Child's 'I hate you' expresses anger

CHILD LIFE

August 14, 1994|By BEVERLY MILLS

Q: What do you do when a child says "I hate you" to a grandparent? My 4 1/2 -year-old recently said that to my mother-in-law, and she was just devastated.

-- Kathy Thompson, Maple Grove, Minn.

A: Parents who called Child Life have some advice for Grandma: Grow up.

"I'm a grandmother, too, and I've never understood why people get so upset when a young child says, 'I hate you,' because that's not what the child means," says Irene Reed of Tacoma, Wash. "He means, 'I'm really upset with you because I am frustrated or I am not getting my own way.' "

Don't make a big deal over it, parents and experts say, but do acknowledge the child's feelings, set limits and reaffirm your unconditional love for the child.

"The way I was able to get children to stop saying that was to teach them that there are acceptable ways of expressing anger, like telling a person that you are angry and explaining why," says a mother from Chapel Hill, N.C.

Several readers suggest a technique child development authorities call reflective listening.

"Give what the child has said back to them in different words, like, 'You're not very happy with Grandma today,' " says Sally Blatnik of Cleveland, Ohio. "The worst thing you can do is make children deny what their feelings are."

Parents also can ask the child questions to help him or her identify the source of their anger. If you discover the grandmother is doing something that bothers the child, such as hugging too tightly, point it out to her.

"Explain it in a tactful way and point out something she does that the child does like," says Judi Craig, Ph.D., author of "Parents on the Spot! What to Do When Kids Put You There" (Hearst Books, $12).

Draw the line at disrespect.

"I have four little boys and at one time or another, all of them has said that to some relative," says a mother from Jordan, Minn. "I tell them it is never appropriate to say you hate someone because that hurts their feelings, but it is acceptable to tell someone that you are angry with them."

It also may help if the grandmother herself tells the child her feelings are hurt, says Dr. Craig, a clinical psychologist in San Antonio, Texas.

"Children don't have to like them, but they do have to be respectful of any adult," Dr. Craig says. "That's just good manners."

Finally, many parents have found it helps tremendously to respond to outbursts of "I hate you" with a reassuring: "But I love you."

Here are some other tips from parents:

* "When our daughter went through this, we realized we started having different expectations of her when Grandma was around," says R. C. of Phoenix, Ariz. "All of a sudden she had to be the perfect little girl, and she resented that."

* The parents should examine the way they treat the grandmother, says Ann White of Dallas, Texas. "My guess is that this is an attitude the child has picked up from the parents," she says.

* Several adults who were themselves victims of child abuse advise parents that a sudden, intense dislike or aversion to a person could be a warning signal of child abuse.

"Ask the child if there was anything they could change about the grandparent, what would it be," one reader says. "Never force a child to be alone with anyone they feel uncomfortable with."

While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 5. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 3-year-old daughter.

CAN YOU HELP?

Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608.

* Silent type: "My 2 1/2 -year-old is not talking yet," says Laresa Hawkins of Dallas, Texas. "He says about five words. Is this normal? Is there anything we should do?"

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