How to Respond When Your Child Says “I Hate You"

Tween saying "I hate you" to their parent

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Very few words can feel as deflating or upsetting as hearing "I hate you" from your own child. If this has happened to you, take heart. You're not alone and know that even though your child said it, it doesn't really mean they hate you. Instead, it often signals that they're mad, sad, embarrassed, confused, or upset in some other way. They just don't know how else to talk about those feelings.

Your child saying they hate you doesn't mean that you're a bad parent—or that they're a bad kid—either, says Andy Brimhall, PhD, LMFT, and professor of human development and family science at East Carolina University. Even the most loving, sweetest children sometimes say hurtful words like "I hate you" to their parents.

"It can be really hard to hear your child use these words," says Lindsey Polishook Sherer, LCSW-C LICSW. "The most important thing to remember is, they do not mean it in the same way that we as adults might use the word." Instead, they are likely attempting to share their feelings the best they know how. "By using the strong word, they are able to communicate the size of the feelings they have," explains Sherer.

In some households, "I hate you" may be said rarely; in others, it may be a regular occurrence. In more contentious parent-child relationships, frequent arguments may result in the hate word being freely thrown about. Regardless of its frequency, it's hard to hear and can be quite distressing for both parent and child. Learn why your child may say "I hate you" and how to respond.

Why Kids Say "I Hate You"

There are many different reasons that I child might say "I hate you" to their parent," says child development specialist Siggie Cohen, PhD. There are also endless scenarios in which this dreaded phrase may be said. But the common thread is that your child is communicating that they feel strong emotions that they need help learning how to effectively process.

"'I hate you' has become one of the most obvious ways in which kids project strong, reactive, and painful emotions of anger, frustration, and disappointment, outwardly aiming to 'hurt' their parents with such bold statement in order to cause them that same 'pain' they are feeling inside," explains Dr. Cohen.

Often this situation comes up when a parent sets a limit, such as taking away a privilege or saying "no" to something. Some kids say "I hate you" as a way to deflect their underlying feelings. They may feel bad about themselves or something they did, but instead of expressing that, they turn their negative feelings on their parent, explains Dr. Brimhall.

Alternatively, a toddler or preschooler may have heard older kids saying "I hate you" and is simply playing around with repeating the phrase. If kids get a big reaction from "I hate you," they may be inclined to keep saying it, just to elicit attention. This is why overreacting or punishing your child for saying it may backfire, encouraging them to say it more rather than less.

One way to think of (and explain) why your child might say "I hate you," is to think of their feelings as water in a tea kettle, says Dr. Brimhall. When the water's too hot, the kettle sings—and is too hot to handle. And it takes time for the water to get back to room temperature. When their water is too hot, explains Dr. Brimhall, they can't think clearly as they are in fight or flight mode. This is why they may reflexively use the hate word to "protect" themselves from their vulnerable feelings.

It's important to note that the fact that it comes up doesn't mean you failed as a parent, says Dr. Brimhall. In fact, how you respond is where you can really shine.

Rachael Lucille, a mother of two and stepmother to one, all kids 10 and under, says of being told "I hate you" by one of the kids: "It’s not often but it does happen!"

"Usually the 'I hate you' is in response to something I’ve told them they need to do or can’t do," she says. It's hard to hear, but she makes a point not to police their feelings. "I try not to tell them how to feel," explains Lucille. Instead, she aims to validate their emotions and encourages them to share what's on their minds, but in a respectful, rather than hurtful, way.

Really what is at issue is communication and emotional regulation, says Dr. Brimhall. Your child simply needs to learn more productive, thoughtful ways to share their feelings, give themselves breaks, respect boundaries, get their needs met, consider your feelings, and think about what they're saying before they say it.

How to Respond When Kids Say "I Hate You"

Hearing "I hate you" from anyone is hard, especially your own children. "No matter the age of the child, parents should not take this statement personally," says Dr. Cohen.

Aim not to react with your own emotions or be defensive, punitive, guilting, or shaming, suggests Dr. Cohen. "Instead, the main objective is to reflect back to their child the actual underlying emotion they are feeling, using empathy and understanding as well as firm boundary setting."

It's also key to let them—and you—calm down before trying to get to the heart of what's going on.

"Take a beat before doing or saying anything and try to gauge how emotionally charged you are feeling," recommends Sherer. Know that it's fine to not respond right away, particularly if you need time and space to compose yourself. "It's a perfect opportunity to model how we can stay calm and use coping strategies rather than impulsively reacting to others," advises Sherer.

Additionally, it's important to tailor your response to your child's age and temperament. "Some kids are naturally more 'feisty' and confrontational, that’s OK," says Dr. Cohen. You're not doing anything wrong and neither are they. "You can’t change your child’s nature, you must guide them to make the most of who they naturally are." 

Toddlers

While isn't less common for toddlers age 18 months to age 3 to say "I hate you," some do. In these cases, Dr. Cohen suggests saying something like: "'It sounds like you are VERY angry. Uh uh, no. You can’t say 'I hate you,' but you can say, 'I am angry!' You can even say that with a big voice. Go ahead. Say, 'Mommy/Daddy, I am so angry/frustrated/disappointed right now!'"

Then, after the child has expressed their emotion, you can say: "I know. I’m sorry. Sometimes, we feel this way.” 

Preschoolers

For children aged 3 to 6, you'll want to take a similar approach. However, says Dr. Cohen, you can get a bit deeper into the emotions behind their words. Essentially, you want to help them learn to express and cope with their feelings in a positive manner.

Dr. Cohen recommends responding with: "'Whoa, no, you don’t hate me. But yes, I can tell you are VERY angry right now. Yes, I understand that right now your anger is soooo big, soooo huge that it feels like hate. Still, no saying, 'I hate you.' But go ahead and tell me how angry you are.'"

Note that some kids may insist they actually do hate you. In these cases, advises Dr. Cohen, "Stay calm and collected and know these responses are not about you, but about your child who needs guidance not reprimanding."

Continue the conversation by saying: "'It’s OK to share these kinds of feelings with me. I’m sorry you are feeling this way. I hope this feeling goes away soon. Actually, I think this feeling will go away soon. You can let me know when.'”  

Regardless of exactly why your child is saying “I hate you," ultimately they are trying to communicate big feelings with these words. "Showing your child that you see that and want to help is a great first step," says Sherer.

Elementary Age

School-age kids, from about 7 to 11, may use "I hate you" as a way to push their parents' buttons and in response to all of the control adults have over their lives, says Dr. Cohen. "Their 'I hate you' can be a general representation of many more things they are 'hating' at this point, so it needs to be addressed more specifically." Examples include needing to do homework, chores, brushing teeth and hair, or getting to school on time.

Dr. Cohen's suggestions on how to respond include:

"'No, I’m sorry. You may not speak this way to me. But let’s try to calm down first and then get to the bottom of what is going on. I can tell you are feeling very stressed, angry, overwhelmed. I can imagine a lot is going on and it’s making you feel such strong emotions inside, emotions of 'hate.' Like you probably feel you hate everything, all the things you need to do and all the stuff 'we' [parents and teachers[ make you do. It’s hard. I know.'"

Once your child has calmed down, continue with:

"'Hating me or using those words to express your anger is not going to help you fix how you’re feeling. It may make you feel 'good' in the moment of saying it, but not later. You will likely feel regret, feel sorry, feel bad. That doesn’t feel good. So, no saying that. But let’s talk about all the stress you feel...'"

Then, aim to discuss what is at the root of their frustrations. Whether it's having to brush their teeth twice a day, cleaning their room, or wanting to play video games and not having enough time, honor your child's feelings. Then say:

"'There is a lot going in your life and I can understand how sometimes you just want nothing to do with any of it, like 'Give me a break!' Right?'"

"At this point, parents need to not fix any of this for their kids, not even take any of the tasks off the table," says Dr. Cohen. Instead, provide emotional support to their feelings and teach them to compartmentalize tasks and emotions. "A shift in mindset and a clearer outlook are usually the best tools to help us all destress and feel supported. It’s not usually the tasks that are difficult, it’s the emotional resistance to do them that piles up and hinders the ability to get through them."

Middle and High Schoolers

For tweens and teens, you can acknowledge that it's normal for older kids to sometimes feel in conflict with their parents, says Dr. Cohen. This is an expected stage of life as your child matures and becomes more independent.

Start with: "'No, you don’t hate me. But I know that at times we don’t see eye to eye or it feels I am in your way or that I don’t understand. You’re right, I don’t always understand, but I want to. Sometimes, I am in your way, simply because I am still raising you. It’s OK if you don’t always agree with me. My job is not for us to agree on everything but to hopefully provide you with what you need for a few more years until you’ll take care of yourself all on your own.'"

Then, explore what it is that they are upset about. Continue with:

"'I get that you’re angry but hate is not the way to label that or express that. I want us to be able to discuss our differences and even teach each other things. I also want to hear what you have to say. So, no more saying, 'I hate you," regardless of how angry, frustrated, or stressed you feel. From now on, you will just tell me about your feelings and I will listen.'"

"The more parents can try to relate to their child’s point of view and remain calm, in charge, and set clear boundaries, the better they can guide their child out of their emotional chaos," advises Dr. Cohen.

Other Tips

While the temptation can be hard to resist, in the heat of the moment, avoid shaming, ignoring, or saying "I hate you" back to your child, says Dr. Brinhall. If you do slip up and say something you regret—that's OK. It happens. Simply, apologize for using hurtful words and explain that your emotions got the better of you. Doing so, models for your child how to take responsibility and make amends, says Dr. Brimhall.

Ultimately, you want to attend to their feelings rather than focusing on the hurtful words they used to get their message across that they are upset, explains Dr. Brimhall. Additionally, make sure to let them know you love them, regardless of what they say. "Say, 'I love you, I'm here for you,'" says Dr. Brimhall.

When they can't calm down, direct them to take a break or timeout until you can have a productive conversation. If they refuse, advises Dr, Brimhall, then you can step away yourself. Let them know you'll return they're ready to talk using kind words.

Allowing them physical space or silence can help them to process what they are experiencing and figure out what they need, says Sherer. "Holding this space for your child gives you an opportunity to build and strengthen your relationship."

Also, says Sherer, "It’s ok to not solve anything in the moment." In fact, coming back to the issue when you've both had time to cool off and think about the situation will allow for a more productive conversation.

Use "I wonder" statements when you talk to your child about what they are feeling rather than assuming or telling them how they feel, suggests Dr. Brimhall. For example, say, "I wonder if you're angry because you can't have a new toy or stay up for an extra hour." Then, encourage your child to tell you if that's how they feel. Just name different feelings and possible flashpoints until something resonates can help them understand what's going on.

Trust that the dreaded “I hate you” can come up regardless of parenting styles and personality, says Sherer. "It is not a result of 'poor parenting' or 'bad children.'"

In whatever way you can, aim to give your child (and yourself) grace and love in response to these hurtful words. Let them know that regardless of their hurtful words, you love them no matter what, says Dr. Brimhall.

When to Get Help

Sometimes, when a child says "I hate you" frequently, other issues may be at play that are larger than you can help with on your own. "Any time parents feel they are at a total loss, a pattern becomes chronic or the issues seem too complex to handle on their own they should not hesitate to seek help," suggests Dr. Cohen.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that no parent-child relationship is perfect. Your child saying "I hate you" is common and doesn't mean you're a bad parent or that they don't love you. Instead, they're simply struggling with big feelings. You can help by keeping calm and providing coaching on emotional regulation. Learning how to more effectively communicate and understand their feelings is an important life skill.

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