Family, Kids & Relationships

How to respond if your child says “I hate you” — or acts like they do

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“My son or daughter hates me.” “What did I do to make my child hate me?” Have you ever had a thought like that as a parent? Or maybe even typed it into a Google search bar?

At any age between 2 and 20, your child might say “I hate you,” or might act like they do. While this can be incredibly painful to hear or experience, your job as a parent is to get curious about what’s really going on. Because chances are, your child doesn’t hate you at all — but they might need your support.

If you find yourself taking a child’s “hateful” behavior personally, you’re not alone. Parents are often already stressed and overwhelmed, and when kids test your limits, it can multiply those difficult feelings. Be sure to seek out help if you are suffering from parenting burnout.

Here’s what to do in the moment if your child is acting like they hate you — or screaming it:

  • Take some deep breaths
  • Remind yourself it’s not a personal attack
  • Don’t attempt to respond until you’re feeling calm and regulated

Follow this age-by-age guide to respond in a way that is appropriate for your child’s developmental stage:

When toddlers say or act like they hate you

Toddlers are infamous for many kinds of difficult behavior, which could include screaming, hitting, biting, kicking, laughing at you, and often doing the opposite of what you say. The good (?) news is that it’s all developmentally appropriate. Toddlers are constantly testing limits, because they want to learn about the world around them.

If a toddler says “I hate you” or yells some insulting or inappropriate words at you, the best thing to do is ignore the words altogether — don’t respond or react. At this age, they are just testing those words out, and the more attention (positive or negative) you give them, the more likely they are to try saying them again. They very likely don’t know what “bad words” mean, and don’t really need to know yet.

When a toddler hits or bites you, it’s also important to stay calm and avoid having a big reaction. A big reaction will just lead to them trying the behavior again. Tell them in a neutral tone, “Let’s not hit. Hitting hurts.” Then, be sure you are modeling appropriate responses to anger in your everyday life, and giving them alternatives to hitting or biting. Be patient — the hitting phase can seem to take a while to pass, but rest assured that it is an extremely common phase in toddlers.

When big kids say they hate you

Elementary school-aged kids have a better idea of what “I hate you” means. They are lashing out, and perhaps trying to hurt you with those words.

However, this is all perfectly normal. Kids are still working on their emotional coping skills, and “I hate you” or a similar phrase might be the only way they can think of to express how they’re feeling in the moment.

Again, the best strategy is to not have a big reaction or try to lecture them in any way. The calmer you stay, the sooner they will be able to let go of saying “I hate you” when they’re angry. You may choose to respond with something like, “I love you, just like always,” but avoid getting into a back-and-forth argument about it.

Stay curious and see if you can find out the reason they’re saying that they hate you. Usually it really means, “I’m annoyed that you won’t let me do X,” “I’m angry that you don’t understand me,” or simply, “I’m having a hard time.”

Even if you don’t know why they’re acting a certain way, you can still say something that shows you care, such as, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time” or “It sounds like you’re really frustrated right now.”

Continue to use emotion words in everyday life, and model appropriate ways to express anger and frustration. Print out an Anger Thermometer so you can actively work on identifying feelings and using emotional coping skills. It’s a gradual process, so have patience!

When tweens and teens say they hate you

When older kids say “I hate you” or other spiteful phrases, it might hurt even more because it feels more real. However, it’s important to try not to take their words personally. Remember that teens and tweens are going through a lot of developmental changes that can make them moody and irritable.

Plus, adolescents still typically aren’t great at using logical problem-solving skills while feeling strong emotions. Their emotions hijack their brain, and they may say or do something counterproductive as a result.

So try your best to keep a cool head. Even if it seems like they’re being really mean or selfish, resist the urge to say something mean in return! (Although, if you do, all hope is not lost. It helps to make a genuine apology after you’ve calmed down, be honest about what set you off, and work to repair things.)

With teens and tweens, your main goal is to be a great listener and not to judge them or their actions. You want them to keep talking, even if they’re saying hurtful or upsetting things, because then you might learn more about what they’re actually struggling with.

Even if you’re not happy about the words they used or choices they made, it’s helpful to validate the emotions behind the outburst. You can say, “It sounds like you’re really upset” or “I know this is really important to you.”

You may need to give yourself and your teen some time to cool down before you can have a conversation. Simply tell them that you’ll be there to listen when they’re ready, and that you’ll check in with them later.

In some situations and depending on your child’s personality, humor might help diffuse the tension and give you both time to think. Just be sure not to make fun of them or brush aside their feelings. You could say, “Well, I really hate these itchy socks. I need to change, and then we can have a calm conversation about what’s going on.”

After dealing with an emotionally charged situation with your child, be sure to give yourself some time alone to let off steam and take care of yourself. Write in a journal, go for a walk, take a shower, or prepare yourself a food or drink that helps you recharge.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.