When my child hits me and says “I hate you” why should I have empathy for them?!

When your child screams "I hate you!" and hits you, it's possibly the most difficult time ever to be nice to them! Would you agree?! 

We feel hurt - in our heart and on our bruised leg. At this point, it’s pretty hard to empathise with your child and be calm and kind. One mama told me she feels so upset when her two kids say they hate her, that she sometimes bursts into tears on the spot.

And kids are usually triggered by something so small -  like when you took away his game so he can eat dinner. Or when you put the Monopoly set up high on the fridge so she wouldn't throw the letters around the house! 

So why should we parents be sympathetic with our kids when they say they hate us and turn into crazed balls of aggression?! And how can we not react to our own upset at being hit or screamed at?

So first of all, the single most important thing you need to remember is that:

Your child is too young to control herself and we need to empathise with this struggle.

Children do not develop the ability to control their reactions until at least 6 or 7 years old. Even then, many school kids still have the occasional tantrum.

The part of the brain that controls emotions is called the prefrontal cortex. I give more detail in this blog here about what goes on when a child has a meltdown.

But basically when your child gets triggered with anger or upset, his brain gets overtaken by the hormones of the emotion (anger, fear etc) and a fight-flight reaction gets triggered in his body.

This is a completely unconscious reaction in the part of the brain known as the reptilian brain - so yes, it's an animalistic reaction, which is what your child may resemble at the time! 

If your child is anything like my daughter (who still has hitting frenzies at age 5), this reaction looks like a red-faced, out-of-control, whirling hitting-machine with a loud screech! She’s in full fight mode.

When in this state, she cannot listen to anything and is completely irrational and unable to control herself.

So all I can do is empathise with her struggle to cope with her difficult emotions. Inside her body and brain she feels BAD – she has to fight against the world, and she is hating that feeling of anger and hurt. She also can’t rationalise that, after dinner, she might get the toy back and that the suffering in this moment will not last!

To her this moment is everything.

Imagine how hard it must be to feel like that. To be overcome with icky, horrible feelings and to have to fight so hard to try to make it stop!

If you can practice this one type of empathy for their struggle to develop, then it will help you in every situation where your kids get difficult.

First, you’ll realise that it’s not personal - it's not an attack on you as a person. You just happen to be in the way! It's a totally unconscious reaction of your child to being hungry or tired or overwhelmed. 

One mama, Felicia, told me that sometimes at bedtime when her 4 and 6 year old kids are refusing to get in bed, they tell her they hate her. She gets so upset that she cries in front of them, and then they call her a baby.

I really want to tell you, Felicia, that your kids love you more than anything. You are their world. You are their rock. But when their emotions get triggered – even by something as simple as you making them stop their play and get in bed – they lash out as a way to cope with their feelings (especially when they're tired!).

Saying “I hate you” is one of the worst things they can think of, so it’s a strong way to externalise their anger and help them feel more powerful than you. But it’s totally in the moment – they do not hate you in general! Quite the opposite – they need you more than anything or anyone else both emotionally and at a very basic survival level. 

When your kids say "I hate you", just empathise with their struggle to develop and to cope with their feelings of disempowerment.

If your child hits you, it’s the same – they don’t hate you. They are just trying to get out the nasty feelings they have inside.

Secondly, empathising with them will also help you calm them down. You can calmly state what's going on: "I can see you're angry. You feel bad so you want to hurt me. But I'm not going to let you hit me." Using a calming voice and just being there for them is the fastest route to the end of the meltdown!  

Once your child lets off steam, they will often cry - it's all about processing their painful emotions. So let them cry and release their emotions, knowing that you are there for them. 

Here are the best things you can do when your kids (of any age, including teenagers) lash out at you is:

1. Empathise with their struggle to deal with their emotional overwhelm.

2. Keep calm amidst their uncontrolled outburst and keep yourself safe (I use a big pillow to shield myself from my daughter’s flailing arms!).

3. If they tell you they hate you, tell them “But I love you.” It’s hard for them to keep saying I hate you in the face of love!

4. Remember this is just a phase and they will soon develop the ability to control their reactions and not hit you or have such angry outbursts.

Showing your child that you still love them even when they are trying to hurt you is giving them a very powerful gift – you’re showing them that you love every part of them, even the ugly, angry and out-of-control parts. As a result they will grow up feeling totally loved as a whole person – not just the parts of them that are pleasing.

In my view this is the greatest gift you can give your child.

All my best,

Suzie xx