What to do when your child says, “I hate you!”

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

Remember that children are completely dependent upon their parents, both emotionally and physically, and any conflict between you and them threatens their critical lifeline. You are their whole world! Therefore when your child says “I hate you,” it means that he is suffering intensely and is truly desperate. It is precisely at that moment that he needs our support and understanding emotionally. It is very important that we don’t take it personally and react in an adversarial way.

What to do when your child says, "I hate you!"

mad child with chin on hands

Instead reflect, “I see you're really angry at me because of…” Give recognition to what’s bothering the child, and give him his right to be upset. When he screams “I hate you” he's really screaming, “My emotional needs are not being fulfilled! I am desperate for happiness and am dependent on you to provide it and you’re not doing your job!” The only way to prevent and resolve this is to fulfill those needs. Since they are completely dependent upon us, they become desperate if their needs are even slightly unfulfilled. Their desires are felt much more intensely than adults feel theirs, and it is very easy for children to feel deprived. Many items that seem to be frivolous desires or whims actually represent serious and deep emotional needs.

Fulfill their needs

Let's say a child is expressing an extremely strong desire to go swimming in the local pool, and that he hasn't been swimming in a long time. He may be angrily demanding that you take him there, and he says “I hate you” when you don’t. What he or she is saying is "My basic need for pleasure and happiness is going unfulfilled. I am desperate for the kind of joy that going to the pool provides. Going any longer without the need fulfilled is intolerable!” In such a case the child is not in any way being spoiled. He just needs us to swoop in and rescue him from his state of need. Taking him to the pool in such a case would be a tremendous expression of your love and would greatly deepen the bond between you and the child. It will do wonders for his emotional health, behavior and even his lifelong success. Never underestimate the power of performing acts of kindness towards our children! It is more important to do so to them than to strangers or even friends. If you absolutely cannot fulfill the child’s desire, you should try to offer a substitute which will satisfy him.

See my post: How to tell my child I can't buy him what he wants, here.

Let's say a child wants desperately to go to a social event, but it's too far or unsafe for her to travel by herself. It's well worth the effort to take her there and wait in the car, if at all possible. Consider it an investment in the emotional health of your child. Yes, children are very needy and we must constantly give and give. In the long run we get back much more than we give in the form of the satisfaction of seeing a healthy, well-adjusted, successful child. Never fear you're giving too much to your child and he or she is taking advantage of you, for by giving to them you're truly giving to yourself.

little girl with head on mother's lap

As parents it hurts us emotionally when a child says “I hate you,” but we should try to temporarily table our feelings and focus on the terrible anguish that the child must be going through at the moment. It can be helpful to say, “Even though you're feeling very angry at me I still love you.” Don't try to get the child to repress his or her feelings by saying, “Don't feel that way, you really don’t feel that way.” Rather you need to let the feelings flow. Never respond with attacks, discipline, or punishment, it will just make the problem worse. Say, “You must be really upset to say that, you must really be in anguish. I'm going to find out what's bothering you and I hope you feel better, please tell me what's bothering you?” Generally when a child says, "I hate you!" it's a sign that we need to suspect the parent is being too harsh and strict, and being more gentle and generous is usually the solution. Don't fear that by giving in to your child, he or she will learn to take advantage of you. See my post: How not to spoil your child, here.

As I've said before, we as parents need to wake up with the mantra of "How can I make my child's day pleasant" Don't feel that you are lowering yourself by being a "Servant” to your child because by fulfilling their needs you're actually elevating and ennobling yourself, developing your character traits and turning yourself into a lofty giver. Your children will love you so much for this! They will be dedicated to you for a lifetime. Children naturally feel great love for their parents, and by fulfilling their needs meticulously that love builds into an overflowing river.

Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse the rest of my interesting blog, the specialties on my website, or download one of my informative free reports. If you would like more guidance about what to do when your child says “I hate you” and seek a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!