Remember the days of toddler tantrums? We kindly asked them not to pull the dog’s tail and they responded with a flood of tears and an effort to pull the tail just once more. Luckily a big hug or a quick game of peek-a-boo would help them move on.
Over the years there were more meltdowns. Some seemed irrational; almost all seemed exhausting. But we knew it was normal. We gave each other nods and looks of commiseration as we saw the little one losing it at the mall, the dad waiting as his child refused to get out of the car at school or our brunch guest’s child screaming that they don’t want what we made for breakfast.
And then comes the words that stops us in our tracks, “You are the worst mom ever. I hate you.” While you may have received an “I hate you” in the early years, the sting seems much greater when it comes from someone approaching your own height. Their language is more sophisticated, and their grasp of reality is quite a bit bigger than it was at age 3. So it makes sense that when their words are pointed at us, and it can feel like a firing squad aimed at our hearts.
It’s a confusing moment emotionally. The baby we nurtured and rocked to sleep just told us we suck, raising feelings of shame and self-doubt. The words are coming from an angry, almost-grown-up and can feel threatening. Depending on our own mental state and life experience, we might flee into self-pity, or get our fighting gloves on and push back. In my experience, neither of these options is particularly helpful in the moment.
It makes sense that when their words are pointed at us, and it can feel like a firing squad aimed at our hearts.
What may be helpful is looking beyond the actual words to the meaning behind them. While the package is bigger than it was at age 3, what lies inside may very well be the same: “I feel out of control and I am not sure what to do, so I am going to hurl words at you to keep you engaged. I want to know if you will be here even when I am showing my worst.”
When we decode their words, it becomes much easier to realize this is not about us, but their own struggle to move through a challenge. Just as you were the recipient of their grumpy moods and meltdowns after holding it together all day in school, you are still the safest place to let it all hang loose. We all do that in our safest spaces. In case you doubt that, think about how we show up with our partners at the end of a long, trying day.
Accepting our children, warts and all, doesn’t mean we have to ignore our own hurt. What we can do is take care of ourselves in the moment by modeling just how one can deal with big emotions in a way that doesn’t hurt others.
Wondering what this looks like? Try these steps:
- Take a deep breath. This helps us get centered and respond intentionally instead of reacting and adding fuel to the fire.
- Acknowledge their pain. “Wow, I get it. You are really mad at me right now.”
- Name your hurt. “Those words really stung, and I feel hurt.”
- Speak to the part of them that feels unlovable. “I love you no matter what.”
- Model taking care of yourself. “Lets take a break and come back to this when we are calm. I am going to go for a walk and calm down a bit.”
- Solve the problem. When everyone is actually calm — meaning at least 20 to 30 minutes have gone by — come back to the problem and approach it as a team.
Sounds easy enough, but this is a skill like any other. Sometimes we will be able to move through this process with ease; other times, those word daggers from our kids will send us to fight or flight before we can even recognize what is happening.
The more we practice loving them even when they show us their worst, the more we can practice loving ourselves when we lose it too. When we do make mistakes, we can acknowledge our own behavior and make any repairs from hurts we cause, helping our tweens and teens learn to do the same.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated in October 2021.