To parent means to sacrifice. Well before your children are born the sacrifices begin. You suffer through morning sickness, backaches, discomfort, and weight gain. Your child arrives and your life changes. You’re up all night with a crying infant or later, a sick child. You miss work when your kids are sick, you go without so they can have the things they need and want. Maybe you’ve even given up some personal goals or dreams to give more time to your children. It hurts you to see your child unhappy or unwell…and yet he has the nerve to scream at you. He gets angry and he yells, “I hate you, mom! I wish you were dead! You’re the worst mom ever!” Perhaps your teen even goes on to say, “I can’t wait to get the f— out of this house! I hate it here!”
Your child probably doesn’t feel like he owes you anything for all the great work you do as a parent—most kids don’t, in part because they perceive the world very differently than we do.
Why is this the hardest thing to hear from your child, and why is it so easy to take it personally?
There are few things in the world that hurt a parent more than hearing their child say hurtful words like these. They cut like a knife. You think, “Don’t you appreciate all that I have done for you? How dare you speak to me that way!” You’ve just been attacked. You’re hurt. You’re furious. It’s so easy to take this as a personal attack because when we give up so much for someone, we almost always expect good things from them in return. Here’s the truth: Your child probably doesn’t feel like he owes you anything for all the great work you do as a parent—most kids don’t, in part because they perceive the world very differently than we do.
Let me be clear: It’s very important to understand that these hurtful words your child is using are not about you at all. When you take it personally, it often leads to a big emotional reaction from you which reinforces the bad behavior. This tells your child that he’s powerful—and has power over you—which helps the behavior continue in the future. After all, who doesn’t want to feel powerful at least once in a while?
Kids often spout off hurtful words like these when they have a problem they don’t know how to solve, whether they’re angry, stressed, or dealing with feelings about something bad that happened at school that day. Not being able to handle his problems leads your child to feelings of discomfort—and pushing your buttons and getting a strong emotional reaction from you helps to make up for those feelings of discomfort. Don’t get me wrong, your child isn’t consciously aware of this in most cases, but causing you to be upset helps him to compensate for his inability to handle the problem he’s facing at the time. Some kids also say hurtful things as a means of trying to get what they want. If they can hurt you, you might feel bad or doubt yourself and then give in. So in some cases, it’s a way to achieve a more tangible goal.
I think it’s also worth noting that kids often have a lot of faulty thinking that they use to justify their behavior. In other words, they think that if they perceive someone as being mean or if they see something as being unfair, that makes it okay to be hurtful toward the offender.
In the Eye of the Verbal Storm: What to Do—and What to Avoid Doing
Reacting to what your child says by being angry or upset is normal—after all, you’re only human. While an emotional reaction is a very natural thing, it often leads to ineffective choices. Here is a list of what not to do when your child says mean and hurtful things to you:
- Don’t say hurtful things back. Your natural reaction might be to say something like, “Well, I hate you too!” or, “Well, I wish I never had you! What do you think about that?!” But saying something hurtful in response sends your child the message that you are not in control. It also models ineffective problem solving for your child. In other words, it shows your child that the way to handle verbal attacks is to launch a verbal counterattack. Leave the cursing and name–calling out, too. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as the old saying goes.
- Don’t scream or yell. Screaming, yelling, or even raising your voice will lead to the same ineffective outcome as saying something hurtful. You will show your child that you are not in control emotionally, that you are his emotional peer, and again, you are modeling ineffective ways to solve problems or conflicts with others. Not to mention, you’re essentially giving up your power to the child. Do you really want to do that?
- Don’t say “You can’t…” A lot of parents respond to their children by saying something like, “You can’t talk to me that way!” Well, the truth is, they can. You can’t control what words come out of your child’s mouth—that’s something they have complete control over at all times. When you say, “You can’t” to your child, it can incite a power struggle as your child might think, “Oh yeah? Try and stop me!” and on and on he goes. Try to choose other words instead. (I’ll give you some examples of more effective verbal responses in a moment.)
- Don’t try to reason with your child in the heat of the moment. Oftentimes, parents will lecture or try to reason with their kids to try to get them to see things their way. Some parents might say, “Well, someday I will be dead, and then what will you do?” Others might point out all the things they do for their child to convince him he should be more grateful and respectful. That vast difference in perception between you and your child that I mentioned earlier means there’s a very good chance you won’t be able to get him to see eye–to–eye with you. You’re effectively asking him to get up to a level he just isn’t at right now. As James Lehman says, “Don’t hold your breath… Don’t expect immediate compliance, appreciation, insight, acknowledgement or credit in response to your parenting efforts.” That will come later. Much, much later. And when a kid is that upset, he’s not going to be able to really hear what you’re saying, anyway. It’s wasted energy that’s best spent controlling your own emotions instead.
- Don’t punish or give big consequences. It’s very easy for parents to go to that place of, “Fine, if you don’t appreciate anything I do for you or anything you have, then we’ll see how you do without it!” Taking away all of your child’s prized possessions, emptying out his room, or taking things away for weeks or months at a time will not be effective. Why? Because these punishments will not teach your child the skills he needs to manage himself more effectively in the future to not say hurtful things to others. They will only teach him to “do time” and will breed resentment towards you. Consequences do not always speak for themselves. You have to step up to the plate and be your child’s coach.
Instead, try these more effective responses to gain control of the situation.
- Stay calm. Take a deep breath and think about what you will say—and how you’ll say it—before you let the words out of your mouth.
- Be aware of your nonverbal communication. Non–verbal cues such as tone, volume, facial expression, body positioning, and the pace of your words are extremely powerful in communication with others. Non–verbal communication or body language can have a huge impact on how your message is interpreted. Try to avoid crossing your arms, putting your hands on your hips, rolling your eyes, or talking at a fast pace, for example. Keep your facial expressions as neutral as possible. It’s a good idea to do a mental check and ask yourself, “How am I coming across right now with my body language?” and make the appropriate adjustments.
- Keep your verbal response direct and brief. When your child hurls an insult at you, it’s helpful to say something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but you’re still responsible for taking out the garbage,” or “Talking to me that way isn’t going to get you out of doing your homework. Go do it.” One of my personal favorites is, “Maybe you do hate living here, but you still have to be home on time.” What you’re doing when you respond like this is effectively and gently challenging your child’s poor behavior and helping him see that it isn’t going to solve his problem, and then you’re redirecting him to the task at hand. The goal here is to be assertive, not aggressive.
- If you’re struggling to stay cool, walk away. When your emotions get the best of you, get yourself involved in another activity that will be calming for you. Walking away shows that you are in control and that you have the authority in the situation. If you’d like, you can come back and address the issue with your child at a later time when things have calmed down, which will be much more effective.
When your child uses hurtful words to get his way
In the moment right after your child has used words as a weapon against you, it’s important to try and follow the suggestions above as best you can. With most kids, staying calm, gently challenging them, and setting clear limits (walking away) is enough to gradually decrease the behavior over time. We don’t recommend giving consequences for hurtful statements because when there are so many challenging things going on, it can become really overwhelming to consequence every little verbal outburst. Picking your battles will be very important, as will not giving in to your child and not giving him what he wants when he speaks to you this way. If you feel you must do more to address this issue in your home, you can certainly add some problem–solving discussions once things cool off to help your child develop the skills to solve his problems in a more effective way.
I also want to note that there is a distinct difference between a child saying, “I wish you were dead,” and “I’m going to kill you.” When children make threatening comments like this, it is important to check in with a local professional such as your child’s pediatrician, therapist, school counselor, or a local crisis line.
Will following these suggestions be easy? No. Will it feel good? Not at all. I hear from parents on the 1-on-1 Coaching about similar issues often and I know that following these suggestions usually leads parents to feel that they are letting their child get away with something. But here’s the thing to take away from this article: The suggestions here will help you stay in control and not take things personally, role model positive self–management skills, challenge kids, and set clear limits with them to let them know, by your actions, that their behavior is not okay. So try your best, stay consistent, and remind yourself that even though it doesn’t always feel good, you’re on the right track.
About Sara Bean, M.Ed.
Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former 1-on-1 Coaching advisor with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.