Your sweet, angelic child has suddenly said mean things to you. Here’s how to respond when your child says hurtful things to you.
My son asked, “When can I get a skateboard?” to which I responded, “When you can ride the scooter well.” My reasoning was: First master the scooter, then you can get a skateboard.
Except he didn’t take it like that. He sniffled and asked, “Why would you say that?” All he had heard was that he wasn’t riding the scooter well.
He was so upset that he locked himself in the bathroom and yelled, “Go away and don’t ever come back!”
I felt stung. This was the first time I could recall he had hurled angry words at me. And even though I knew the reason—that I thought he wasn’t good with the scooter—I was shocked to hear my sweet boy be so upset with me.
I didn’t want this to be a common response, or have the kind of relationship with my kids where retorts are commonplace. But I also understood that his hurt feelings were valid, even if he had said harsh words in the process.
What to do when your child says hurtful things to you
At some point or another, we’ll all hear hurtful words from our kids.
Yours might throw a tantrum and scream, “Die now!” He’ll say he doesn’t love you (or even that he hates you) and that you’re not his friend anymore.
It’s hurtful and devastating, even if you know he doesn’t completely understand what he’s saying. You know he’s frustrated, but that’s no excuse to resort to saying negative things.
Thankfully, I found that certain steps can make this phase, if it is one, pass quickly. It all boils down to how we respond, and the role we play in it as well. Take a look at these tips so you know what to do when your child says hurtful things to you:
1. Don’t take your child’s hurtful words personal
Hearing your child say hurtful things is hard to stomach, especially when they’re offensive. She may have hurled insults at how you look, the meals you cook, or even how you say things.
This isn’t the time to internalize what she notices about you or wonder whether she loves you less. She spoke from charged emotions, after all. Whether with a tinge of honesty or not, don’t focus on what she said but on calming her down.
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2. Give your child time and space to calm down
Many parents make the mistake of turning every power struggle into a teachable moment right away. The problem? Kids are too angry to listen or process anything we say. You can imagine why—even adults can’t think clearly when we’re too angry.
Instead, give child a chance to calm down, even if it means leaving her be or ignoring her hurtful words. Soften your body language and facial expression, and let her emotions pass. She’s too upset to listen to reason or discipline, unable to process anything you’re saying right now.
Later—whether in a few minutes or even the next day—you can talk about what she said. Explain why saying hurtful words isn’t right and what she can do next time. You’ll also learn about her true feelings and intentions when she’s calm, not in the moment when she’s upset.
For now, give her the time and space to cool down.
3. Don’t say hurtful things back to your child
If you’re just as reactive as your child, you might feel the urge to blurt terrible words right back. This is especially true if his words triggered deep-rooted pain or guilt you might be feeling.
But as you likely know, retorting with your own hurtful words is wrong on many levels.
For starters, it’s the very behavior you don’t want him to do and are trying to steer him away from. You’re also not modeling how someone should respond when angered. And with both of you upset, you’ll spiral into chaos instead of calming down and learning from the moment.
Pausing and staying calm can help you observe your own feelings and vulnerability, and avoid saying hurtful words back.
4. Acknowledge your child’s emotions
As hurtful as it is to hear insults hurled at you, these are still your child’s emotions. Yes, she expressed them poorly, but it’s normal and okay for her to feel frustrated, annoyed, or sad. Don’t chastise her for not feeling happy all the time.
How can you acknowledge her emotions? Should you need to respond to her right away, you can say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Once she’s able to listen, you can discuss the emotions she felt. “It seemed like you felt hurt earlier because…”
Finding compassion after she has said hurtful words is difficult, but you’re also being a role model of how to respond calmly.
5. Apologize for your part
For some parents, saying “I’m sorry” is a hard ask. We fear losing our ground, as if an apology forfeits our authority. Admitting mistakes makes us feel vulnerable, and our pride holds us back.
Still, no parent is perfect, and that’s why we should always apologize to our kids when the need calls for it. Most conflicts aren’t one-sided.
They need hear where we went wrong and how we may have contributed to their outburst. They learn that they’re not always at fault, and that we’re just as bound to the consequences of our mistakes.
Knowing that adults are imperfect sends the message that they can question something that an adult has said or done. Considering how much we want to protect our kids, it’s vital they know that adults can be wrong, too.
6. Explain how words can hurt
Even though your child has a right to feel frustrated, he should still learn to do so respectfully. That way, should he feel angry again, he won’t resort to hurtful words. After all, while you may be more forgiving, others in his life likely won’t.
That said, don’t make the mistake of simply pointing out where he went wrong (“Don’t say that to me”). Instead, start by sharing your point of view (“I feel hurt when you say things like that”). He’ll feel less defensive and more empathetic to how his words affect others.
7. Show your child better ways to express emotions
You’ve acknowledged your child’s emotions, apologized for your mistakes, and pointed out how her words hurt. Next, show her other ways to express her frustration. The next time she feels compelled to hurl hurtful words, she can:
- Walk away
- Take a few deep breaths
- Say “I’m mad”
Remind her that feeling upset is normal and okay—but that there are better ways to let others know without hurting their feelings.
8. Praise when you see your child handle frustration well
The best way to curb poor behavior is to praise good behavior.
Now, you might be quick to think, “But he never behaves!” And at times, it might feel that way, especially when his behavior takes up so much of your energy. But I’m willing to bet that you can find even the smallest thing to praise him for.
Maybe he chose better alternatives like saying he’s mad or walking away. Or he said that dinner was yummy or that he was having fun playing games. Acknowledge the times he behaves well (“Thank you for your kind words!”). That way, he’ll continue the behavior you want to encourage.
And don’t just praise for “perfect” behavior, but for the actions you value. It was wrong for him to push his brother, but praise him for having admitted and apologized for it.
9. Reflect on your own actions
It’s tempting to assume that parenting is all about the kids. We help them manage emotions, provide boundaries, enforce consequences. But I’ve learned that parenting is more about us, the parents. The best way to help your child is to reflect and learn from the experience as well.
So, after you’ve calmed down and discussed your child’s emotions, turn inward and ask yourself:
“What lessons can I learn from this?”
It’s so easy to focus on the kids and what we need to teach them, but this is our journey as well and, as I’m sure you’ve realized, we all have lots to learn.
Take a few moments to find the triggers that led her to feel angry.
How is the stress levels in your home? What changes or circumstances are happening that might contribute to her frustration or anxiety? Are your responses aligning with her temperament? Did you say or do anything you regret, and how can you learn from this?
Dig deep and ask yourself questions to improve from this experience as well.
Hearing your child hurl hurtful words can sting even the staunchest parent. Thankfully, you’ve learned how to manage your own emotions and handle this kind of interaction.
For starters, don’t take her words personally. She’s speaking from charged emotions, and doing so keeps you from focusing on what she needs right now. Give her time and space to calm down instead of disciplining or even talking right away.
Refrain from retorting back with your own hurtful words, and instead acknowledge what she feels deep down. Apologize for the role you played in getting her upset, and follow up with explaining how certain words and behavior hurt your feelings.
Show her better ways to communicate her frustration, and praise her for the times she does handle it well. And lastly, reflect on your own actions and use the experience to gain lessons to learn.
I’ve since learned how to respond when my kids say hurtful things to me—including better ways of saying when my son can ride a skateboard.
Get more tips:
- Set Boundaries — Kids Actually Want Them
- Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child
- How to Be the “Bad Guy” and Still Parent Effectively
- 7 Techniques to Discipline Children
- What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Apologize
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