Why Does My Child Say “I Hate You” And What They’re Really Saying

It’s inevitable. At some point, every parent hears it: “I hate you.” Oh boy, that one hurts. You love your kids more than anything; your life pretty much revolves around them—now they HATE you? Ouch!

The reality, of course, is that they don’t really hate you. So what’s going on?

Your Child's Behavior Isn't Personal

One of the biggest lessons in my I CAN System course is that behavior is purposeful, not personal. Children say “I hate you” and other hurtful things because they know it will have an impact. They’re actually communicating something very different from their actual words. Through their behavior, they’re communicating their goals—but to recognize this, you need to know how to look for it.

That’s why I teach parents to become “behavior detectives.” Once you learn that behavior is goal-seeking, you can stop taking it personally and start putting your behavior detective skills to work. It’s such a paradigm shift that It almost feels like magic at first. No kidding. But when it clicks, you’ll have a great big “aha!” moment because these skills enable you to discover (and address) the purpose behind challenging behaviors and statements like “I hate you.”

The Hardest Part of Parenting is Learning How to Manage Our Own Emotions, Thoughts, And Feelings

What we think is likely to influence our parenting reactions and behaviors. Letting our fears and insecurities drive our parenting can be a real problem here. It’s what I call a “parent trap.” Read more about how to avoid this and other parent traps in Five Parenting Traps That Are Keeping You From Connecting with Your Child.

The first thing to do is simply recognize that if your kids tell you they “hate you,” it’s just plainly not true. Pretty much every parent hears this at some point. Even knowing this, though, it can still be painful. Which means you probably won’t respond constructively. So parents need to find a way to not take it personally. Easier said than done, right?

Let’s start by looking at why it’s essential not to take your children’s behavior personally. We need to recognize three things:

  1. First, our thoughts and feelings drive our actions as parents.
  2. Second, your children’s behaviors are purposeful, not personal. Once you really understand this, it’s much easier to take a step back and avoid reacting based on emotion. In other words, you can respond to the actual problem.
  3. Finally, emotional maturity is foundational to truly understanding our children’s behavior.

How Your Thoughts Influence Your Own Behavior

If we can’t manage our own feelings, we’ll hardly be able to approach parenting rationally. In other words, if we take our child’s behavior personally—if we respond based on our emotions—our parenting will be reactive, irrational, and unproductive.

But at Secret Parent Society, we’re all about a systematic, scientific, evidence-based approach to parenting. We want productive strategies that work!

When we Take Behavior Personally, We’re Relying on Unconscious Beliefs And Assumptions

We make assumptions all the time about all sorts of things. It’s a natural part of being human. Evolutionarily, it helped us respond to potential threats more quickly and survive. But in a more complex, modern context, we need to stop and examine our assumptions from time to time. Assumptions can have a powerful impact on our parenting because they tap into our own personal feelings and insecurities.

Assumptions creep into your thoughts and convince you that you ‘know’ why your kids say they “hate you.” But assumptions are vague, emotional, and unsupported by evidence. So they’re not a reliable source of information on which to base our parenting. In Supporting Teen Behavior and Loving Relationships I pointed out that “assumptions can cloud perceptions, leading to misunderstandings and ineffectiveness.” That’s why we need to learn how to differentiate between assumptions and facts with behavior detective skills!

Because I teach an evidence-based approach to parenting, we’re interested in watching our children’s actual behaviors. The I CAN System course includes a detailed workbook that walks you through each step so you can gather information without mixing in your own feelings.

Remove Your Self from Your Observations

Separating your feelings from your observations is the biggest secret to solving the mystery of your child’s behavior. You must start by observing your child for who they are, not who you think they are or want them to be. It’s amazing what you learn about your own child when you allow yourself to step back, observe, and just take note of the facts. This is crucial to helping your child reach their full potential.

Just the Facts

When looking at your kids’ behavior, try to notice any time you think you ‘know’ what’s going on. You’re likely jumping to a conclusion by interpreting their behavior based on your perception and your feelings. Instead, we want to be very deliberate in our focus on facts and evidence. In other words, focus on their behavior, not your feelings about it.

Facts are precise observations that simply describe what happened, with no emotions attached. When we’re talking facts, well-defined behavior meets three criteria: 

  1. It’s observable.
  2. It’s objective. 
  3. It’s measurable. 

Notice that there is no room for assumptions here.

Here are a few examples of factual statements:

  • “I told my child, ‘Time to clean up.’” 
  • “My child screamed.” 
  • “My child cried with tears streaming down their face.” 
  • “He walked away and went to his room.” 
  • “I put the dishes away for her.”

Again, notice that each of these statements is not subject to interpretation. They are purely factual accounts of what happened. 

Behavior is Purposeful, Not Personal

One of the most important secrets I can teach you about parenting is that behavior is purposeful, not personal. In the I CAN System Course, and in these pages, you’re going to hear this over and over. That’s because if I had to choose only one thing for you to take away from my work, this is what it would be. I’ll say it again: Behavior is purposeful

If a behavior repeats itself, there’s only one reason: because it works! It achieves its purpose. If it didn’t work, well…the behavior would stop.

Makes sense, right? But this isn’t immediately obvious because the goal might not always be what we would expect. Let’s look a little deeper at what sort of goals your kids’ behavior might have.

Figure Out The Purpose of Your Child's Behavior: Obtain or Avoid

Your kids’ behavior has a purpose that falls into one of two categories. It’s designed either to obtain something or to avoid something.

To Obtain

This is when the purpose of the behavior is aimed at getting something. One of the most common examples is getting attention. This might be positive attention, like praise. Or it can be negative attention, like scolding. Why would a child want to be scolded? As a behavior detective, it’s vital to understand that attention is attention. For some children, what we see as ‘negative’ attention may be better than little or no attention at all.

Behavior may be aimed at obtaining something intangible, like attention, or something tangible. This might include toys, candy, food, screentime, or other preferred activities. With tangibles, the goal is often to continue doing something they enjoy, like getting more video game time.

To Avoid

Other times, childrens’ behaviors are designed to escape doing things they don’t like. There are two basic types of avoidance here: avoiding something entirely and avoiding it partially. Partially avoiding something might look something like this: your child does part of the dishes but then starts exhibiting challenging behavior and leaves the parent to complete the chore.

A common method for kids to avoid activities is to engage in delaying behaviors. They do whatever they can to delay things they don’t like for as long as possible. The challenging behavior is a stall tactic, and that’s why it works for them.

When Your Child Says “I Hate You” it Doesn't Mean “I Hate You”

Now that we know that behavior is purposeful, designed to avoid or obtain something, we can see how saying “I hate you” is a goal-seeking behavior. If we’re really watching closely, we can even see this behavior as a form of communication. But not to communicate that your child “hates you,” instead there’s something your child is trying to avoid or obtain. 

But what, exactly do they want to avoid or obtain? It may not always be straightforward, especially when you’re confronting an array of challenging behaviors or when they’re widespread and persistent. To pin down the specific issue, we’ll deepen our behavior detective skills and examine your child’s behavior cycle.

The A, B, C, and D of a Behavior Cycle

Challenging behavior works in a cyclical pattern. We call this the “behavior cycle.” I like to think of the behavior cycle as following the A-B-C, and D’s. 

  • “A” is the starting point; it includes anything that happens immediately before the behavior. This is likely the trigger for a behavior. It’s like the “on” button or a light switch. 
  • “B” represents the behavior itself.
  • “C” is anything that happened immediately after the behavior. This is where the behavior is likely to stop—when it has achieved its purpose.
  • We always want to be on the lookout for “D” which refers to the distant factors. A distant factor is any external or internal event that may influence the entire cycle (this can be lack of sleep, hunger, sickness, family turmoil, and more).

The I CAN System workbook provides course participants with a Routine Log and examples. The Routine Log gives you a way to collect detailed information without getting mixed up between facts and assumptions. As you can see, each box provides guidance to help refine your observations as you gather and record information.

Emotional Maturity

Above, I suggested that we need to take ourselves out of our observations about our childrens’ behaviors. Otherwise, we fall back on our own feelings and assumptions. But to step back and truly understand our childrens’ behavior for what it is—without letting our perceptions be clouded by our feelings—we need emotional maturity.

When your kids say they “hate you,” it feeds into all kinds of other guilt, distortions, and insecurities. That makes it extremely hard to stay emotionally grounded. We really need to tighten our behavior detective caps here. Keeping our own feelings out of the picture is absolutely critical to truly understand our child’s behavior.

Even though we know “I hate you” doesn’t really mean “I hate you” our own internal narrative and unproductive thoughts will still magnify the statement’s impact. In effect, our emotions takeover and we end up responding unproductively.

Parents often don’t even know when they are experiencing unproductive thoughts or how it affects their parenting. The I CAN System Course shows you how to set up an alert system to help you snap out of unproductive thought patterns, so they don’t cloud your observations and you can remain emotionally grounded. You can read more about this in Are You Secretly Feeling Guilty About Your Parenting? Escape This Parent Trap in Four Steps!

In Module Two you’ll learn the purpose behind the behavior. In Module Three, begin Behavior Detective training by Identifying a Routine and Collecting Information, the “I” and “C” in “I CAN.”  Then in Module Five, Analyze (“A”) Information by using more advanced behavior detective techniques. Ultimately resolve behavior issues by learning how to formulate and Name A New Plan (“N”) in Module Six. 

So what IS going on with your kids saying “I hate you” or other hurtful things?

They’re communicating something, and it’s’ not that they hate you. The specifics will depend on your situation. But your kids are trying to achieve something (behavior is purposeful, remember?). Every child will be communicating something different. Your childrens’ behavior will be aimed at their own unique purpose.

Not everyone will have the same solution, but everyone will be able to use the same techniques to create and implement the right solution for them and their family. Behavior has a purpose. When our kids say “I hate you,” they’re trying (unconsciously) to achieve something. What are they trying to achieve? Figure out your own solutions by becoming a behavior detective and the I CAN System.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top