A parent wrote with this concern:

“Dear Susan,

My 5-year-old often gets angry and yells, “Everyone hates me in this family!” It’s usually when things aren’t going the way she wants. I tell her, “We don’t hate you—we love you!” but it doesn’t seem to help.

What can I do to get through to her? She gets so upset and won’t hear a thing I say until she eventually gets distracted or has a cry.”

Here are my thoughts:

When a child misbehaves or acts out, usually our first instinct is to ask them why they did what they did, or feel the way they do.

If you have an especially verbal child, it may seem perfectly reasonable to ask them why they hit their brother or, in this case, why she thinks everyone hates her.

But when we ask an upset child to explain her emotions, we’re really asking the impossible. They don’t know. Reasons exist in the logical, left brain. When children are distressed, they’re in their right, feeling brain.

I would ask this parent to imagine that when their daughter is upset, a swirling, gaseous mass of intense emotions begins to churn inside of her. She doesn’t understand what she’s experiencing, let alone have the language to describe what she’s feeling. It just feels bad.

Another way of thinking about it is that in effort to get help from the storm of her emotions, this little girl is wrapping her feelings in  “gauzy paper” to present them to you for help.

The “gauzy paper” are the words she uses.

These words are simply a means to convey her upset to you. But words can be clumsy and highly inaccurate. When she’s saying, “Everyone hates me” it’s really just an awkward attempt to let you know that she’s flooded with difficult emotions.

Unfortunately, when we take our child’s words at face value, we often misunderstand what’s going on, leaving them feeling even more alone, overwhelmed, and frustrated.

In a sense, parents have to be translators for their children’s hearts, reading between the lines while eventually helping them develop language for the complex feelings that are part of being human.

Instead of asking your child to explain why she thinks everyone hates her, gently say things like, “It sounds like you’re having a really tough time right now. What do you need? Would you like to sit with me, or have a hug?”

Avoid rushing into a left-brained, rational discussion about her problem while she’s upset.

By helping your daughter simply feel safely held, you’ll be better able to address whatever’s going on at its root. It may be she’s had a difficult day at school, or she hasn’t yet articulated a worry about a family member’s health, or she’s simply in need of more quiet time and connection.

Regardless, what our kids need most when they’re hurting is simply our calm, reassuring presence, rather than a rational discussion of their complaint.

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