Behavior & Discipline

What to Do When Your Child Says ‘I Hate You’—A Therapist Weighs In

when child says I hate you"
when child says I hate you
Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

The first time my 6-year-old son slammed his bedroom door and screamed, “I hate you!” I felt like he had slapped me in the face. I felt shocked, frustrated, and hurt by three little words.

As a person who grew up physically punished for stepping out of line, my instinctual reaction was not one I am proud of—I wanted to spank my child. But I am proud of how I actually handled the situation, taking a moment to step back and self-regulate. I know my parents did the best they could with the models of parenting they grew up with—but my husband and I are trying to parent in a healthier way.

When it comes to these highly emotional moments in parenting, it can be surprising how affected we can be when our child lashes out or says, “I hate you.” With insight from Marcella Moslow, LCSW, we’re sharing why kids might say those dreaded three words and what parents can do to foster a healthy relationship with their kiddos.

Meet the expert
Marcella Moslow, LCSW, RPT
Certified Trauma Therapist
Marcella Moscow is also an Approved EMDR consultant, Registered Play Therapist, and Host of the podcast Adoptees Dish on Spotify.

Why Might a Child Say “I Hate You”?

When we are hurt by our children, it can often feel like we are making some serious mistakes, but Moslow offered some thoughtful perspectives about why kids might say, “I hate you.”

They don’t know how to best express their emotions

Challenging behaviors are often a form of communication from our kids. For example, since my husband and I typically try our best to gentle parent, some of our discipline involves taking away screen time—which to a 6- and 7-year-old can seem like the end of the world. Instead of being able to understand their own frustration and disappointment with the consequences, their feelings can become really overwhelming, and they take that anger out on their parents—especially if we are their safe space.

Moslow added, “Typically when a child uses statements like ‘I hate you’ with a parent or caregiver it is a way to express emotion about how they feel about the limit that’s being set, and the use of statements like this can ebb and flow throughout stages of development. While it can be hard to hear for parents/caregivers, children do have a right to their feelings, and statements like this may indicate the child has not had practice with how to express these emotions in different ways.“

While [‘I hate you’] can be hard to hear for parents/caregivers, children do have a right to their feelings, and statements like this may indicate the child has not had practice with how to express these emotions in different ways.

I am a firm believer in therapy and healing generational trauma to help me become the best parent possible, and I can honestly say that it has helped me regulate my emotions during tense exchanges with my kids. Even if you do not struggle with mental health challenges, having a therapist on your team to confide in and bounce ideas off of can be a really helpful tool.

when your child says i hate you
Source: Canva

They’re testing boundaries

In talking to other parents about their children saying, “I hate you,” the phrase often seems to be a reaction to discipline or a punishment. Moslow shared, “Discipline within our society has become focused on compliance and parents exerting control, so naturally, this doesn’t feel great for kids and in various ways they will attempt to express their feelings about discipline tactics parents/caregivers are using. Society has also not taken into consideration that it is unrealistic to set a limit or boundary with a child (even an appropriate one) and expect them to readily accept it without question or without any emotion attached to it.”

It is unrealistic to set a limit or boundary with a child (even an appropriate one) and expect them to readily accept it without question or without any emotion attached to it.

They are modeling the behavior they see

Children can be heavily influenced by their peers and the media they consume. They may mimic behaviors they see or hear from friends, television shows, or social media platforms without fully understanding the consequences of their words. As a millennial mom who uses social media daily in her job, I can often become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and influence from social media content. This is one of the reasons why my children don’t currently have access to social media, YouTube, etc. But when it comes to television shows and learning from peers, it’s almost next to impossible to vet everything your child comes in contact with and learns from.

What I’ve found helpful is opening up a dialogue about friends and showing an interest in their favorite shows so I can keep up to date on any new developments and encourage better choices. As children get older, it can be less “cool” to listen to a parent or caregiver, but by surrounding them with healthy and responsible role models, they can learn less harmful ways to communicate their feelings and needs.

How can parents respond when their child says ‘I hate you’?

Don’t take it personally

Remember, don’t to take the behavior personally. Rather, be curious about the feelings behind the behavior, practice your own self-regulation, and remember it is normal for children to be upset with adults at times. It can be difficult for them to understand the logic of the punishment/consequences that they are facing so providing co-regulation, validation, and attunement are key.

Regulate your own emotions

“The concern is less about the fact that the child is expressing this and more about how parents/caregivers often become reactive in these moments and this can make the situation worse and perpetuates challenging dynamics between child and parent/caregiver,” said Moslow. “Parent/caregiver dysregulation often makes it difficult for them to be able to hold space for the child’s expressions and provide the needed co-regulation those moments require. If a parent/caregiver notices they struggle with comments like ‘I hate you’ and find themselves becoming reactive, they may want to seek additional support, first and foremost for the parent/caregiver and then additional support for the child if appropriate.”

when your child says i hate you
Source: Canva

Foster a positive parent/child relationship

Create a Safe Environment

Parents should strive to create a safe and non-judgmental environment where children feel comfortable expressing their emotions. Encourage open communication and actively listen to your child’s concerns without dismissing or belittling them.

Teach Emotional Regulation

Help your child develop healthy ways to manage and express their emotions. Encourage them to identify their feelings and find constructive outlets such as journaling, art, or physical activity.

Set Clear Boundaries

Establishing clear boundaries is essential for maintaining respect and understanding within the parent-child relationship. Be consistent with discipline while also allowing room for negotiation and compromise when appropriate.

Foster Independence

Encourage your child’s autonomy and decision-making skills by giving them age-appropriate responsibilities and opportunities to make choices. This fosters a sense of self-confidence and mutual respect in the parent-child dynamic.

Seek Professional Help if Needed

If your child’s expressions of hatred persist or are accompanied by concerning behaviors, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from a qualified mental health professional. Therapy can provide invaluable support and strategies for addressing underlying issues.

While hearing a child say they hate their parents can be painful, it’s essential for parents to approach such situations with understanding and empathy. By recognizing the underlying reasons behind these expressions and actively working to foster healthy communication and relationships, parents can navigate these challenging moments and help their children grow into emotionally resilient individuals. Through patience, empathy, and unconditional love, parents can build strong foundations for enduring bonds with their children.