Why Parents Need to Develop a Tough Skin

“I hate you!”

 “You’re the worst parent in the whole universe!”

 “I’ll never trust you again!”

 “You make me sick!”

 How to handle hurtful words kids may say to their parents

Whether it is the 3 ½-year-old or a 15 ½-year-old screaming in your face, it can be very hurtful when kids go on the attack and say these kinds of blaming, enraged, over-the-top statements.

And it happens more than many parents realize.

Kids say and sometimes do things to discredit their parents, ridicule them, show contempt for them and for the relationship that parents have worked for years to develop.

Because children and adolescents usually do not have these kinds of verbal outbursts in public when they express some level of dislike or even hatred towards their parents, parents can think they’re the only ones whose kids are saying these kinds of things. The truth is that behind closed doors, other parents have kids who are lashing out, expressing their disdain and dislike for their parents with such passion that parents can believe their children are almost divorcing them, in a manner of speaking.

It can feel like a huge betrayal—along the lines of, “After all I’ve done for you…” 

Because parents pour so much into their children’s lives: caring for them, striving to give them positive experiences, nurturing and empowering them each step of the way…then having a child seem to discount all that and speak in such hateful ways can leave a parent feeling abused by the very child that parent has loved and nurtured.

Parents may come to expect that their children will have some level of appreciation after being parented in such loving ways, that they will want to maintain the precious bond of a loving relationship. We parents can feel our children owe us something because of all we give to them.

In some ways that is true.

Parents deserve to be treated with respect, and children can be required to behave in ways that honor that, even if they don’t feel respectful in any given moment.

At the same time, based on research over the years, there seems to be normal developmental moments when children lash out and verbally attack parents. Sometimes, as with 3 ½-year-olds, this is more an expression of frustration because both the world and parents place limits on the growing power-needs of the child. The child doesn’t really hate the parent, the child is extremely frustrated with the parent. Because the child is 3 ½, it is very hard to distinguish between feelings of hatred and frustration and easier to just shout, “I hate you!”

 In a similar kind of way, when adolescents express their disrespect, dislike and even hatred for their parents, they too may be reacting to the necessary boundaries and rules parents impose and translate that frustration into messages that are personally attacking.

When it happens, it can be such a shock to a parent.

I remember so clearly when my 2 ½-year-old daughter was frustrated with me in the food store because I wouldn’t buy something she wanted, and she turned to me and said not only “I hate you!” but she spit on me!  I remember being in a kind of shock when she said and did this, unsure how to respond, but deep down I experienced a profound sense of her betraying the love I thought we had shared over the last 2½ years.

It would’ve helped, I think, if someone had predicted that this would be coming and that I should brace myself because of how much it can hurt. It really isn’t a betrayal, rather it is a normal developmental phase of burgeoning independence. But if warned, I might have been in less of a state of shock; yet, still would grieve the loss of my sweet, loving child.

I don’t think parents are warned enough that they need to develop a kind of tough skin because their children are going to lash out at them at various points in their childhoods. I think a certain amount of hurt on the part of a parent is inevitable and yet the old line, “Don’t take it personally” is relevant here.

Of course I don’t think anyone actually teaches us how to not take things personally. I think Meg Ryan said it well in the movie You’ve Got Mail when she told Tom Hanks in an exasperated voice that it is personal (he had just told her that forcing her to close down her bookstore was a business deal, not something personal.)

Parents need at least to know there are developmental norms around children saying extremely hateful things, to understand that these are not reflections of how well a parent is parenting.

In fact, if children are never angry or disappointed in their parents, I suspect those parents are not setting enough limits or boundaries for children to practice pushing against. It can also be helpful to know that you are not alone, and just because other people’s children seem so loving and well-behaved out in public doesn’t mean that behind closed doors those sweet children aren’t also lashing out at their parents.

No wonder parents look at infants and babies with such melancholy stares. Once parents have older kids, they need to realize that the honeymoon period will eventually end. While there will always be moments of wonderful, loving connections, parents can expect that children will betray the sacredness of the loving relationship, and when they express their extreme frustrations, parents need to be the authority and not the friend.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Have you had moments when your child has lashed out at you? How did it make you feel? Were you shocked? Hurt? Did you feel betrayed? How did you respond?
  2. To what extent can you appreciate that these moments are not actual betrayals of the sanctity of the parent-child relationship but rather are necessary as children practice dealing with frustration?
  3. To what extent can you promote the growth of a thicker skin to help you get through the moments when your children seem to turn on you?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network