It's the motherhood rite of passage that no one wants to experience. Your child looks you dead in the eyes and screams, "I hate you." Maybe it's because you forced them to wear a hat in the 15-degree weather. Maybe you refused to let them have ice cream before dinner. Maybe you managed to wrestle the iPad out of their death grip.
Whatever the reason, it pretty much sucks to hear. After all, you're most likely the person who buys this kid groceries, makes every meal, cleans up after them, buys the toys, bathes them, makes sure they get enough sleep, and, let's face it, anticipates their every freaking need, and the thanks you get is an angry, irrational pile of emotion who apparently thinks you're the absolute worst?! It can feel like a slap in the face . . . if you take it personally. But you totally shouldn't.
Whatever the reason, it pretty much sucks to hear.
My 5-year-old daughter — we call her the tiny diva on her best days, the soul crusher on others — has expressed her hatred toward me so many times I'm practically immune to the words. Her 3-year-old brother, however, prefers to tell me I'm his best friend about 100 times a day and crushes me with kisses. So when he recently changed his tune to a constant refrain of "I hate you" when I denied him any request (a rather regular occurrence for a kid who would love to live on a diet of hot dogs and birthday cake and thinks he can prepare both all by himself), it hit me a little harder.
I tried every nonsarcastic reply that came to mind ("Then I guess I won't buy you any birthday gifts," was my first thought, but it seemed a little cruel). "That really hurts Mommy's feelings. Hate is a mean word" had no effect. "I'm sorry to hear that because I love you very much" got a "Well, I don't love you" in return, which somehow felt even worse. "I understand you feel frustrated and angry; let's talk about a way to fix that" at least made him think for a second.
For a toddler or preschooler, "I hate you" is of course not a true statement. Instead, it's one that shows that he's overwhelmed by his emotions and doesn't know a better way to express them. The best thing a parent can do is simply remain patient and listen. Of course, don't poke the beast. "I hate you" often comes with a side of tears, tantrums, and aggression, and pushing your child for a hug or a better explanation of their feelings will most likely make things worse.
Instead, give your child time to calm down, preferably with you in the room, which signals that even when things are tough, you'll be there for them. When your child calms down, help him find better words to voice his feelings. "Mommy is here to help you. Let's talk about a way we can work together to make you feel better." Provide alternative choices or a distraction. "We're going to wait until this afternoon to have ice cream, but how about a banana or some yogurt now?" Or "Instead of your iPad, how about we get out your favorite Lego set?"
Most importantly, understand that "I hate you," even when it's repeated over and over again, doesn't make you a bad mom. It makes you a totally normal one.