When Your Child Says Hurtful Things: The Best Ways to Respond

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan-Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

When your own child says hurtful things, it can really sting. The good news is that there is nearly always an identifiable reason behind why they are behaving this way.

Hurtful comments can leave parents feeling a combination of anger, resentment and hurt with one of the worst things said being “I hate you”. You’re left wondering how they can be so unkind and unappreciative.

But when your child says hurtful things, it isn’t all about you, emotionally they are trying to tell you something. So don’t take it personally as this can lead to big emotional reactions all round.

In this article I will help you to understand what might be behind your child saying the meanest things and what practical strategies you can adopt to support your child as they develop.

a seven year old girl shouting at her mother

Why Might Children Say Mean Things?

My clinical experience tells me that a child is themselves hurting in some way.  They are trying to communicate something difficult.  

My own experience as a mother tells me exactly the same thing, but I can appreciate that this feels so much more personal.

Specific Reasons Why Children Might Say Mean Things

Imitating behaviour. Children can mimic what they see and hear from adults. They often replicate behaviour without really understanding it’s impact.

Lack of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another and this takes time to develop.  A child may not be intrinsically unempathetic, but is yet to learn how empathy works.

Attention seeking. Sometimes, where a child feels ignored, negative behaviour can attract the attention they crave.

Testing boundaries. Testing boundaries is a normal part of a child’s developmental journey.  Saying mean things can be a way of testing the limits of what they can and cannot say.

Seeking control. When a child feels overwhelmed or powerless, they can sometimes say mean things as a way of asserting control.

Peer pressure and media control. Under peer pressure kids may say unkind things to fit into a friendship group, even if what they say doesn’t align with what they really think and believe. Language online, on TV and in movies can influence the language they use, especially in their peer groups.

Developmental challenges. Some children have developmental challenges (such as autism or ADHD) which can affect their social communication skills leading them to unintentionally make mean or insensitive comments.

Frustration or anger. Young kids who may lack coping or emotional regulation skills, might express their anger through hurtful words.

mother calming a cross five year old

A Young Child Saying Mean Things

If your 5 year old is saying mean things towards you, it’s very important to acknowledge their feelings and show tolerance and understanding of their actions. Reacting in anger or frustration will only make things worse.

Child development is complicated! There are often big emotions when a younger child wants to get their point of view over but find it difficult to articulate this effectively. They are not yet mature enough to know the meaning of some of what they’re saying or understand the impact on others.

Remember to consider their age and maturity level when they lash out.

mum and tween girl arguing

An Older School Age Child Saying Mean Things

With emotional support, older kids can start to understand their true feelings better and communicate their needs more accurately. 

As children enter school age and interact with peers, social relationships can become more complex. 

A child may have a hard time fitting in or establish a position in the peer group.  When a child’s feelings go unheard, they may use hurtful words to establish a position of dominance within a peer group.

As a child develops, they become more aware of others’ feelings, but may still struggle to fully understand the emotional impact of their words in social situations.

Through adolescence, identity formation takes place. Any underlying issues a child may have will typically present during this time of physical and psychological change. 

Teens may play with different social roles and include hurtful language to assert independence or establish their identity.

unhappy family at dinner table

Managing Your Own Feelings When Your Child Says Hurtful Things

When your child says hurtful things to you, how can you manage how it makes you feel?

Well, it can be incredibly challenging as it often feels like a personal attack on you and your role as a parent.

Hurt feelings are delicate to manage.

In order to maintain a healthy parent-child relationship, crucially, parents need to adopt strategies to help with their own emotions. 

Here are some to help you get started:

  • Be aware of your own emotional reaction. What are you feeling? Angry, hurt, disappointed? It’s OK to feel upset, but recognising how you’re feeling, will help you to respond appropriately.
  • Pause. Take a moment to breathe and process what has been said before you respond.
  • Avoid personalising. Although hurtful words maybe directed at you, try not to take them personally, instead focus on the underlying issue. You don’t want to get into a bitter personal battle or power struggle.
  • Communicate thoughtfully. Even in difficult situations where you may have been hurt by words, your child is observing your response and behaviour. The language you use in response can help to de-escalate a difficult situation and open up the lines of effective communication.
  • Talk to someone else about your own feelings and emotions. It’s important to gain clarity and perspective away from the triggering event.
dad and son at home concerned, disagreement

In the Heat of the Moment: Strategies When Your Child Says Hurtful Things

The most important thing to remember is that parenting, whilst rewarding, is neither easy nor predictable!

As your child matures, there are likely to be disagreements, power struggles and angry words from time to time.

When your child has hit you with a line such as “I hate you, you make me do chores every day”, where does your mind go to and how do you respond?

Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • If intense anger or lashing out is present, make sure everyone is safe as a priority.
  • Take a deep breath before responding. A flash response can often have the opposite effect to the one desired.
  • Be aware of your body language and facial expression. This will tell your child quite a lot about how you are feeling (disapproval, anger, shock, surprise).
  • Try to have a thick skin in the heat of the moment. You need to attend to your child’s needs first, and yours afterwards.
  • If a situation is escalating fast, think about how you can help to diffuse this so that everyone’s voices can be heard.
close up of an angry boy

When Your Child Has Said Something Hurtful: What To Do After the Event

When your child says hurtful things, it is important to talk about their behavior after the event once everyone is calm. Aim to understand what has happened and what each of you could do differently in similar situations.

Consider the anger iceberg analogy. Was this outburst just the tip of the iceberg? What is going on underneath?

If your child has said unkind things, you may have found them difficult to hear. You may have had a strong or rash response. Reflecting is a powerful tool which you can use to think of a better way to respond next time.

Your child needs to know you still love them in spite of the difficulty. So, once you’ve talked things through, be sure to show them.


​What to Do When Your Child Says Hurtful Things: Further Practical Tips

When your child says hurtful things it’s important to let them know that they have hurt your feelings. Validating your child’s feelings does not mean you have to agree or accept them.

It’s OK to tell your child “I understand that you are mad at me, but let’s try and find more appropriate ways for you to tell me this without using hurtful words.  I’m here to listen”.

Below I have listed practical strategies you can use to handle this difficult situation effectively.

  1. Coach your child on how to ‘think’ before speaking. This can be a valuable skill that prevents misunderstandings and conflict. You can teach this through slow breathing techniques, filtering thoughts and practicing articulation.
  2. Criticise the behaviour but don’t shame your child. Avoid accusatory language such as “you’re rude, you always shout”, and never swear at your child.
  3. Resist the urge to shout something hurtful back to them. The diatribe may have been going on for a long time, but reacting in a defensive way will only serve to escalate things.
  4. Seek to understand. Listen actively and encourage your child to express their feelings. 
  5. Ask open-ended questions so that your child has the opportunity to expand on what they want to communicate. Closed questions tend to receive a yes/no answer.
  6. Boundaries: Make sure that you revisit and refresh family rules.  We all need reminding from time to time and children are no different.
  7. Be kind. Even when you feel hurt, the best way forward is to model and coach empathy. Discuss each other’s feelings and be a role model by demonstrating empathy in your own actions and constructive conversations.
  8. Practice self-care. It can be tiring dealing with a challenging child and it can be stressful.  Ensure you make time for yourself and pull on support around you.
tween boy and younger brother together outdoors

When a Child Makes Mean Remarks: Case Study (Francesca, Matthew & James)

Francesca, a single mother of two boys, finds herself confronted with a challenging situation. Her 13 year old son Matthew has been displaying hurtful behaviour towards his 7 year old brother James. 

Francesca is deeply concerned about the impact this behaviour might have on Jake’s emotional well-being and the overall harmony within their family.

Matthew, who is in the throes of adolescence, has been displaying what Francesca feels are typical signs of rebellion and asserting his independence. However, she has noticed recently that his frustration and anger is often directed towards James. 

Hurtful Words Towards a Sibling

The hurtful behaviour includes name-calling and teasing. This leaves James upset and often leads to conflict between the two boys. 

Francesca also finds herself in the middle of trying to unpick the situation and understand what has happened, not always with good results.

On observation, Francesca feels that Matthew’s behaviour seems to stem from a mix of jealousy and a desire for control, but she’s not sure. 

Matthew’s struggle to cope with his changing emotions appeared to manifest in his interactions with his little brother, who often becomes the target of his pent-up frustrations.

A Child’s Hurtful Words: Taking Parental Action

Francesca’s attempts of trying to referee arguments between the boys haven’t appeared to work. 

So, she decides to change her approach to one of understanding and empathy. She initiates open and non-judgmental conversations with Matthew on his own when he is in a calm state.  This allows him to express his feelings without fear of retribution. 

During their chats, Francesca encourages Matthew to articulate his emotions and helps him identify the root causes of his frustration, anger and subsequent behaviour. Francesca also emphasizes the importance of him showing empathy towards James, highlighting the impact of his actions on his younger sibling.

Therapeutic Family Support

Recognising the complexity of Matthew’s emotions, Francesca seeks the help of a family therapist. 

The therapist provides a safe space for Matthew to explore his feelings and develop coping strategies. 

Francesca participates in some of these sessions which helps her to learn some effective communication techniques to support both the boys. The therapist also works with Matthew to look at healthier ways to express and deal with his frustrations.

With consistent support, open communication, positive reinforcement and some therapeutic intervention, Matthew starts to show an improvement in his behaviour towards James. 

He gradually learns to manage his emotions and find healthier outlets for his frustration. The strengthened bond between the brothers not only improves their relationship but also contributes towards a more harmonious environment.

What To Do When Your Child Says Hurtful Things: Summary and Conclusions

When a child says hurtful words, it is important for to you recognise these expressions as a sign of underlying emotional needs, rather than dismissing bad behaviour or thinking you have a bad kid.

Maintaining a calm demeanour, active listening and validating their emotions are essential strategies. But of course, it’s also important to hold secure boundaries and ensure your child is aware that their words are unacceptable.

In the long term, actively teach healthy communication skills and offer unconditional love and support. Through an environment of understanding and empathy, the parent/child bond can be strengthened, and you’ll find a positive way forward.

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5 Actions To Avoid When Your Child Has a Meltdown or Outburst

How to Deal With an Argumentative Child {9 Expert Tips}

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

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