It’s all about the long game to foster mental health.
Here’s a quiz: What emotions do you imagine a child is experiencing when they pronounce their hatred towards someone? Anger? Sadness? Fear? Shame?
Answer: Any or all of the above.
One of the toughest parts of parenting is managing emotions: your emotions, your kid’s emotions, and the emotions of those in the rest of the household. When your child screams "I hate you!" or "I hate X!" (whether X are siblings, teachers, or friends), it’s time to pause. Pausing instead of impulsively reacting opens a space for applying empathy and responding in a way that builds emotional health instead of undermining it.
Our goal is to raise children who become confident and calm adults with good mental health. Mental health is critically important. We want to help develop children who can meet the many emotional challenges of living a full life. Becoming emotionally healthy requires that we understand our emotions, rather than judge them. That is precisely why parents' response to I hate you, a common and normal sentiment expressed by children, must align with the science of emotions to support mental health. When we allow children to have their emotions, they feel validated and eventually calm down. When we don not allow emotions, they stay stuck in the body under a shroud of shame and anxiety.
What Not to Say
With the above in mind, here are two things not to say when your child says "I hate you!"
"You don’t hate!"
"How could you say such a terrible thing?"
These reactions send a message that a child isn’t safe to express their emotions. It also leaves a child alone to cope with big feelings.
Biologically, children are wired in such a way that they need the adults around them to help them with emotions, which are felt in the body and are scary and painful. As children grow into adults, if all goes well in childhood, they ultimately learn to regulate their own emotions. That's what we want as parents.
What to Try Instead
Here are examples of validating statements (said with a light-hearted or neutral tone):
"You must be pretty mad at me!"
"What’s the matter?"
"What did I do to make you so upset with me?"
Then try to just listen holding in your heart your love, compassion, and curiosity. If you want to respond once your child is finished sharing, try hard not to get defensive. Phrases like "I understand" and "I get it" help your child stay positively connected.
Validating words like I hate you is not the same as condoning destructive behaviors like hitting, punching, biting, or kicking. Behaviors that hurt others must be stopped immediately by removing a child from the scene with minimal force and a calm but firm tone. A parent might say, "It's OK to be angry, but it's not OK to hit (scream at, kick, bite, punch, etc.) others. I'll stay with you until you can calm down. Then we can go back to playing." Validating emotions doesn’t show your approval, it merely validates the inner world of the child which helps them feel seen and not alone with big scary feelings like anger, frustration, shame, and fear.
References: Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working The Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House