February may be the month in which we celebrate love, but it doesn’t stop our little cherubs from having the occasional meltdown and uttering those three little words we don’t long to hear: “I hate you!” Rebecca Schrag Hershberg offers some calming words of wisdom on how to – and how not to respond – when your child really lets you have it…

When client after client walks into my office, telling stories of how their three, four, five or six-year-old looks them straight in the eye and yells: “I hate you!”, or “I want Daddy not you!”, or “I wish I had another Mummy!”, invariably, they look defeated, crushed, sad, sometimes angry, often a mix. “What is the correct reaction to that?” they ask. “What am I supposed to say back?”

First of all, there’s no ‘correct reaction’ to anything. You react how you react, and, it’s not so much about right or wrong, but more about one choice point in time, from which there’s always an opportunity to course-correct. That said, understanding our kids – and why they say what they say, even when it’s hurtful, infuriating, or both – is always helpful.

“Understanding our kids – and why they say what they say, even when it’s hurtful, infuriating, or both – is always helpful.”

When young children make these declarations, they are expressing their emotions –typically anger and frustration – in a manner that is, for the most part, developmentally appropriate. And I feel tremendously strongly that the expression of emotion is something to be encouraged, rather than suppressed. When my own sons are teenagers I want them to tell me when they’re angry, especially when it’s directed at me, and for us to be able to talk it out, even if it’s uncomfortable. After all, especially for boys, there are known risks associated with emotion suppression. Many times though in these moments, parents with the best of intentions end up responding in a way that not only doesn’t lay this groundwork, but also ends up making things worse, not better.

“Don’t you ever speak to me that way again, young lady!” sounds strong and firm, sure, but I can almost guarantee that this type of reaction will escalate rather than defuse the situation. Bringing up respect, or manners – the way our kids speak to us – at the exact moment that everyone’s emotions are running high just isn’t going to work. Revisit? Sure. Later.

“That really hurts my feelings.” Sure, there’s some truth in this. But it also gives our children’s feelings a lot of (I’d argue too much) power, implying that they are somehow dangerous, and you are too fragile to handle them. Children are not responsible for suppressing their emotions in order to protect those of their parents; that’s an unhealthy role reversal with various negative outcomes. Are they responsible for learning to share their feelings politely and respectfully? Yes. Over time. Have realistic developmental expectations and think more globally about how to teach them those skills.

“No, you don’t.” This is invalidating, which is a therapist-y way of saying that no one likes to be told their feelings aren’t real. It actually feels really lousy. He does feel that way – hating you, preferring Mum, whatever—in that moment, and for young children who lack a sense of space and time, that moment is all that exists.

“We only use kind words in our family.” This is aspirational… but not the way humans work. It’s critical to be able to express less-than-kind feelings in even the closest family, and, when you’re little, one way to do this is by using less-than-kind words. If parents model better skills for coping with conflict or difficult feelings, children will learn to do that as well. Just not by age four. Or five. Or maybe even 35. Furthermore, when we say things like “We do (or do not) do X in our family” immediately after our child has done the opposite, we run the risk of implying that our child is not in our family. Which, not surprisingly, will only turn a bad interaction worse.

“Hate is a bad word” or “We don’t believe in hate”. I have never understood this, to be honest, and I know I may be putting some people (schools, organisations) off, as I’ve heard this a lot recently. What’s not to believe in? Hate exists. It’s on the continuum of emotion – opposite of love, a more extreme version of dislike. In my opinion, it’s okay to feel hate, primarily because we don’t have control over this, the same way we don’t have control over a lot of the emotions we experience. I hate fennel. I hate what’s happening to our democracy. Also, I really hate fennel. How is saying we “don’t believe in hate” any different from saying we “don’t believe in love”?  Hate is a strong word, sure, but why do we fear that? Certain words hold an enormous amount of power and are 100 percent not okay (think: racial slurs). But hate? Kids need to be able to name the strong emotions they feel and to accept, rather than fear and suppress them. Their context for hate is different from ours. We think about how much hate there is the world, how toxic things have become. They don’t. Kids are divorced from that context; let’s not bring them into it before we need to.

So then, how can we aspire to respond in these trying moments?

As usual (sigh), the first work is internal:

  1. Stay regulated. Breathe. Go into another room for a minute if you need to (and can, from a safety perspective).
  2. Q-TIP. Quit Taking It Personally.I didn’t make it up, but rarely have I discovered an acronym that holds so much universal value.
  3. Remember: your child wouldn’t say these things to you, wouldn’t express his strong and difficult feelings, if he didn’t feel safe, know you could handle them, and trust in the unconditional nature of your love. Might it be better if your child feared you then, even just a little bit? The answer is no, but it’s an understandable and valid question.

Only then can we shift the focus to our outward response. We’re the parents, the grown-ups in the room, and so it’s on us to teach our little ones emotional words  – mad, angry, frustrated – as well as to help them label and make sense of their internal experiences so that over time they learn to do so themselves:

“You are mad! You really don’t want to put your toys away!”

“You really thought you were going to be able to watch one more show, and I said no. That stinks, and so you feel really disappointed, huh?”

By responding in this way, you’re showing your child how to create a narrative around, and therefore understand and accept, her emotional experience. You’re not allowing your own hurt or anger to rise to the surface or to dictate your response in a counterproductive way. But at the same time, you’re also continuing to set the limit that prompted your child’s reaction in the first place.

Maybe later, when cooler minds prevail, you and your child can have a repair, during which you talk about the fact that it’s possible we can love a person  – and still feel angry at them at the exact same time. Because we can. I promise.

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg PhD is a clinical psychologist and founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services, which specialises in helping kids and parents confront a range of common early childhood challenges. She lives in the New York City area with her husband and two young sons. 

Nadia Duncan

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