"I hate you!"

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 3, 2013 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

I read your column often and I'd appreciate your advice on something. My youngest just turned five and has a pretty headstrong personality. This is good in many ways -- he is very determined and sticks with things to the bitter end, even when they are tough. But there are countless times in the day where he has decided he is doing something that I can't let him do (things like cross the road alone, not go to preschool, cook on the hot stove etc.)

In the last month or so, he has started screaming "I HATE you!" every time I want him to do something he doesn't want to do (or stop him from doing something he wants to). I stay calm and say to him, "I don't like it when you speak like that," or "We don't use that word," and sometimes I even suggest to him an alternative like, "You can say 'Mom, I'm angry at you.'" Nothing seems to help. Should I just ignore it when he says it and eventually hopefully he'll stop? Should I have a consequence to show him it is really wrong and not acceptable? He says it at least a dozen times a day (or more!) and is now also starting to say it about his siblings, too, when they make him mad.

From: Mom to 3, Boston


Dear Mom to 3,

And let me guess: when he says it, it's with all the emotion he can muster, as in, I really mean this. He does, too, for the moment.

But here's the good news: "I hate you!" doesn't mean the same thing to a young child that it does to us. We think of it as wanting the total demise of a person or idea. To a child, it carries a lot of emotion but it isn't that loaded, in fact, it can mean a range of things from, "I slightly prefer," to, "I'm not ready to do what you want." What's more, a 5-year-old can say, "I hate you!" one minute and, "I love you!" the next, and mean both of them, in a 5-year-old kind of a way because kids this age move from emotion to emotion quickly. When he says this repeatedly, as your son is doing, it's probably because he's getting some satisfaction from your reaction, even though (in your mind) it's negative. The more we react in semi-horror ("That's not a word we use in our family!"), the more attractive and powerful the words become for him, much as swear words do for older folks. Like us. Oh -- and he's your third? In addition to having the frustrations of a typical 5-year-old, he's also likely frustrated at not being able to do what his older sibs can do. .

Here are some suggestions:

Tell him to go into his room or the bathroom, shut the door and look in the mirror and say, "I hate you!" as much as he wants, but when he comes out, he can't say it anymore. This works well with any word you are trying to eliminate from a child's vocabulary, like "stupid," my son's personal favorite at this age. Giving him permission to say it loudly and often seems to get it out of the system.

Translate what is prompting him to say "I hate you!" into other "I" statements. "I wish," "I want," "I don't want."

At some time other than the moment of his outburst, remind him that words can hurt: "'Hate' is a word that makes other people feel sad and upset. That's why it's not a nice thing to say."

Physically remove yourself from him. When he shouts, "I hate you," turn your back and ignore him. Yes, that will infuriate him. He'll get over it. Scribble a note: "Please find another way to tell me what you're feeling."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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3 comments so far...
  1. When my then almost 5 year old yelled at me that she hated me, I resisted every urge to react, and kept my cool. I calmly told her that, I was still her mother and still loved her. I figured 2 things, 1 - she's going to think she hates me at some point in her teenage years, may as well set the stage now and 2 - by not letting her words have the power they were a lot less interesting. She's only said this to me once more and it's been a few months. We should probably talk about the use of the word "hate' a little more.

    Posted by shauna May 3, 13 12:01 PM
  1. I cannot help but wonder if this is a very good developmental sign - that the children in question feel sure enough of their parents' love no-matter-what to risk voicing their displeasure. Surely a less secure child might not take the risk?

    What good parents!

    Posted by Susan May 4, 13 05:00 PM
  1. Pretty sure she knows you don't like it, which is why she says it. You are better off not reacting at all, or simply saying, "That's fine, but you still need to do what I told you to do."

    Posted by TF May 6, 13 11:31 AM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. When my then almost 5 year old yelled at me that she hated me, I resisted every urge to react, and kept my cool. I calmly told her that, I was still her mother and still loved her. I figured 2 things, 1 - she's going to think she hates me at some point in her teenage years, may as well set the stage now and 2 - by not letting her words have the power they were a lot less interesting. She's only said this to me once more and it's been a few months. We should probably talk about the use of the word "hate' a little more.

    Posted by shauna May 3, 13 12:01 PM
  1. I cannot help but wonder if this is a very good developmental sign - that the children in question feel sure enough of their parents' love no-matter-what to risk voicing their displeasure. Surely a less secure child might not take the risk?

    What good parents!

    Posted by Susan May 4, 13 05:00 PM
  1. Pretty sure she knows you don't like it, which is why she says it. You are better off not reacting at all, or simply saying, "That's fine, but you still need to do what I told you to do."

    Posted by TF May 6, 13 11:31 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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