What’s your child’s favorite food? Color? Outfit? What does your child dislike?
Preferences give important insights into our personalities. For the child who is agreeable in most situations, we have smooth sailing.
The child who expresses strong preferences, though, can push us to the limits of our patience. How long can we listen to…I don’t like this. This is yucky. I won’t eat that. I won’t take a bath?
How do we deal with tantrums, object throwing, yelling or the heartbreaking “I hate you!”
It is crushing to hear your three-, four- or five-year-old yell, “I hate you!” but I doubt there is a parent who hasn’t heard this.
A mistake many of us make (me too!) is interpreting what that outburst means.
Outbursts are statements of preference and almost always have nothing to do with you.
When our children express a preference this strongly, it is hard to not let our emotions and our desire to be loved take over the situation. If we don’t step back and look for the underlying meaning of an outburst, we are likely to be held hostage to the child’s demands. (Another issue, of course, is teaching manners, respect and politeness, but that is another column.)
When children throw out a statement like “I hate you!”, they are expressing a strong dislike. Children perceive that you have power to change the situation or environment and direct their frustration at you. Hate is an extreme form of dislike. Love is on the far continuum of like. Like/dislike. Love/hate. These are words to express degrees of preference. I like pasta. I hate fish.
Emotionally, though, the opposite of love is not hate.
The opposite of love is fear, fear of losing love and fear of not being loved.
When we hear our children (and others, too) say, “I hate you!”, they are expressing either dislike or fear. We have to step back and look at the situation to understand the child’s hidden meaning, remembering that the statement is about the child’s preferences or fear.
Defuse the situation by translating “I hate you” into love language, for example: “I know you’re upset, but I love you. I know you love me too, but you are angry (unhappy, upset). Can you tell me what you want?”
Keep in mind children learn quickly that certain words “push buttons,” and parents will relent to their demands. “I hate you!” is a favorite button. A child will use strong language when his or her preferences are not taken into account.
In my experience, “I hate you” expressions usually come from two circumstances: not having preferences acknowledged or fear of separation.
Parents have shared some interesting stories with me.
One mom discovered that her son’s “I hate you” tantrums always occurred one day after her husband left on a business trip. Her son’s fear of separation from his dad was the hidden meaning in the “I hate you” statement to her. As soon as she was able to acknowledge his fear and his preference to have his dad at home, the tantrums ended.
One dad observed that running out of peanut butter would trigger an “I hate you” tantrum. He found that saying, “I know you prefer a peanut butter sandwich, but we only have turkey,” acknowledged his son’s preference. What he heard in reply surprised him: “Thanks, dad. Turkey is fine.” Amazingly, acknowledging a person’s likes and dislikes helps them feel loved and heard, and the need to act out to express preferences or fears may vanish.
Be aware of your child’s likes and dislikes, and acknowledge those preferences to make your child feel loved and connected.
With your guidance your child will learn to express preferences in an appropriate and kind manner. Strengthen your relationship with your child by being aware of those likes and dislikes.
When you hear “I hate you!” don’t take it personally. Put on your Sherlock Holmes’ hat to figure out if it is an expression of preference or fear.