up their communication and emotional maturity skills come from sticking with the process.
While we’ve created a perfectionism-free zone to practice these proven steps, be cautious to avoid this list of lose-lose behaviors:
- Don’t lash out with hurtful responses: things like “well, I hate you too!” will simply signal to your kid that you’re not in control emotionally and that the only way to handle verbal attacks is to launch back with the same.
- Don’t scream, yell or command: the louder we get, the more ineffective we become. Not only does this model unhealthy problem solving behavior, but can damage our kids in the long run. Here’s a free smart parenting toolkit for extra support on this one if you need it.
- Don’t say “you can’t…”: well, because they technically can. As parents, we are not in control of what they say or do. Commanding them in this way will only spark a power struggle that derails any chance of resolving the root problem.
- Don’t try to strategize a plan with your kid in the heat of the moment: it won’t work! Bottom line, your message will inevitably land on deaf ears if they’re not in a calm state to hear you. Remember, they’re interpretation of ‘hate’ is different from yours, so consider that you’re expecting them to be on a level that they’re just not ready for.
- Don’t punish or give big ultimatums: Think of harsh punishments as the equivalent to ‘doing time’ (read: resentment) without giving them actual skills to better manage their emotions in the future.
If you build up the muscle to shift out of unwanted and unhealthy behaviors, you’re well on your way to raising healthier, more resilient kids. Keep in mind though, there is an exception to this rule. If your tween or teen moves goes beyond “I hate you” and launches into full-blown cursing or verbal abuse, a stronger consequence is justifiably allowed. While we won’t be covering that here, consider thinking about implementing a zero tolerance policy for behavior that continually crosses the line.
If you’re new to all this, know that it’s completely normal to feel like your kids are getting away with bad behavior because ‘you’re not coming on strong enough.’ The truth is, two wrongs don’t make a right – as in, violence begets more violence. These proven recommendations above are here to help you resource the best of you, so we can stop violence in its tracks and pivot with greater awareness. This awareness will not only help you stay in control and model healthy self-management skills, but also teach your kids the power of clear boundaries. Through action, the message will be clear as day: violence is not okay. Let’s focus on how we can learn from this.
While it might not always feel good, remind yourself that practice makes perfect-ish, and a little bit of progress over time is what counts!