Three little pus-filled words that spray out like poison from your child's mouth. (It wouldn't sting as much if they didn't come from the very person you've dedicated your life to.)
Sadly, I've been on the receiving end of these words more than once. The first time it happened, I am ashamed to admit, I might have overreacted. I immediately took action and punished him for his outburst. I was hurt and mad.
Looking back, I can see that he was too. That is why he chose those words. So, what should you do? Over time, I have learned a few ways to lessen the sting for both me and my son when the dreaded "I hate you" comes out.
1. Don't Overreact
You are correct in your desire to immediately make it clear that your child cannot speak to you that way. However, jumping to punishment or dealing a harsher consequence than you otherwise would is not. By doing so, you give him the emotional control he is looking for.
Explain that it is OK to feel mad or upset, but that it isn't OK to make anyone else feel bad. Don't place blame on the word "hate"; this will only reinforce the power your child has placed on the word and may result in them using it more often. Remember, your child does not hate you. They simply don't know how to tell you they are upset.
2. Don't Take It Personal
This is probably the most important part. He has no real idea what it is he is saying. All he knows is "hate" is a strong enough word to get a reaction out of you and mean something. He loves you. It has nothing to do with you or your parenting abilities. He is mad and wants you to be mad too. When you hear the words come out of him, "Well, I love you," should be your first response.
3. Acknowledge Their Frustration
Children do not have the same verbal tools to express what they are really feeling. When he blurts out, "I hate you," what he really means is, "I am frustrated and upset that I can't keep playing outside with my friends," or whatever other unreasonable thing you've asked him to do. He wants you to know he is mad and doesn't agree with you. Calmly acknowledge that, "I know you are upset, but..." Don't ignore his feelings. Teach him what it is he is feeling, so he can learn how to express his feelings in the future.
When you feel your child is calm and ready to talk, sit together and discuss other, more meaningful ways to express feelings. Widen his vocabulary so he feels more prepared. "I'm sad I can't play with my iPad longer," or "I'm disappointed I can't go to Bobby's house," are acceptable forms of expression. He needs to learn that there are different ways to express his feelings without hurting someone.
If you are like me, you will hear the dreaded "I hate you" more than once. Prepare yourself and be ready. Help them along the way to maturity by staying calm, patient and loving.