There was one 24-hour period in my single mother life that I remember vividly. I laugh now, but the sting of that day lingered for some time. Each of my children came to me at one point in the day and said, "I hate you."
My response, though textbook, was mechanical. "I love you, and nothing you can do or say will ever change that." I said it quietly and soberly, but the tears filled my eyes once they left. I knew I had not failed them and that it was their anger at my good parenting that provoked them to speak those hurtful words. Nonetheless, they are words no parent ever wants to hear.
One by one, they tiptoed into my room before bedtime and apologized. But the words could not be taken back. And they knew it.
Children need to understand the power in their words. They need to learn that words can wrap around you and make you feel warm and protected, or they can cut you off at the knees. Once spoken, they are in the mind of the listener forever.
I have seen many examples of bad responses to such an utterance. "Well, then, I hate you back." "I guess the next time you want something, I won't be there for you." "You're the worst child any mother could have." "I don't know what I did to deserve such a rotten kid."
While these parents may think they are giving an object lesson, these responses are no better than the harsh words that were spoken in the first place. They do not teach. They are simply an attempt to hurt back. No good can ever come from them.
Instead, we need to handle these outbursts with tender loving care and thoughtfulness.
Never rebut in the heat of the moment
Simply tell them that you love them and that you would like to have a conversation once they have calmed down and can speak respectfully.
Give them a little time and space
Allow them time to cool down and collect themselves. This will vary from child to child. Some get over their anger almost immediately, and others will try to lug it around like a steamer trunk for a week. Don't let it go too long undiscussed.
Tell the truth about how you feel
Let your child know that your feelings were hurt. Or that it made you angry. Whatever it made you feel, share those thoughts with them. They need to understand the impact that their words have.
Allow them to explain their feelings
Once you have told them how you felt, let them tell what happened that brought the outburst on. It might not have been related to you at all. It might have been a bad day at school or an ear infection or a broken toy. Try to help them get to the root of the problem so that it can be addressed.
Follow up with a declaration of love
Give them a big hug and tell them how much you love them, no matter what.
Give them some tools
Teach your children the art of counting to 10 or sleeping on it. Teach them that they don't have to blurt out the first thing that comes into their mind but that they can take some time and say it more constructively. Give them a secret word that they can say if they feel like they are going to tantrum. Some silly word like spaghetti or aardvark. When they say this word, it will signal to you that they need time to calm down before they speak. Respect the word and give them space. Also have a word for yourself to let them know that you need to calm down, as well. Also, if they are old enough, teach them to write down their feelings before presenting them.
Be the example
It is really, really hard to be a parent some days. It just is. But try to muster up the patience to be the adult. I have had horrible days and said words to my children I wish I hadn't. Teach by example the constructive way to handle disputes. Then go to your room, shut the door, turn the music up and let it out.
All humans are prone to outbursts and spewing venomous words. The sooner we learn the power of those words, the better. Children are capable of learning the effects of their words, and it is really important that they learn to choose them wisely. You will all be happier for it.