By Julietta Skoog


When Kids Say Really Mean Things

Nothing can prepare you for that first time your child says hurtful things to you. You would think it gets easier but it never does. You are human after all, with feelings too. It is so hard to imagine when they are sweet little babes in your arms that vitriol will come out of their mouths…maybe as teenagers, but that is so far away. You have time. 


Kids say funny things AND they can be very cruel and mean. Sometimes it is intended, and sometimes it is not:

I hate you 

You are the worst mom ever

I wish you would die

Dad is so much better than you

You are so stupid

So what do we do in these moments? Shame is often the first to show up as the strongest voice in our head, taking a direct route from our own childhood and relationship with a parent.  Then fear and anger join the party too. 

I would never have gotten away with that. How dare they. What is wrong with them? See this positive parenting stuff doesn’t work. I am such a bad parent. Are they psychotic? Does this mean they are going to flunk out of school, never have friends, and end up in jail? Why do I feel such rage? They are going to regret they ever said that.

You are not alone. It feels so incredibly isolating when this happens, and yet many many MANY kids say horrible, terrible things. It isn’t because they are a horrible, terrible person. It is because their brains are still growing, particularly the prefrontal cortex part that helps inhibition (holding oneself back), empathy, flexibility, problem-solving…all the executive functioning that takes them from being a neanderthal to a thoughtful, regulated grown up. Meanwhile feelings and developmental challenges and life are in full effect, without the coping skills for how to handle them. The emotional storms are truly raging.

They DO get angry, frustrated, scared and filled with emotions and this sends them right to the part of the brain that is fully developed to keep them alive: the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. Sometimes when this happens, they shut down and go internal. Maybe this was you and why you never would have thought about saying this to your parent. Maybe you were so afraid of your parent that even if you wanted to, the survival part of you learned quickly that it wasn’t safe to do so. This didn’t “teach” you respect, however. 

It taught you how to associate true feelings with shame and fear, which is what is now coming right back up again when your kid says this. 

Sometimes, these big emotions trigger the “fighter” and so they come out words blazing. Then there are the kids that Dr. Becky calls “deeply feeling kids” or DFK’s. The big emotions sit so closely to their vulnerability and shame that the intensity is extreme. They aren’t like your other kids, they don’t get over it easier, and they interchange how much they hate you with how much they hate themselves. 

Remembering the complexity of brain and social emotional development is the first step to understanding and not taking it personally. But then what? How do we respond? And how can we support them to teach and guide them so it doesn’t keep happening? Or worse, happen with someone else who won’t be as understanding? What I have learned from over 20 years of helping families and working with students is that kids act very differently to their parents versus teachers or parents of friends. They save it all up for us. 

The foundation of Positive Discipline is Adlerian Psychology, which offers a brilliant tool called the “mistaken goal chart.” It unlocks behavior by first asking the adult to notice what they are feeling. In these scenarios when our children are saying such mean things, we feel hurt, disappointment, disgust, spite, anger and often feel a sense of disbelief. “How could they?” When those feelings show up, this is a code or a direct message from the child. Their behavior is literally telling us “I am hurting. Validate my feelings.” Revenge is their goal, mistakenly. If they told us they were hurting, we would respond differently. We would comfort, soothe, validate, or probably say very little. We would hold them. This is hard to do when the behavior is coming out as spitfire, but this IS the first step. Recognize how you are feeling, translate the code, and respond to THAT.  Don’t get hooked, and don’t take it personally.

I begin by saying something very simple like, “wow, to say those things lets me know you are really hurting on the inside.”  When we validate their hurt without taking it personally, they know they are safe with us. This immediately sends the message to the brain that they might not have to stay in survival mode. Sometimes validation is enough to either have a redo or to open the door to problem solving from their rational brain. 

Let me pause here and tell you what I WANT to say is “you better take that back and try again with a more respectful tone right now” (while my tone is very controlling and not at all modeling respect.) This is natural. I am a human who is activated. I notice that I want to, without judgment. I know that I am not a bad mom by feeling that way. I think that it is interesting that it showed up, say it silently in my mind, and then let it go. It is not helpful. If I “win” that battle, they feel like a loser. They act like a loser. More power struggles ensue as they try to “win” the next one.

When I can “catch” it early enough before it is the full on vitriol, I stay confident in my body and don’t let my ego take over. A snide comment or rude phrase is the code that they are hurting so I might respond with “Hmm, that lets me know you are feeling icky and are trying to get it out. You can say “mama I am frustrated and need some space” or whatever makes sense in the context. By giving them something else TO say, it lets them save face and guides them away from that revenge cycle. 

“We don’t talk like that” is a phrase that grown ups use, but they just did “talk like that”! So what else are they supposed to do? Give them the script.

If it isn’t enough or my response makes it worse, I know the hurt is running deep and dark. In this case, the next step is to contain it. Move to the second location. This is why I love having a Positive Time Out or Cool Down/Calm Down Space that is already established, so there isn’t a decision. You know what to do automatically, just like what door to go out of in a fire drill. 

When they are saying “I hate you” they are literally saying “I hate myself.” They are desperately trying to excise the painful emotions and fling them out of their body.  Now because we feel hurt ourselves, it is hard to want to stay close to this child, but this is exactly what they need. Their fear of social rejection (which is hardwired into our brains) only reinforces that they are “bad” and all that they have been saying to US gets turned around and aimed at themselves. Essentially, it is a self fulfilling prophecy. They feel unlovable and unloved.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of containing it.

Imagine you are at a bar with a friend. You are the designated driver and your friend has had too much to drink so their prefrontal cortex is not engaged. They start ranting and screaming at an ex who has shown up, and it is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. What would you do? You would guide them out of there, physically. You would wrap your coat around them, walk them out the door and get them home safely. You would make them a cup of tea and then hug them as the tears flowed and their embarrassment and sadness broke through.

This is what happens to our kids. Once they are contained, they can start to regulate. (This also helps us get rid of the audience. Maybe the parenting partner or grandparent who thinks they just need a good “consequence.”) Just sit there with them, humming softly, holding them, or just responding “I love you no matter what.”  You know your child best. Sometimes they don’t want us near them or they are simultaneously physically kicking or hitting. In this case I sit right outside and say that I am here, and if they want me and my body can be safe I will come in.

The embarrassment and sadness and tears will eventually break through. The storm passes. The emotional hangover wracks their body and your “real” kid shows up again. This is when you can get to the truth of what “really” is going on. At this point, I make sure we are both solidly regulated in our bodies. I make sure the message of love comes through. Then I coach them on taking responsibility, doing repair, and having a redo. For young children, a role play redo is extremely therapeutic when approached as true teaching and not punishment. It gives their body and brain the antidote to shame and embarrassment and grows resilience and coping skills. They literally learn what to do differently. Not perfectly, but it is a starting point for them to continue to practice. For older kids, a very simple walk through of another way it could have been handled serves the same purpose. 

As a parent coach, you would think that my kids are all perfectly behaved. Spoiler: they are not robots. I get to practice on the daily with high reps in responding to big emotions and mean words. In fact, I call my youngest my “Sproutable baby” because she has required ALL of my parenting tools. Recently, I was sitting on the floor, holding this sobbing child who had folded herself up on my lap. The emotions were literally pooling out of her little six year old body, in tears, snot and words.

She was overwhelmed, sobbing, wanting to quit everything. She hates school, wishes she had different parents, doesn’t want to have any responsibilities or sisters, and we “force” her to do sports (I am like what the ACTUAL F are you KIDDING ME you think I want to drive you around and hemorrhage money on the sports that you beg us for). I held her and rubbed her back and sat with her in the feel better spot where it was all going down. I validated feelings. I held the space. I really listened. I was centered.

And then, when I thought she was getting over the arc and on the other side, I asked what she wished for. She said that she wished that “all moms were not alive” and that she “really meant it” and “what is wrong with you?!” It really hurt me– it was so hard to not say “you are going to regret that if that is the last thing you ever say to me” and “how are you going to feel if I left right now and got in a car accident?” I mean I had like TEN more comebacks. I was devastated, but somehow just said “I always love you and I am so sorry you are hurting and feeling so sad and mad…I think that is where it is coming from and I will always, always love you.” She climbed into my lap and held me so tight. BUT– I am human, and I was gutted.

I was eventually able to move her through the responsibility, repair, and redo, along with food (I know part of it was being super hangry) to get her stable. I then went to my room and cried. I was so grateful I didn’t add on to any regret on my end or pain that I added to her already deeply hurting inside. I know the “mom” piece is part of her gender journey that she is figuring out.  While it isn’t always the case, that day I was relieved to lean into my own coping skills and not to have to repair on my end or feel regret for hurting her more. I felt massive love and gratitude for my other two older, stable kids who provide constant evidence they do indeed grow out of it.

Parenting requires us to evolve and grow our emotional literacy. It is the gift that our children keep giving us, if we are willing to accept it. 


It takes practice to lean into these Positive Discipline parenting tools heavily and readily – I literally ticked the box on every single one that day from the helpful mistaken goal chart row on “revenge.”  In case you need them too, here they are:

Hear: “I’m hurting”

Teach/ use self soothing and calming tools

Show you care

Build relationship

Teach & use I statements

Avoid blame or shame

Encourage strengths

Avoid taking sides

Family meetings

Connect: acknowledge feelings.

Emotional honesty

Make amends

Teach to make amends

Avoid acting on hurt feelings

Avoid punishment and retaliation

Clear and appropriate follow through

Author bio

Julietta Skoog is a Certified Positive Discipline Advanced Trainer with an Ed.S Degree in School Psychology and a Masters Degree in School Counseling with over 20 years of experience coaching families in Seattle Public Schools and homes all over the world. She draws from her real life practical experience working with thousands of students with a variety of needs and her own three children to parent coaching, bringing a unique ability to translate research, child development and Positive Discipline principles into everyday parenting solutions. Her popular keynote speeches, classes, and workshops have been described as rejuvenating, motivating, and inspiring.


Add a Comment

Similar posts