On Mother’s Day, my five-year-old son created an original paper and crayon card with bold capital letters that declared, “Your the best mom.” There were yellow daffodils because that’s my favorite flower. And there was no attempt to make “your” into “you’re” – which is okay when you’re five. I got teary-eyed, he smiled proudly, and I knew I was, indeed, the best mom.
My son wanted cake for breakfast. I gave a rational answer to his demand: “We don’t eat cake for breakfast.”
And on the day after being crowned The Best Mom, I toppled from grace and received another simple handwritten note slipped quietly under the door. It read: “Your not the best!!!”
My first hate mail – from my five-year-old son. All my efforts as a parent had come to this.
What I didn’t realize was that these anti-parent feelings are a normal phase of young childhood – and they rarely, if ever, indicate that your child “hates” you – even if those are the words that are used.
Young children experience emotions from time-to-time that they cannot process. A four- or five-year-old doesn’t have the advanced thinking skills to identify his anger and then determine a productive way to talk with you about it. So, he envisions eating cake for breakfast. His mind is set on it. Then emotions explode when he is denied what he already saw as a done deal – sometimes, in words that will get your attention and make you feel not-so-great.
Here are a few tips for when “I hate you” (or “I don’t love you”) happens:
- Acknowledge the emotion behind the words – which is anger – instead of focusing on the words themselves or taking them personally.
- Repeat the story back to the child as you see it: “I said you couldn’t have cake for breakfast and that made you angry.” This helps children identify their feelings and sends the message that you care about how they feel.
- Give the child a different way to express his anger: “When you are angry about something you can tell me that you’re angry, and I’ll help you.”
- Explain that there are certain phrases that hurt people’s feelings, and “I hate you” is one of those phrases.
- Avoid responding with equally hurtful words. For a young child who lacks adult processing skills, hearing, “Sometimes I hate you, too,” can cause your child to doubt your love.
- Give the child choices that will help him feel like he has some control in his world. Cake may not be a choice for breakfast, but maybe he can choose whether he would like to have cake after lunch or after dinner. You might also give two breakfast choices that he can choose from.
My son – the one who slipped the angry note under my door when he was five – is now 35. I continue to get loving cards on Mother’s Day. Because after all, in a child’s eyes, you’ll always be the best thing since chocolate cake.
About the author
Cheryl Flanders, M.Ed.
Cheryl is a seasoned educator and writer, having worked in the field of education for over 25 years. Cheryl has taught high school and college courses and has also served as an elementary school principal. Most recently, Cheryl retired from her full-time position as Manager of Teacher Preparation for the corporate offices of KinderCare Education in Portland, Oregon. There she developed training for over 25,000 early childhood teachers that KinderCare employs nationwide.
Cheryl and her husband now reside in Boise, Idaho, where she is a mom; a grandma; and an active author, speaker, and early childhood consultant. Having suffered the loss of a child three years ago, Cheryl’s passion is to use both her personal and professional experiences to provide hope and inspiration to families and teachers working with young children. She believes that the best vehicle for helping children… is to look through their eyes.