I never thought it would happen to me.
My children are sweet, and kind, and loving and gentle.
Except when they’re not.
And even that’s okay, because they’re kids, right? They are learning to manage emotions. I’m a thinking parent. I can hold their outbursts. I can be their emotional buffer. I have this down.
Except when I don’t.
‘I Hate You, Mom!’
These words hissed from the tender mouth of my 7-year-old daughter carved the breath right out of me.
And what terrible act on my part provoked such an outburst?
My insistence that shorts were not appropriate attire for the sub-zero temperatures of a December morning.
I’m working hard to be a positive parent. In that moment, I felt so betrayed!
Of course, the ‘I Hate you Mom!’ had very little to do with the shorts thing.
I knew that. But boy, did it crush me anyway!
At the time I didn’t know what to do, or how best to respond. I can’t even remember now what I did. Let’s just say it wasn’t my finest moment.
I do recall being aware of the need to explore this idea further. So I did some homework to prepare myself in case ‘I Hate You, Mom!’ came to play again.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
In an ‘I Hate You, Mom!’ moment, there are two very hurt parties – the person who got screamed at, me the parent; and the person who did the screaming, my child.
Sadly though, unlike an adult altercation, in this case only one of these persons – me – is capable of keeping this situation from snowballing into something even worse. It doesn’t matter whether a child is 4. Or 14. It is on us, the adults, to figure out a way to get us out of this situation.
How can we do this while we ourselves feel so hurt and betrayed?
Here’s what I’ve found helps:
First and Foremost, Keep the Bridge from Completely Collapsing
The important thing here is to focus on that tenuous bridge of connection between you and your child. It feels extremely wobbly at the moment. Something has frayed it badly for your child to burst out with an “I Hate You, Mom!”. The key now is to keep the bridge from collapsing completely, because mending a bridge is a lot easier than building a brand new one.
(Make Yourself) Stay and Listen
For your child, the emotions behind those hurtful words are like a Perfect Storm. Your child is adrift. Even if you can’t work out where they are coming from, you need to be your child’s emotional anchor at the moment. They are desperate for your closeness and validation.
Tempting as it may be, now is not the time to retreat into a personal cave to nurse your own hurt feelings. The words ‘I Hate You!’ strike at our vulnerability, and we do need to deal with that.
But not here, not now. We’ll come back to it in a bit.
Right now, if your child is physically worked up be sure to keep them, and yourself, safe. But, don’t leave. Be there while your child processes the feelings. When the fog of fury lifts and they see you are still there, they will see your love.
And that matters. It is the key to restoring the warm connection again.
Is it easy?
No. Not by any stretch of imagination.
But it IS possible.
I’ve personally adopted this wonderful mantra that I picked up from Ariadne Brill at Positive Parenting Connection to keep me grounded when faced with an ‘I Hate You!’ moment:
I love this sentiment. In a moment of hurt, betrayal and a sense of helplessness, it empowers you. It shows you that there is something you can do. It tethers you, so you can be the safety net for your child. It leaves you open to offer what your child really needs in that moment.
Start Mending the Bridge: Child’s Side
By just hanging on through the outburst, you’ve showed both your child and yourself that you are committed to getting to the bottom of this and fixing it, so hopefully it won’t happen again (or, more realistically, it will eventually stop happening).
Start by healing your child.
Translate the ‘I Hate You’
I agonized for a long time over what may have caused the outburst from my daughter. I don’t think that kids at such a young age quite grasp the intensity of the word “hate” like we do. So, I knew that she didn’t quite literally mean “I Hate You!”
Which meant it must be translatable. I just had to tune into my daughter’s language to work out she really meant.
I read, googled, chatted with friends, and self-reflected myself into near oblivion.
Slowly, I realised this wasn’t a one off. The words ‘I Hate You, Mom!’ were new, but the sentiment behind them wasn’t. My normally charming, loving daughter had been tending to explode in various uncharacteristic ways over the preceding weeks. And between bewilderment and nursing my inner bruises I had missed the link.
I had allowed our connection to slip.
Thinking back I realised each outburst was related in some way to a battle of relative independence. My girl was growing up. And I was still in automatic full-on parental-control mode – over what she ate, what she wore, when she did her homework.
No wonder she was getting a bit cheesed off.
In this case for us, ‘I Hate You, Mom!’ was really saying something along the lines of ‘I hate having no control over my world (even though the idea of being in control scares me silly!) I need your help! But I’m a big girl now, quit coddling me!’
We’re experimenting with that right now, with a degree of trial and error. I’m inviting her input into decisions when it’s appropriate, and she is assuming greater responsibility for herself in a safe way. And we’re both happier and more peaceful for it.
If you are on the receiving end of an ‘I Hate You!’ imagine what words could be hiding in there (be sure to first take a hug for yourself, you probably need it). Maybe your child is upset with a decision you’ve made, needs your help with an issue they are dealing with, is feeling lost/lonely/stressed/angry/overwhelmed, or, as in my daughter’s case – unheard.
Identifying and addressing the root issue behind the words will help to prevent them bursting forth again.
Let Your Child Lead the Way to Their Own Healing
If your child is sufficiently emotional to blurt out ‘I Hate You!’ it’s important to recognise that those emotions won’t suddenly dissipate, however compassionately you respond.
Most likely, the emotions causing the outburst are related to a past event, or a culmination of events where feelings were left unresolved, unfelt, buried. Now they are surfacing to be pasted on the most convenient and robust surface available – you.
Your child’s logic, reason and cooperation are sidelined in the heat of the emotion – it’s a time to connect, not reject.
But you need to take your cues from your child for how to do this.
This last part is crucial. Full of my own self-positive-parenting importance I strive to connect with my children as often as possible in a way that I see as correct, particularly when they are in distress. But this sometimes backfires.
My daughter was clearly not in a great place one evening after school last week – unbeknown to me at the time she’d had an argument with her best friend. The emotional fall out was making her defiant and resistant to anything and everything.
My response was to offer soothing and closeness. To be fair, I was kind of in her face, in the nicest possible way, and with the best of intentions. But what she actually needed was space.
So, even as I was trying to heal my child, we had yet another “I Hate You, Mom!” episode. This time, she stormed off upstairs and hid under her bed.
At this point her little brother, also tired, was needing my love and attention too. And my own already stressful day had left my energy and patience depleted. It took every ounce of my positive-parenting resolve to not yell back.
With much intentional effort, I walked calmly upstairs. I was committed to offer my daughter the support and connection I felt she needed.
But my daughter was not ready for me yet. She did not want me in her room.
It was hard to hear, but I took my cue to retreat for a short period, telling her I would return in a while.
After five minutes I came back. She was a little more open this time to my attempt to connect.
I showed my empathy, and acknowledged her feelings. I said her words hurt, and were disrespectful, and that’s not okay. l repeated our family mantra – ‘What you feel is always okay – it’s what you do with those feelings that counts.’
We reconnected with a chat and a hug.
The point here is that having expressed an extreme emotion a child will often need time to calm down. While they may need to do that alone, especially as they get older, they will generally look to the parent to create a path back to a safe place.
Follow your child’s lead.
Leave if they want you to, but always come back. And make it clear to them that they can come to you any time.
Be there to guide them when they are ready.
Talk it Out When The Emotions Have Calmed Down
When your child is emotionally melting down, the intellectual part of their brain is disengaged and no amount of discussion will help them see the hurt they cause you with those 4 simple words.
Wait until you have both calmed down and then have an honest discussion. Acknowledge their strong emotions and share how those words make you feel.
Watching this video by Casey O’Roarty at Joyful Courage with your child could be a great way to start this conversation. Not only does it explain what is going on when your child is full of emotions, but provides you that common ground to come up with alternate ways to respond the next time your child finds themselves in a similar situation.
Start Mending the Bridge: Your Side
All this while, as you keep the bridge between you and your child from collapsing and helping your child start healing themselves, you have pushed down on your own emotions and hurt. It’s time now to deal with that and heal yourself.
How you self-regulate when your child screams ‘I Hate You!’ is an important part of helping you both deal with it, and heal from it. Your reaction however may come from a place deep inside, from experiences long since buried. And it may take you by surprise.
Reframe the Message in your own mind
In one key respect your child’s outburst is a good thing – it shows your child trusts you enough to let out the raw emotion that is making them feel bad in that moment. Your child is exposing their hurt to you.
Remember: It’s not personal, it’s a cry for help.
Reframing the message in this way will help you offer a more measured response. It helps you be loving enough for both of you.
Build Your Own Support System
The need to feel loved resides within us all – child and adult alike. The jolt of fear and rejection sparked by an ‘I Hate You, Mom!’ moment can’t fail to arouse some internal emotion in us, the parents, and this needs to be dealt with before/as/and after you respond.
When things have calmed down and the moment has passed take some time to reflect on the feelings those words trigger inside you. Seeking to heal your inner child will help you respond more compassionately to your child when they lash out emotionally.
There are many different ways to do this, but the one I love is a little self-love via a Listening Buddy. According to Madeleine Winter, a certified Parenting by Connection Instructor:
Listening Partnerships are where we listen in turn with another adult, swapping an agreed amount of listening time. You can use Listening Partnerships to work regularly on the pressures and tensions of parenting and family life. And you can use them as an “emergency relief valve” – finding someone to swap a short (or longer) amount of listening time when you are upset, or need a chance to think through a challenge.
It can be an official previously agreed upon partnership or just an unofficial agreement that you are available to each other in the moments when you need to vent.
Benefits of a Listening Buddy
Most parents were yelled at sometime as a child, and felt bad as a result. When our child yells at us it’s tricky to suppress the feelings we felt as a child and respond calmly. Often we offload right back at our kids.
Here’s where a little self-care and nurturing can work wonders.
Those childhood feelings we all still carry may continue to hamper our efforts to remain calm in the face of our emotional children unless we process them, allow ourselves to really feel them – it’s the only way to really let go and be truly free to live and respond in the present. Telling your life story to someone supportive can transform your parenting.
A listening buddy can help – take turns to just be there for your buddy (who may be your partner, a friend, a sibling, someone from an online community like this one etc.), to offload to each other about the buttons your kids push, how they make YOU feel, and how you respond. Let those feelings flow – cry, laugh. Over time the emotional debris you carry will be cast aside, leaving you free to exist and respond to your child in the here and now, uncluttered by your own past.
The first “I Hate You, Mom!” episode takes every parent by surprise.
It may be tempting to treat it as a “phase”… to push it under the carpet and hope that it will just go away. More often than not though, this is not the case.
More likely, it is an indication that your child feels a loss of connection with you and does not have an effective way to communicate it with you. Rather than going away, if left on its own, these episodes will likely repeat with higher and higher frequency until your child escalates it to even worse behaviour in an attempt to grab your attention.
So, address it with the steps above the best you can. And start working on improving the emotional intelligence of both your kids and yourself too, so you can deal with future instances of disconnection with calm dialogue rather than high-strung drama.
Good luck to you mama. You’ve got this!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Here are some positive things you can do in the heat of an ‘I Hate You!’ moment. Remind yourself of these actions regularly, and they will become your instinctive Go-To responses when you most need them:
- Let your child know you are there for them and you won’t leave unless they need you to, and even then you will always be back
- Assure them that you see something is tough for them right now and you care, not matter how they feel towards you or themselves in that moment
- Tell them things can and will get better
- Reassure them that what they feel is always okay
- Discuss with them alternate ways to express their strong emotions
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
The ongoing aim is to seek ways to prevent your child from wanting to resort to an ‘I Hate You!’ event, and be better prepared to deal with it in the interim period while it gets phased out. Here are some more DOs to help us achieve that:
- Be vigilant for any subtle changes in your child’s emotional behaviors, and try to translate what’s going on for them before the ‘I Hate You!’ surfaces.
- Take few moments to reflect each week on how much connection you have enjoyed with your child in those 7 days. Often the bond can slip without us realizing it, as life gets in the way. Seek to arrest that decline, and resolve to make changes before things have a chance to escalate
- Make self-care a priority. Take time to explore the feelings YOU experience when your child has a strong emotional response to something. And love yourself through them.