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Parent Shock - When Your 3 Or 4 Year Old Says Awful Things To You

Parent Shock – when your 3 or 4 year old says awful things to you

“I hate you!”

Really? Did you hear that right?

No – can’t be. But, actually… you did hear that right.

That little person, your child,  just yelled at you and said “I hate you”.

How, and in what moral universe, is this right or possible?

After all… you carried them for nine months, birthed them, nursed them, diapered them, toilet trained them, woke up all night for them, cuddled, hugged, kissed, worried about, nursed through illnesses, helped with everything, comforted, gave so much, no… sacrificed so much of yourself for them…

Why are they are saying that they hate you?

Perhaps you haven’t heard your kid talk like this.

But as unbelievable as this is… you’ll probably hear something like this from your three  or four-year-old.

When your child, who you love beyond words, says things like:

“I hate you”,
“You’re the worst mommy or daddy in the world”,
“I want to put you in the garbage” (or the recycling these days!)

or…. other choice phrases… a whole range of emotions, none of them pleasant, are triggered inside you.

Shock, resentment, hurt, anger (maybe rage), despair, guilt, shame, helplessness…all those feelings that we really “hate”.

And hearing those hurtful words from your child probably brings back memories of all the hurtful people in your life who said things that made you feel bad about yourself.

Your self-esteem is attacked.

Your self-concept and self-confidence as a parent are attacked.

It’s really awful.

I was moved to write this blog after I had a conversation the other day with a couple who were in the store with their three and a half-year-old, and new baby.

They just didn’t look happy. They usually are all smiles when they come in.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Not too good. We can’t believe what our little boy is saying to us. We’re really worried.”

“Has he told you that he hates you?”

“Yes… but… how did you know?”

“Well, you have a new baby and your son is probably pretty upset. And when three or four-year-olds are very upset and frustrated, their feelings take over, and they will often say the most awful things to the people they love, and need, the most.

I know how painful it is to hear those words… it’s shocking, but if you can understand what is going on inside of them, you can stay calm, and help them maneuver through these very intense feelings.”

In this couple’s particular situation, the arrival of the new baby was the trigger for the negative language.

But a 3-year-old doesn’t need a new baby to get triggered to spew hurtful words.

It can happen when they, with all their heart and soul, want something or want to do something – and you say “No”.

It can happen when there’s stress or tension in the family (children are very sensitive to family stress) and you ask them to clean up their toys or get ready for bed. They can’t articulate how they are feeling, but the smallest request will send them over the edge.

It can happen if they are deeply immersed in their play and you tell them it’s time to get ready to go on an errand.

It can happen if they had a bad experience at their friends house or at daycare and when they are back home you tell them that they can’t have any more computer time today.

Basically, it  happens when their feelings of hurt, disappointment, powerlessness, frustration, disconnectedness or fear build up inside them and they just explode from the emotional pressure.

And that explosion sounds like the awful, angry words that just fly out of their mouths.

As an adult, you know It is totally irrational for them to say awful  things to you.

So why do they? And how should you respond when they do?

It is important to remember that three and four-year-olds have very little power and control over what happens to them in their lives.

But they do have some control over their words.

So when they are really upset, they may say the most outrageous, awful things that spring into their minds.

When children say “I hate you”, their goal is to shock you.

What they are really saying is…

I want you to feel the intensity of how awful I feel.
I feel out of control.
I feel frustrated.
I’m scared that you don’t care about me.
I am so angry and disconnected from you. I don’t like my life right now.
I hate these feelings and I want you to take them away.
So I’m lashing out at you the only way I can in order to feel some sense of power right now.

In reality, they love you more than anyone on the planet. They desperately need your love, care, approval, acceptance and attention.

If they rationally thought about it (which they are incapable of at this age), they would say to themselves…

Hey, saying such a hurtful, painful thing to my Mom or Dad, is really going to alienate them and make them more angry and push them even further away from me and it will be much harder to get the comfort I actually need. I think I’ll just keep my mouth shut on this one and talk quietly and lovingly and ask for help with these difficult feelings.


So what can you do?

Here are some developmentally appropriate and proven successful approaches.

      • Take a moment to take a deep breath.
      • Quickly look at the feelings that have come up in you. Do you feel:
        • shock
        • hurt
        • resentment
        • dismay
        • anger
        • defensiveness
        • rage
        • self -righteousness
        • compassion
        • sadness
        • powerlessness
        • incompetent
        • empathy
        • amused
        • amazed
        • disrespected
        • love
      • Recognizing your own feelings is critical. If you feel a whole host of strong negative feelings acknowledge them. They are very uncomfortable – just like your child’s!!!!!
      • You may want to lash out to get rid of YOUR bad feelings, BUT you are the adult. You are the one that has to teach and model respectful ways to handle bad feelings.
      • Respond, don’t react.
      • Remember that their lashing out is a cry for help.
      • As Positive Parenting writer, Ariadne Brill says, “When your child hates you, go ahead and have enough love for the both of you.”
      • Stay calm, and hard as it may be, try to connect with them, not detach.
      • Some parents are comfortable picking up and holding their child.
      • If you are too upset to do that, just kneel down to their level and talk to them calmly.
      • Say things like:
        • Oh, Sweetie, you are so upset. You really really wanted to – stay longer – have that toy – watch that video – have time with me – when I had to take care of the baby etc.
        • if I were you, I’d be upset too.
        • I can see how unhappy you are. It’s so hard when you feel like that.
        • I really really love you and always will
      • Usually, children respond well to this approach and welcome the opportunity to cry in your arms. Once they calm down you can give them the words for their feelings.
      • Sometimes children are just too upset and will resist you. Continue to stay calm.
      • If you are really too hurt and angry, give yourself a time-out (not your child) so you can calm down rather than lashing out at them. Say something like “Wow. I am really upset that you said that to me. I need some time on my own now.”
      • Remember that this behaviour is normal for this age group and should diminish as they grow older
      • However, If you are seeing a steady increase in hurtful words and you feel that your relationship with your child is deteriorating, seek help from a professional to get your relationship back on track.

Most young children will say hurtful things to their parents, and you probably did as well.

You may have been met with a slap across the face, or a “go to your room” or a “how dare you speak to your mother/father like that after all they have done for you!”

It’s only natural that your experience as a child in this type of situation is your role model for how to respond and that experience will be your first response.

But those knee-jerk negative responses do not build connection or “inner respect” for you with a child. And they often backfire and make things worse.

Showing compassion for your child’s feelings, while holding your ground on your decision that upset them, will help them to identify, accept and handle their feelings, and will teach them compassion.

Our world is full of “lashing out” behaviour on the part of many adults who were probably “lashed out at” when they were children. They never learned how to handle their feelings appropriately and compassionately when they were young children and continue to take it out on the world.

It is always challenging as a parent when our self-worth and self-esteem is “attacked” by our children. It is up to us to raise children who, as adults, can handle their feelings, adjust to disappointment, be compassionate with others and make the world a better place.

Judy Banfield

I’m Judy Banfield and I’m here to help you feel better about yourself as a person and more confident and secure as a parent.

In my 30+ years of working with babies, young children and parents, I have learned that valuing and treasuring and deeply knowing yourself gives you the foundation to more confidently and joyfully, love, treasure, teach and guide your children.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. This question is actually for me My daughter will be 3 and April we have a very good relation Ship very good but recently my daughter has been saying really mean things to me like be quiet mummy, Or don’t talk to me, Me and her father are separated and seems to me that she acts like this after spending a night with her father can you help me

    1. Hi Christine,

      Thanks for your question. As it says in the blog post, this kind of reaction and language is common in your daughter’s age group. It is always painful to hear. I would suggest that you start by what kinds of situations trigger her language. The fact that she acts like this after her visit with her father makes sense. She has been separated from you overnight involuntarily. Even if she is comfortable and happy with her Dad (which I hope she is!), she is still being subjected to a different house, a different parenting style perhaps, a different bed, different food, etc. This probably brings up a whole range of feelings in her that she doesn’t even know. I would suggest, if you aren’t already doing this, that when she returns to you, you have a very focused, cuddly time with her before you move into “routines”. Ask her about her visit, ask her if she is sad to leave Daddy, ask her what she would like to do together with you. In other words, reconnect first thing. And when the negative words come out, explore with her how she is feeling. If you need more help you can sign up for a coaching session. I’d be happy to help you. All best! Judy

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