Dear Dr. Robyn,
I feel like the worst Mom. My son is 4 years old and he has always been a very sweet and loving boy. But the other day when we were playing with his toy trucks on the floor he got really mad, threw the truck down, and told me that he hated me! I was so surprised that I didn’t know what to say. I want to be prepared for the next time it happens (if it happens). What should I do?
– Susanne R., San Diego, CA
“Mommy, I hate you and Daddy You’re Mean!”
Six Tips to Help You Cope with Your Child’s Angry Words
“Mommy, I Hate You!”
“Daddy, You’re Mean!”
Being a parent is tough sometimes, isn’t it? Yes, you know in your head that your child doesn’t really hate you. But when he utters those words it’s as if he is nailing a scarlet letter to your head with a tinker toy. The words are “child’s play” but the effect sure does feel real.
Young children do not have to subtle language to beat around the bush. When they’re angry, they show it. If you don’t give them their way, they are going to let you know about their frustration. It’s normal. It just doesn’t feel like it when it happens to you. What should you do?
(1) Look for the issue behind the words: Your child does not always have the language to explain his frustration. When your child says “I hate you,” he might be having difficultly with a task, attaining something he wants, or expressing an emotion like fear. As parents, we must become a detective and figure out what our children are really trying to relay.
(2) Help your child recognize anger: If your child can recognize when he is feeling angry, he will have an easier time expressing and coping with the feeling rather than lashing out. Ask your child, “what does your body feel like when you’re angry?” Help him to name it while it’s happening, “I can tell by your face and body that you are angry. You’re having trouble putting the wheel back on your truck. That is very frustrating!” This will help to validate what your child is feeling and help him put a name to the emotion he is feeling.
(3) Give your child the right words: When your child is calm, talk about what happened. Remind him of when he was feeling angry earlier in the day and what he said. Let him know that when he says “I hate you,” it hurts your feelings. Then ask him, “What can you say instead?” If he is unsure, give him the right words. “When you feel this way, instead of saying ‘I hate you,’ say, ‘I feel angry and I need help, please.” Help him to practice expressing his feelings so that when he is angry again, he can call on these skills.
(4) Provide calming techniques: We all get angry. Helping your child deal with anger in a constructive way will be a gift that he can use for the rest of his life. Introduce and practice some techniques when your child is open to listening (not when in the heat of battle!). Counting to 10, singing a song, and talking to oneself, are some simple ways to calm down when angry. One of my favorite techniques is to “smell the roses and blow away the clouds.” This is a powerful way to teach children to take a few deep breaths.
(5) Provide problem solving techniques: Let your child know that there are lots of ways to solve problems. If something isn’t working, try something else! You might say, “Could you help me put the wheel back on my truck?” or “maybe I should play with something else.” Help your child think about solutions that are safe, fair, and likely to be successful.
(6) Watch your own language: Regrettably, in this case, “monkey see, monkey do.” If you use harsh language in anger or you typically say “I hate” towards objects (i.e. I hate doing laundry; I hate when the phone rings during your nap time), your child will pick up on it and use it himself. Unfortunately, such language might be directed at you!
Perhaps the most important thing for you to keep in mind while all this is happening is that your child doesn’t really hate you. So take a deep breath. Sometimes parents, too, need to remember to smell the flowers and blow away the clouds. After all, it’s likely that clear skies are on the horizon.
With great respect,
Webmaster’s Note: This article was originally published in Bay State Parent Magazine, where Dr. Robyn is a columnist. Dr. Robyn recently earned the Silver Award for her series, Fitting in and Standing Out, on Body Image in America from Parenting Publications of America.