“I hate you!” At some point in our parenting journey, we will hear these three words, and it won't happen during their teen years. You'll probably hear it when they're 5 years old, but she doesn’t mean “hate” in the way that grown-ups do — she’s simply not old enough yet.
Your 5-year-old kids can coherently tell you the kind of noodles they want for spaghetti to the color of the socks they "feel" like wearing every Tuesday. But when they say “I hate you” they're angry, but they don’t have the vocabulary yet to express what they really think and feel.
“They do not know how to tell you, 'I feel very angry because you will not let me go to the park.' Instead, they blurt out, 'I hate you,'” explained Meri Wallace, a parenting expert and child and family therapist, in an article in Psychology Today.
Keep in mind as well that young children’s emotions are all-encompassing, said Becky Bailey, a developmental psychologist and early childhood education specialist, in a column for BabyCenter. In other words “when things are good, they're very good, and your preschooler adores you. But when things don't go her way, she feels that life is bad, that you're bad — and that she hates you,” explained Bailey.
And yes, sometimes the goal is to hurt mom or dad because your preschooler understands those three words can sting. “As they grow, and develop their verbal skills, they discover that language can give them power. Other kids will say, 'I hate you' to them, and it has a devastating effect. It makes them feel unwanted and powerless. They then repeat these words to others to gain a feeling of power,” said Wallace.
Even so, keep your cool. It's a parent's job to handle emotionally charged situations in a constructive manner. There's a way to deal with this in a way that will help your child grow.
First, try not to take it personally and avoid responding in the same manner. The situation can definitely upset any parent, and it’s way too easy to snap back. But, remain calm. “Remind yourself that your preschooler's behavior is normal, and in no way indicates how she really feels about you,” Bailey.
When you react negatively, “You're teaching her that she can push your buttons, and this gives her too much emotional control,” Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too, told Parenting. What’s more, getting angry back sends your child the message that communicating her feelings isn’t acceptable.
Instead, tell him how words can hurt. “Educate your child about the effect of his words. You can explain that hate is a word that hurts peoples' feelings. Remind him of the times when someone used these words with him and talk about how he felt,” said Wallace.
The key is not to focus on the words, but the feelings that fuel them. Acknowledge your child’s anger, find the possible reason why he’s angry, and tell him what he can do the next time he’s upset as opposed to saying, “I hate you.”
Here’s a sample script from Wallace: “I can see that you're very angry. I said you couldn't go on a sleepover tonight and you got angry. When you're angry, say, 'I'm angry,' and I will help you.” In this scenario, you're telling her she can't sleep over at her friend's house, but you're also saying it isn't a situation that's closed forever to her. You want to talk about it first.