What To Do When Your Child Says, “I Hate You!”

Hint: It’s the opposite of what you think

child shouting into microphone
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

“I hate you!”

My heart sank as my son uttered the phrase that every parent hates to hear. “I hate you!” This is a child’s equivalent of the f-bomb, a phrase dropped for maximum impact. Words aimed with precision right at a parent’s heart.

“I hate you!” my son shouted again. Then, he burst into tears.

What causes a child to say, “I hate you”?

Toddlers or young children say, “I hate you” when they’re frustrated or deeply disappointed. Young children don’t really mean it in the full sense of the word. They’re just expressing their inability to handle strong feelings.

“What they mean,” says Jeanne L. Williams, an Edmonton-based psychologist, “is, ‘I can’t handle this situation, and I don’t have the skills to respond in a more mature way.’”

Jeanne L. Williams

In my case, my son said, “I hate you” because I tried to help him with his bath. He wanted to bathe himself independently. Since knew how to shampoo his hair and wash his body, I let him.

Ten minutes later, I popped in to check on him. I found him standing in a pool of water in the middle of the floor with a towel draped over his shoulders. Why wasn’t he standing on the bath mat?

Then, I noticed some shampoo still in his hair. He hadn’t washed it all off. He’d missed a little bit right above his forehead.

“William, you didn’t quite get all the shampoo out of your hair. If you get back into the bathtub, I’ll help you wash it out.”

“Go away!” he shouted. “I want to do it myself.” He was hysterical at this point. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

“I know,” I replied calmly, “but you need to get all the shampoo out of your hair before school pictures tomorrow. I’m happy to help you.”

“I hate you!” he cried. “Go away! I hate you!” Then, he tried to push me away and I lost my temper.

I overreact

Frustrated, I made my son get back into the bath to wash the shampoo out of his hair. Then, I sent him to his room for a time out.

Still hurt and not convinced I handled the situation very well, I got online to see what the experts had to say about the subject.

I googled ‘what to do when your child says, “I hate you”‘ and found an excellent post. My son’s timeout gave me a chance to read the article and calm down.

Step 1: Focus on what is making your child upset

Jeanne Williams, a Canadian psychologist, suggests looking at this as a ‘downstream problem.’ “Think of a flowing river. The event that precipitated it is upstream. If you dwell on what happens downstream, like taking away privileges, the issue upstream will just keep flowing.”

If we seek the true reason for the outburst, we can address the root cause of the issue.

I felt better when I read that because I knew the true cause of my son’s outburst. He was disappointed he couldn’t surprise me by doing everything himself.

Just that morning my son had done all of his jobs independently. I made a big deal out of it because he was making progress toward getting ready by himself. I was proud of him.

My son was seeking the same positive reaction again and I spoiled it by coming into the bathroom too soon.

When I had a chance to calm down I understood exactly why my son was so upset. I had stolen his joy. He had wanted to surprise me. He was anticipating a proud, happy reaction. Instead, I’d ruined his surprise and had even been displeased with him.

Step 2: Respond with love

Natasha Daniels, a clinical social worker at Hill Child Counseling in Arizona, says, “It sounds counterintuitive, but the best way to counteract ‘I hate you’ is to say, ‘Well, I love you.’” A negative reaction will give the child the power they seek. If we respond in the opposite manner, we will take the power out of our child’s words and model the behavior we wish to see.

So, what did I do after researching the issue?

I knocked on my son’s door and found him lying naked on his bed, sobbing. I gave him a big hug and told him I loved him. I then said I understood why he was so upset. I had stolen his joy and ruined his surprise. He continued to sob quietly.

I apologized to my son and explained that I just wanted his hair to look nice for school pictures. Then, I told him how proud I was that he was becoming so independent.

I said that I would always love him and want to help him because I’m his mom.

My son and I cuddled for a moment and then I helped him get dressed.

The Takeaway

I now know to downplay the dreaded phrase, “I hate you” and to respond with an “I love you” instead. It’s more important to look for the cause of the outburst and address this than to focus on the child’s emotional outburst. If we give too much importance to the phrase “I hate you” it will only encourage our children to say it more often.

Hopefully, if I keep responding with love and stop making a big deal out of “I hate you” my son will drop it from his repertoire. I’ll just have to be ready for its replacement. Thank goodness for the internet!

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The Best Picture Book For Encouraging Kindness In Kids

Using the 5 R’s with the picture book, “Have You Filled A Bucket Today?” to raise kind kids

How to use the 5 R’s with the picture book “Have You Filled A Bucket Today?” to teach kindness.

Last week, I read a post from a frustrated mom whose older son refused to share toys with his younger brother. She tried every way she could think of to get him to share, but he refused to cooperate. She was looking for advice and picture book recommendations. There were several helpful responses on the message board, but not one mentioned my absolute favorite picture book for encouraging kindness, “Have You Filled A Bucket Today?

Amazed that no one recommended this classic picture book, I decided to write a blog post about it. Every parent should have this book in his/her home library. Reading it has made a dramatic difference in how my sons treat each other. Of course they still argue and tell on each other, but they also come to me whenever one of them does something kind for the other. This warms my heart.

Our Role As Parents

One of our most important roles as parents is to help our children develop empathy. We must encourage them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others. Very young children only think about themselves. In fact, in an amusing analogy in the book, “The Happiest Toddler On The Block,” Dr. Harvey Karp likens toddlers to little cavemen.

“Our Stone Age ancestors were opinionated, tenacious, and not very verbal. They bit each other when angry, made a mess when eating and hated waiting their turn. They were stubborn, distractible, and impatient…sound like someone you know?”

This analogy perfectly describes the behavior of toddlers. Children at this age are still in a state of extreme egocentrism.

The Swiss psychologist and biologist, Jean Piaget first “traced the development of cognition in children as they move out of a state of extreme egocentrism and come to recognize that other people have separate perspectives.” 

Encyclopaedia Britannica

It is up to us, as parents, to help this process along as we try to turn our little cavemen and cavewomen into civilized beings. We must encourage them to shift their focus from self to others. Furthermore, we must adopt strategies to teach empathy and promote kindness.

As a former elementary school teacher, I love to use picture books to help teach my children important life lessons. I apply the 5 R’s to this process: Read, Revisit, Reinforce, Remind, and Reflect. Today I will show you how I have used the 5 R’s with the book, “Have You Filled A Bucket Today?” to encourage kindness.

Use the 5 R’s with the book “Have You Filled A Bucket Today?” to Raise Kind Kids

1. Read

Request “Have You Filled A Bucket Today?” from the local library or buy your own copy. You may want to purchase this one so you can return to it often. Read it to your children and prepare yourself for their questions.

The first time I read this story to my 4-year-old, he looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face. “But where is your bucket, Mommy?” he asked. “I don’t see it.” 

I explained that my bucket is invisible, but whenever my son does something kind and loving, he fills my bucket and this makes me feel good.

This book has great specific examples of things to say or do to fill other people’s buckets such as smiling at a bus driver, inviting the new kid to play with you, writing a thank-you note to your teacher, or telling your grandpa that you like spending time with him. It also explains that by filling other people’s buckets, we fill our own buckets as well. Our kind actions make us feel good inside.

I started this book with a special focus on my sons. Why? Kindness starts at home and I want my boys to develop the kind of relationship where I know they will be there for each other in the future. My sister and I share this special sibling bond and I know that we can turn to each other no matter what happens in either one of our lives. When I encourage my sons to share the times they are kind and helpful to each other, I know these memories will stay with them. Encouraging them to fill each other’s buckets will nurture this special sibling bond.

2.  Revisit

Revisit this book often. You may want to focus on certain sections when issues arise. If your child is teased or ignored by friends at school, read the bucket dipping part of the book. Maybe your child is the one doing the teasing. Help him understand the idea of bucket dipping and how it hurs others. So, what is bucket dipping exactly?

“You dip into a bucket when you make fun of someone, when you say or do mean things, or even when you ignore someone.”

Have You Filled A Bucket Today by Carol MacCloud

When you talk about bucket dipping using the pictures from this book, you give your child a concrete vision of how hurtful behavior leaves someone feeling. Unkind actions leave buckets empty and make people sad. This section might also provide a useful starting point for a heart-to-heart discussion about bullying. Concrete images are far more powerful for children than words.

3. Reinforce

Show your children how to fill buckets by smiling at store clerks, food servers, and community helpers. Point out when Daddy fills Mommy’s bucket by filling up the gas tank in her car or when Mommy fills Daddy’s bucket by making him a cup of tea (especially if he is British). Modeling kindness is far more effective than simply telling your children how to behave kindly. When you do kind things for others in front of your children you are showing them how to act.

Reinforce the types of behavior you wish to see more of in your children. When they follow instructions, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, or get ready for school on time, make a big deal out of it. Explain that they are filling your bucket. Watch the smile spread across their face.

4. Remind

Each morning, think aloud and share ideas of how you might fill the buckets of your friends and colleagues. Then, brainstorm ways your children might fill the buckets of people they encounter during the day. Tell them you will all have the opportunity to share and celebrate your kind actions that night.

5. Reflect

At dinner or before bed celebrate the day’s bucket filling. I might say:

“Mommy filled Sandra’s bucket today by offering to hold her baby so she  could get some work done.”

Encourage your children to articulate their own kind actions by asking the following questions:

“Did you fill anyone’s bucket at school today?”

“How did that make you feel?”

“How did your kind actions make your friend feel?”

Give your child a big hug and tell them how much you love it when they fill other people’s buckets.

Help Your Children Become Kind, Caring People

If you read, revisit, reinforce, remind and reflect on bucket filling you will be well on your way to helping your children become kind, caring people.

Of course you will still hear things like, “Mommy, Ollie pushed me!”

But you may also hear, “Mommy, William filled my bucket today when he shared his dinosaur activity book with me.”

Not to be left out of the bucket filling action, watch William smile and add, “And Ollie filled my bucket when he hugged me.”

It is interactions like these that make the parenting journey worthwhile.

So, what can you do to fill someone’s bucket right now?

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