What to say when she says “I hate you” (and other tips for keeping sane)

Written by Fiona Ghiglione, PhD

As a mum to two pre/teen girls I’m no stranger to emotional upheaval. We can all relate to those tough parenting moments when she storms around furious and glaring or gives us the eye roll. But then there is the even tougher part, like hearing our girls voice, “You’re the worst, I hate you”.

Sadly, its a common experience for parents of pre-teens and teens and one that leaves us shell-shocked; feeling disrespected, hurt and often fearful. For most of us it also can be the trigger to an escalation with our girls. Especially when our automatic response – perhaps one we learnt in our own childhood – is to punish or (gulp) shame. Fortunately, there is a better way.

It’s a great opportunity

If you are reading this chances are you are on a journey to being more conscious and want to forge a healthier path with your daughter. Moments like these can be a beautiful opportunity to help her learn skills in emotional regulation, resilience and communication.

So first, let’s take a moment then to consider what is happening with our girls when they lash out like this:

She’s actually upset with the situation she’s in. More often than not something has happened that she feels like she can’t control. Perhaps it is a difficult assignment, the text she never got from a friend. Perhaps it’s the fact that she can’t go to that party because of grandma’s birthday party. Or that we asked her to put away her phone at 8pm so she can sleep.

She is overwhelmed and it can feel scary. We know from research that at around the 11 year old mark our girls brains’ begin to experience a hypersensitivity in the emotional centre (the limbic system). Compared to adults and younger children, our pre/teens’ amygdala becomes hyper-activated for even the most neutral or mildly emotional stimuli; a finding that is corroborated in many neuropsychological studies. So for her, a surprised face can be interpreted as angry or hostile.

This heightened reactivity can be frightening to our pre-teen girls – and sometimes you may hear them say, “I am angry/sad/worried but I don’t know why” – her emotions can feel out of proportion and it takes time and practice to learn how to deal with that.

It helps to recognise too that we are her safe space (even though ironically she isn’t valuing right now). During her day at school she will be confronted with a myriad of problems – with study, friends, teachers – and will have to deal with it all maturely … until she gets home – where she lets it all out. Let’s help create a home environment where she feels free to express herself and work through them in a healthy way.

So what else can we say?

Instead of reprimanding her and punishing her for her “disrespectful attitude” or her emotional explosion (which actually pushes her away), try these:

“It looks like you feel really overwhelmed because you’re behind on your school work. I bet you wish you could catch up.”

There are two parts to this response: The validation and the need. Validating her feelings goes a long way to helping her cultivate more emotional intelligence. When we have a go at compassionately figuring out what she might be feeling we come one step closer to understanding her emotional reality. Plus it helps her label her feelings and normalises them. We want her to know that it is okay to have big feelings and that she’s safe and held in the space she’s in.

Trying to ascertain her needs is also a great step towards helping her problem solve and process them. It helps her focus on what is in her control.

“I know you are angry – and don’t mean those words – still I want you to know they are actually quite hurtful. Is there another way you can put this?”

While we don’t want to make this all about us and have a pity party (let’s keep the focus on her for now), it is important to help her see that even given her feelings, her words matter and have an impact on others. We can gently set our own boundaries for the treatment we wish to see, which also teaches her to do that for herself in the future.

It may be tempting to reprimand her for ‘disrespect’ but this usually causes her to push away and distracts her from problem solving. Let’s remind ourselves that a deeper learning will come from this if we keep it as simple and try and maintain a neutral stance.

Of course, when things have calmed down it can be helpful to chat with her about the words we choose and their impact. Share with her that a good rule of thumb is to ask ourselves: are the words I’m about to use: helpful, true, fair, kind and relevant?

“Sounds like a really crappy day. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Hands up who has the urge to respond with, “well no worries – tomorrow will be better?” Most of us have done this and of course we do it because we love her and want to stay positive. The reality though is that our girls don’t tend to hear the positivity and instead read it as us invalidating and not understanding her feeling.

When we lean into the discomfort with simple words that acknowledge how tough it must be for her right now, we help ease the emotional distress. There are many ways we can offer ‘help’: a cup of tea, a hug or giving her space – but it doesn’t matter what we offer, it is the offer itself that can go a long way to maintaining our bond and remind her that we are there for her.

This approach coincides with research that shows that as our girls move towards adolescence they need us less to ‘solve problems directly’ and more to ‘be there as backup’.

“I know this is really tough. Just want you to know I love you and am here for you”.

Above all, moments like these are like deposits in our bank of trust – how we show up will set a precedent and show her that despite big emotions; we still love her and will be here.

When is it time to get extra support?

Some emotional turbulence is expected in our pre-teen/teen girls and a compassionate approach is incredibly important during these years. If, however, you notice that her mood is constant for weeks at a time, her anxiety doesn’t decrease at all, her moods are wild and fluctuating or she is self-harming it is recommended that you bring a professional onto her support team. This extra help can do wonders in helping her learn these skills during these vital years and supporting you to help her!

You’ve got this mama!