How to respond when your kid says ‘I hate you’ – and 3 ways to understand how they’re really feeling

Pick up the pieces of your broken hearts, parents – the declaration is just an expression of feelings

Angry little girl, unhappy and upset after fight or being scolded by mother, frowning with attitude and arms crossed
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Hearing the words ‘I hate you’ cuts deep for parents, causing alarm bells to go off in your head and worrying that you've done something to upset them.

You never know where the outburst might come from – maybe they didn’t like a boundary you set as an authoritative parent (one of the strictest parenting styles), and the ‘I hate you’ statement can make you think you're doing a bad job, further amplifying your mum guilt. Don't worry, you're absolutely not alone if you can relate to this. While it feels heavy in the moment, understanding what’s really going on with them can help build skills and trust between you.

Kids' – especially toddlers' – brains haven't fully developed self-regulation skills, and when they say something hurtful like 'I hate you', they’re just expressing how they’re feeling with the tools they have at the moment. Parent coach Kristin and licensed child therapist Deena (@biglittlefeelings on Instagram) say that this is because the part of the brain that handles emotions is still "under construction" and have devised three strategies on what to do when your child says they hate you.

How to respond when your kid says they hate you

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A photo posted by biglittlefeelings on

  1. Translate the words to see the feeling: First, try connection before diving in with any correction to help your child use your support and guidance. When your child says 'I hate you', respond with: 'Those are words that tell me you’re really upset with me'. Kristin and Deena say: "You’re helping them build insight and perspective in the context of your trusting relationship."
  2. OK the feeling: When children are angry or upset, validating their emotions – good or bad – can make them feel seen and heard. You could say: 'It's OK to be mad at me.' Essentially, "this is what they’re trying to express in the first place, help them find those words and create a safe space to share," Kristin and Deena explain.
  3. Teach those coping skills: It can be tempting to fight fire with fire, but try to take some deep breaths (we know it can be hard in the moment) and approach their statement of hate in a calm and empathetic way. "You’ve proven that you can handle anger without abandoning, shaming, or getting angry back, so now it’s time to encourage the constructive release, because you’ve made your relationship safe enough to do so," say Kristin and Deena.

The tips are about getting your child to open up and by responding to the feeling beyond the behaviour, you'll be able to build more of a connection with them. Don't be put off if your child doesn't want to share right away; this isn't the goal, Kristin and Deena say: "Remember, we’re not expecting them to share right off the bat. If this is a new strategy you’re using it may take them a little time to dip their toe in the pool of ‘share more about it’ pool."

In other parenting news, discover 5 reasons to let your kid fail, according to a teacher and child psychotherapist Dr Becky reveals why these four words are “better” than empty threats.

Daniella Gray
Family News & Wellbeing Writer

From building healthy family relationships to self-care tips for mums and parenting trends - Daniella also covers postnatal workouts and exercises for kids. After gaining a Print Journalism BA Hons degree and NCTJ Diploma in Journalism at Nottingham Trent University, Daniella started writing for Health & Wellbeing and co-hosted the Walk to Wellbeing podcast. She has also written for Stylist, Natural Health, The Sun UK and Fit & Well. In her free time, Daniella loves to travel, try out new fitness classes and cook for family and friends.