Our child development specialist tackles how to handle it when toddlers show and express negative emotions.
blonde girl pouting

Q. Recently, my 4-year-old told me she hated me when I said she couldn't have a cookie. I know she doesn't mean it, but should I be concerned?

A. I wouldn't worry. I have a friend who, at age 6, was denied a plastic alligator at the toy store. When he returned home, he wrote his mother a card with a green alligator scrawled on the front and the words "Dear Mommy: I hate you" on the inside. Being a parent means that we are on the receiving end of great emotion -- great love and sometimes great dislike when we deny our kids something they want but clearly don't need.

Preschoolers feel things very deeply and are not afraid to tell you what they think. So it's your job to help them learn how to deal with these strong feelings. Let your child know you understand how she feels without condoning what she said: "You are so mad at me for not letting you have a cookie." I would pay little attention to her use of the word "hate," or you'll make the word more powerful for her. However, if you want to try to prevent her from using "hate" again, let her know that the word is not okay and offer other words and ways to express her feelings. For example, she might say, "I am so mad at you!" as she stomps her feet. Sometimes parents have to make unpopular choices, but rest assured, your daughter loves you, even more than chocolate chunk cookies.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit organization that promotes the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, October 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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