Being a parent is definitely not for the faint of heart. The baby phase made me think I had absolutely no idea what I was doing; the toddler years tried my patience; and the preschool years had me wading in nostalgia, wondering where the time (and my baby) went. And then there was the day I heard a phrase come out of my daughter's mouth that, truly, broke my heart:
"I hate you."
Thankfully, it didn't take me long to realize that when your kid says I hate you, they don't really mean it. My oldest daughter has started telling me she hates me on a regular basis, and she says it knowing that it hurts. It's not that she's cruel or heartless, and she's not telling me she hates me because that's even remotely true. No, in those moments she is saying whatever it takes to shock me. Unfortunately, sometimes, her tactic works. As hard as I try not to react, there are days when I simply can't help but let the disappointment and sadness show in my face.
So I cling to the words of a wise mom-friend (and therapist), who once told me that hearing "I hate you" from a child actually means you're doing something right. Because if a child says the worst of the worst to you, it means they feel safe with you and, more importantly, that they know you will always love them... no matter what. And it's totally true! There's nothing my daughter could say to me that would make me love her any less. So when she has said those three dreaded words, I know she's trying to say something else entirely.
I’m far from perfect, and sometimes I'm sure my daughter thinks I’m the worst parent on the planet, but I know differently. I know she loves me, and, honestly, I will happily have her tell me how much she hates me if it means she really knows that, no matter what, I will always love her. So with that in mind, here's what your child is really trying to say when they say, "I hate you":
Sometimes when my daughter says,"I hate you" she really means that she's overwhelmed with what we consider to be negative emotions, and as a result doesn't know what to do or say. So while my initial reaction may be to lose my you-know-what, I have to remember that everyone gets overwhelmed and says the wrong thing sometimes — especially kids.
"You Hurt Me"
I, of course, can say and do the wrong thing, too. Sometimes I'm the one hurting my kids and making them feel sad, mad, or disappointed. In those moments, if their response to whatever I have done is to promise me that they hate me, they're really just trying to tell me that I've hurt them. So I have to stop, take a breath, and, yes, apologize... because I'm an adult and that's what adults do. As a mom I have to show them that everyone, including parents, make mistakes, and when we do make mistakes we have to own up and apologize for them.
"I Feel Safe"
If my kids didn't trust me to love them unconditionally (which I totally do), they wouldn't say horrible things to me. Yes, kids can be horribly mean, but if they were afraid of me or worried that my love for them was fleeting or conditional, they'd never tell me how much they hate me.
"I Don't Want To"
Sometimes, apparently, the only way for my kids to adequately convey their disdain for simple tasks — like brushing their teeth or going to school — is for them to tell me how much they hate me for making them handle their responsibilities. Sorry not sorry, but if hearing "I hate you" means I'm going to raise responsible adults, so be it.
"I Don't Understand"
My kids thrive when they know what to expect. When I have to be the bearer of bad news about cancelled plans or crappy weather, however, I'm instantly "the bad guy" in their minds. It's hard to hear "I hate you" when plans fall through, especially when it's something totally out of my control, but, again, I'm the bearer of bad news because I'm the mom.
"I Want You To Listen"
Kids have a tendency to say the worst things when they are upset, especially when they think you aren't listening to them. The shock of hearing "I hate you" definitely brings you back to the moment, let me tell you.
I'm listening, sweetie, there's no need to act out.
"I Don't Like You"
My own mom used to say, "I don't always like you, but I will always love you." I didn't understand the difference back then, but I totally understand it now that I'm a mom. I accept that my kids won't always like the things I do or say, or the decisions I make. That's OK.
"I Love You"
When my kids were small they would tell me they loved me all the time, usually unprompted. I don't hear "I love you" all that often, though, unless it's in response to my words or kisses goodnight. So it might sound weird, but I actually take my kid saying "I hate you" as a sign that my kid does, in fact, love me back.
They may not like me when I take away their screen time, or make them do their chores. They might get angry and sad at a certain unavoidable situation and take it out on me. I will undoubtably make mistakes and unintentionally hurt their feelings. But I know my kids feel secure enough to express their emotions, even the yucky ones, with me and to me: even when that expression hurts. So, yes, while I don't want to hear my child tell me they hate me, I'm so thankful they know that mom is always, always going to love them.