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Do You or Your Child Confuse Hatred and Anger?

In a moment of conflict, kids can say "I hate you," and it feels devastating.

Key points

  • Parents need to be able to tolerate their children's anger.
  • Parents need to know the difference between anger and hatred.
  • If parents understand that their child is just angry when they say, "I hate you," it will be easier to handle.

Recently a mother I know told me that her son hates her.

She is going through a divorce, and her six-year-old son has been yelling at her and even trying to kick and hit her on occasion. We needed to talk about this.

I have known this mother ever since her son was born, and I know quite a lot about her mothering. She is a good mother. And I am sure that her son does not hate her. I know that (most of the time) he loves her and depends on her and looks forward to coming back to her after time spent with his Dad.

But I also know he is very confused and angry about the divorce. And I also know that his Dad is harder to be angry with because he is very strict.

It is easy for kids and teens to confuse anger and hatred. When a child or teenager is extremely angry, they yell and scream and they may even say the dreaded words, “I hate you!”

And while they may actually feel that they hate you in that moment, it is likely that they are expressing how angry they are—and not an enduring feeling about you.

The same thing can happen when we are angry—especially with someone we are in a very close relationship with, like a partner, sibling, or parent. We may feel that we truly hate them.

Anger can be that powerful.

But that is the difference between anger and hatred. Our children—and we ourselves—become angry with someone when they hurt us or do something that we dislike or have asked them not to do. It is a temporary emotional response.

We hate someone because of who they are—because they have enduring characteristics that we just cannot tolerate and that violate our own values or morals or that hurt us or others repeatedly.

Why is this distinction important?

  • Let’s go back to the mother I referred to above. It is extremely important for her well-being that she understands that her son really does not hate her. If she believes that he does, her feelings about herself as a mother will be altered in a potentially destructive way. She will feel terrible about herself and about her relationship with her son.
  • Some researchers believe that when we define our feelings toward another as hatred, we are more likely to act in a hateful way. In an important study on this topic, Fisher et al. pointed out that hatred is usually based on a belief that the person who is hated is always deserving of hate. Hating someone is based on the idea that the hateful things about them are stable and always present. As they say, “there is little room for constructive change”; this is just the way the person is. ”And therefore [the only] options left [are] to act upon one’s hate.”

So—do we allow our children to act on their hateful feelings? Do we allow the child who “hates” us to leave the house to go stay with a friend? Do we ourselves break up a friendship because we feel this strongly about our friend?

We are living in a time of escalating division. We need to educate our children—and ourselves—in regard to the difference between anger and hatred, so that neither they nor we have to act on our angry feelings, and so that we can open up the possibility that when we think we hate someone, we can actually allow ourselves to calm down and consider the possibility that we were just angry with them—and they do not deserve our hatred.

This is an important distinction for our children to learn. When they say that they hate us, it does not feel good to them, and afterward, they are likely to feel quite guilty.

We can teach them about the differences between anger and hatred—and we can also remember them ourselves so that the next time our child says they hate us, we do not feel quite so devastated.

How do we help children make this distinction?

These same researchers I mentioned above concluded that “trying to explain the hated target’s actions in terms of circumstances rather than nature [is] a first step” in de-escalating one’s hating feelings.

In other words, if we can believe that the way the other person acted had to do with particular circumstances rather than because that is just how they are, we can begin to understand that we do not hate them—we are angry with how they acted.

So, when we argue with our partner or when our child shouts at us that she hates us, after everyone calms down, the question is: Can the person who felt hatred ask themselves whether the other person is really deserving of hate?

It is critical that we try to disentangle these two emotions—when we take in what our children are giving out, when we interpret our own emotions, and when we evaluate what is happening in our neighborhoods, our country, and our world.

Friendships, partnerships, the parent-child relationship, and the relationships between groups of people can all be fraught at certain moments of conflict. But, generally, these relationships can survive anger.

We need to show our children—and remember ourselves—that we can survive their anger and still love them. In fact, it would be odd if there was not some anger involved now and then in our relationship with them. But labeling these feelings as hatred makes the stakes much more dramatic.

We can try to help our children understand that when they are upset with someone they may be tempted to use the words, “I hate you!” when what they really feel is anger….and we can try to remember this ourselves as well.


Fisher et al. (2018). Why we hate. Emotion Review Vol. 10, No. 4 (October 2018) 309–320.

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