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"I hate you!"

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


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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."