When your three-year-old tells you, “I hate you, Mom,” it’s not easy to step back and consider your answer. But if you respond with curiosity or acceptance, you may give your child an important lesson about how to have a successful relationship. Tolerating a child’s hate and anger, without attacking back or expressing hurt, normalizes the expression of negativity and helps a child consider that he is not bad for having these feelings. By communicating that you can withstand your child’s destructive wishes, it models that if he, too, were on the receiving end of hostility, he would be all right.
When a parent can acknowledge their child’s hate and anger and be curious about it, that child is being given the gift of a future where he can navigate the world with the ability to tolerate his own and others’ feelings. Rather than feeling like he has to hold back his feelings, stew in them, and have them come out in destructive ways, he will be in a position to hear the angry feelings of the people in his life and be interested and curious about those feelings. What a foundation for good relationships!
Accepting Your Child’s Hate and Anger
For a parent to accept their child’s hate and anger, it helps to understand that a child’s negativity, opposition, and hate are a normal and necessary part of a child’s development. These feelings are part of the separation and individuation process, in which a child expresses himself and differentiates from his parents. When the child expresses his negativity, he is testing to see if this part of his unique developing self is acceptable. He needs to discover that his parents can withstand his feelings and not be overcome with hurt or the need to retaliate. If this part of him is accepted, he will be helped to individuate: to become differentiated from his parents as a person with his own unique thoughts and feelings.
When a parent responds to “I hate you,” with “I understand that you’re really angry with me, what did I do to make you feel that way?” the child can feel, “Wow, this angry part of me is allowable. I am acceptable as myself, with all my negative feelings.” In contrast, when a parent believes it is disrespectful for a child to get angry with a parent, takes the child’s anger personally, gets angry, or feels that the child is being mean or hurtful, it leaves no space in the parent/child relationship for two separate individuals to communicate. If the child receives the message that his feelings are unacceptable, that he has done something wrong or is bad, his developing sense of self is inhibited. The message he receives is that in order to be good, he must express only things that are pleasing to his parents—and that it is bad to express what might be displeasing.
Appropriate Feelings, Appropriate Actions
Accepting your child’s negativity does not mean that anything goes. Children have to be helped to express their negativity in appropriate ways. They can’t physically attack their parents and they need to put their feelings into words. But not all words are acceptable to all parents. What might be a tolerable expression of anger for one parent may not be acceptable to another. There is no road map for what is an acceptable or unacceptable form for the expression of hate and anger.
What is most important is that the angry feelings be accepted as all right, even if the way in which the child has expressed them isn’t. In those cases, a parent can convey that it’s acceptable to be angry or hateful, but not okay to be nasty or talk in a particular tone of voice. A parent might say, “I know you are very angry with me and that’s okay, but you can’t talk to me in that tone of voice.” It is okay for the parent to get angry at the way the child’s feelings are being communicated, but it is counterproductive to get angry at the child for being angry.
As long as the angry feelings are accepted and acknowledged, the child is being engaged in a dialogue about how to communicate when feeling angry or hateful. Most important is that the parents not respond with anger. There is a difference between angrily saying “Don’t you dare talk to me that way,” and “I get that you’re angry, so let’s talk about it, but I don’t want you to talk to me in such a nasty way.” Parent engagement, in contrast to responding punitively or with hurt, has a very powerful impact on the child. Neither he nor his feelings are rejected, and it becomes an occasion to interact with him as a separate person.
Teaching Communication for the Future
What’s wrong with a child being angry with his parents? Why is that so terrible? It is sometimes helpful if parents ask themselves that question. The child is standing up for himself, expressing his feelings and himself. We need to teach our children that while they can’t always get what they want, they can express themselves and we will listen. Sometimes, because we listen, we can see their point of view!
Once we ask about our child’s angry feelings, and help our child talk about them, we may find that they make sense. This would be another wonderful lesson and gift we could give our children: you can be heard, you can make a difference in getting what you want. Talking, expressing oneself, and feeling heard leads to feelings of self-confidence, and the idea that you have something to say worth considering. As the child gets to experience that his anger is okay and not hurtful or destructive, he may be able to realize that he doesn’t have to be frightened of anger that is directed towards him. He will be able to go out into the world, from kindergarten to middle school, then high school and beyond to adulthood, having been given the gift of comfort with his own and others’ feelings.
© Copyright 2010 by By Beverly Amsel, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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