What to Do When Your Child Says “I Hate You”…or Worse


I don’t take my son with me to Target anymore. It doesn’t matter how much groundwork I lay or how often I repeat, “We are not going to buy toys. We are not going to buy toys.” While he might show signs of understanding initially, the moment we cross the store’s threshold, the begging and negotiations ensue. And it just goes downhill from there.

Perhaps I could be a stronger parent, or more patient, or more something else I’m not. But sometimes I need a break from the kiddo — and if I have the option (I don’t always), I do my shopping alone.

Sunday afternoon I had finished some blissfully solo retail therapy, and was headed to the front of the store. I passed the elevator bay and noticed a girl of 6 or 7 whining to her father about something her Mom (who wasn’t there) had said or done differently than Dad — I couldn’t hear it all that well.

But as I passed to the other side of the elevator, I clearly heard the daughter exclaim — rather loudly,
“Dad, you’re worthless!”

I felt and thought several things, all in rapid, overlapping succession:

What an asshole!

Poor dad…

I wonder where she heard that?!

Wow, Mom must be the Queen of the Shrews.

My kid would never say something so hateful…

…except that he did. Not too long ago.

Yeah, but what he said wasn’t as bad as this girl. She was obviously repeating something she’d heard, and my kid was just blowing off steam.

Then, finally:

Dude, stop being such a judgy butt. Kids say horribly crappy things to their parents sometimes.

Yes, it’s true. Kids not only say the darndest things… on occasion they spew some mean, crazy shit — most of the time directed at those that love them most.

The most recent verbal barb from my cherub?
“I’m going to hate you ‘till you die!”

A classic, with a twist! And it wasn’t the first time he’s said it.

How did I respond? How should you?

Disclaimer: Before I answer, I need to point out that I rarely give parenting advice on this blog. That’s because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing most of the time, and am suspect of those that claim to.

Fact is, I yelled at my 5-year-old between drafts of this post. I felt horribly guilty and hypocritical, and considered not finishing it. But you know what? I want to keep trying to do better, and I’m sure there are one or two folks out there who can relate… so I soldier on.


Based on my too frequent experience, my too frequent mistakes, and a wee bit of success, here is what I’ve learned:

Don’t escalate.
You’re whole life — up until you became a parent — if someone screamed at you, the natural reaction was to scream back. Ironically, the rules of nature often do not apply to parenting. You may think you can win this, but you’d be wrong. Even if you were to somehow out-shout, out-pout, and out-meltdown your kid, I can guarantee when all was said and done, you’d still feel like a pile of crap.

Don’t tell them you love them. It might seem like you’re countering with the opposite emotion, but it in fact has the reverse effect. It shuts them down, makes them think you’re mocking them or trying to shame them. Or it says to them, “I didn’t hear you, please scream again, but louder this time.”

Don’t take it personally. They don’t hate you. They hate something, but it’s not you. They hate not having any control over their circumstances or other people or all the things they’re not tall enough to reach yet. By taking it personally you put yourself on their level, and makes you their peer. They don’t need a peer, they need a parent — one who’s tough enough to take all the rage and frustration they can muster, and then guide them back to sanity.

Do listen and connect.
Coax them into using their words by saying back to them what they’re trying to express. “Are you mad because I told you it was time for your bath?” “I see that you’re really angry, and that upsets me. Can we talk about it?” And connect physically as well as emotionally. A hand on the back or shoulder reassures them you’re not going anywhere, and that they can trust you with all this wacky emotion.

Do let them know words have power. While you shouldn’t take their words personally, you should communicate how hurtful their words are. A response like, “How would you feel if your best friend told you he hated you?” not only teaches them the impact of their words, but a sense of empathy and compassion.

Do tickle them until they toot. If they’re still in a rage, or a funk, or under a storm cloud of grump, make ‘em laugh. Find their tickle spot and let loose; give them a zerbert; sing that “Whip/Nae Nae” song really loud; say the word “butt.” Distraction and redirection are a parent’s two most handy tools.

And if all else fails…

Do take a time out. Both of you, if necessary. This is actually what I did in the recent scenario between my son and I. He had whined until it wore me down, I engaged by yelling at him, and I felt us both getting to our boiling points. So I put him in his room to chill out, and I walked outside to breathe in some cool air.

After a few minutes, I went and sat on his bed, put my arm around him to connect, and we listened to one another. I apologized for yelling, but also explained why his whining was not acceptable. Then I tickled him until he tooted.


How did you react? Share your experiences, mistakes, and wisdom in the comments — it takes a village, folks.

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A few seconds after “Dad, you’re worthless!” finished echoing through the store, I glanced back to see if Target Dad was dragging his girl kicking and screaming from the store, or maybe hunkered down doing the embarrassed parent whisper/threat. He was doing neither. From what I could tell, he was unfazed…but I only looked for a second. He needed his privacy, as much as could be afforded in the middle of a crowded, cavernous box store.

I’m not sure what happened to Target Dad after that, or what advice I would give him if he asked. I do give him props for not losing his cool or taking his daughter’s spiteful bait. Maybe he’s divorced and his daughter is going through some major turmoil. Maybe his soul was already crushed, so he didn’t have the will to reply. Or maybe he doesn’t care about appearances, and knew engaging would only ratchet things up. Whatever the case, Target Dad was in the trenches, braving public interaction with his unpredictable kid. There’s definitely some worth in that.

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