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My 4 year-old daughter keeps saying to her mom that she doesn't like/love her, and refuses to retract the comment or say sorry. Is this "normal"? A "phase"? It's pretty hard for mom to take.

For context, mom is a stay at home mom, and I work. My daughter seems "normal" enough, but perhaps a little non-social (not anti-social; just doesn't actively seek out the company of others her age). I (father) have a close relationship with my daughter, and she spontaneously says she loves me.

There is a younger sister 2.5 year-old on the scene, and she is very attached to mom. My enquiries to my daughter as to why she is feeling this way seem to point toward her being jealous of the attention mom gives the little one.

Have others encountered this behaviour? Should we be seeing a shrink? My suggested "solution" is for mom to spend some special one-on-one time with her.

Any feedback/ideas/experience welcome.

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    Hi, and welcome to the site (or, congrats on your first post!) For clarification's sake, is the "she" you refer to in "She seems intelligent enough..." your daughter or her mom? How long has she been saying this? You (probably quite correctly) surmise she's jealous of her little sister. Do you see direct correlations between certain behaviors? Finally, what do you and your wife do when she says this? – anongoodnurse Apr 13 '15 at 15:12
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    "She" is daughter - I meant she seems "normal" enough. She's been saying it for a short while. No obvious correlation of behaviour. Wife initially told DD that she was saying hurtful things - that got no traction as you might guess (it may have worsened the situation, because DD knew it was pushing wife buttons). Tonight DW had some "extra fun" time with DD and DD seemed to really enjoy it. I do think it's jealousy because when I suggested reasons for feeling that way, everything got "I don't know", except when I asked "is it because mommy doesn't give you enough attention"... "yes" – Bohemian Apr 13 '15 at 15:17
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    When in doubt, don't go to the shrink with a 4 years old. A lot of what happens at that age is temporary and does not need the heavy-hitting of a shrink to fix. – Mast Apr 13 '15 at 22:58
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    Everyone. Thanks for all your feedback. My wife started consciously giving DD more affectionate attention - not overboard, but directed specifically at the older child (rather than "I love you both" type affection), and already dividends! DD said "I love you" to mom as I left the house this morning to drop DD at kindergarten. Everyone is much happier. All the advice was spot on, but in particular not taking her words literally but as a metaphor for "I need to be given individual affection". Thanks again all. – Bohemian Apr 13 '15 at 23:12
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    @Mast, a professional child psychiatrist or psychologist (which I assume is what you and the OP are referring to when talking about a "shrink") is as capable as anyone here to quickly see that whether this is a small temporary thing (as it seems all of us here, including myself, think) or something requiring "hard-hitting". So you shouldn't really be afraid to go to a "shrink" when in doubt. – Zano Apr 15 '15 at 17:36
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I think your instincts of jealousy are spot-on. My daughter did this starting when her little brother arrived home from the hospital, and every time she felt like he was getting more of Mama's attention, out came the verbal knives.

Our fix was to schedule special one-on-one time with her when we could. And when things were just too crazy to carve very much one-on-one time out, we included her in taking care of her little brother; when she felt more included (get his diapers, read a book to him, help one of us with a household chore) she was much happier and reverted less to the "I don't love you, Mama" pronouncements.

In other words, I'm not a pediatrician or a psychologist, but our experience with a jealous elder child tracked closely to yours. And the solution you are considering worked for us. Give Mom an extra hug from this internet stranger; I remember how much it stung when my eldest would lash out with "I don't love you!"

ETA: @DavidBoshton reminded me: when my daughter would lash out (and I was past the postpartem nightmare of hormones), I would reply, "That's okay. I love you even if you don't love me. I will never stop loving you." This also helps when she throws a tantrum even today (girlfriend gets hangry like no one's business).

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    +1 for "That's okay. I love you even if you don't love me. I will never stop loving you." – davidjwest Apr 13 '15 at 14:34
  • For our son who does the same, we made the distinction between not liking/loving mom (you don't have to say 'I love you' to your mom), and saying something hurtful, like 'I don't like you' or 'I only love dad'. It worked - mostly. Issue here was probably more mom being a little strict than jealousy. – Ida Apr 13 '15 at 16:49
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    We seem to have avoided this problem with our eldest by including her in the care of her younger brother at every possible chance. – Michael Robinson Apr 15 '15 at 22:04
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There are a couple of things going on here, and both will probably be due to attention.

You said that mum finds it difficult. That means that she probably reacts slightly. This means that your daughter knows that she can say something that:

  1. Gets noticed.
  2. Gets a reaction.
  3. Brings attention. All attention, positive or negative is attention to a child.

If your daughter does feel lonely or unloved, which may be likely if she's been number one for the past few years, then positive attention is what she needs. The "I hate you" comments need to be fielded with "Ok, do you know why?" and if the conversation stops there, then a bit afterwards your wife needs to initiate conversation. The more your wife initiates conversation with your daughter, even to say small talk, the more your daughter will value it. One-on-one time is essential as well, but a more general acknowledgement is very healthy; the key point being that it can't be in reaction to her saying the stuff she is.

Basically change it so your daughter gets the same amount of attention whether she says such things (which aren't true otherwise she'd actually be walking around in fear -- imagine hating someone who was twice your height who lived in your house!) or not. So be reassured; she doesn't mean it. She just loves you both, but has found a way to get mum to acknowledge her every time; by hurting her emotionally. To help the reaction, when she says:

"I hate you"

Actually you need to hear and respond as if she has said:

"I love you and I miss you"

That will change things. Again, to iterate, that can't be the trigger for her getting attention.

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    +1 for conversing with your daughter when she lashes out verbally. – Valkyrie Apr 13 '15 at 14:09
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    Good point about (like publicity) any attention is good attention. I think my wife reacted too much and in the wrong way. I'll suggest to DW to resist responding/reacting, especially at the time and rather treat such comments as a "memo" to increase positive involvement/inclusion Thanks for your considered answer. – Bohemian Apr 13 '15 at 15:31
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In addition to the previous answers, which are good, it's also important to understand that small children live in a different world than adults (one full of mysteries) and that many words have different meaning to them.

When you think of your daughter's love for her mother you probably think of the kind of relation that would leave a huge sore wound if her mother suddenly disappeared. Your daughter probably doesn't mean that at all. The odds are that this relation is intact, your daughter takes it for granted, and she can't even imagine a world without her mother (or without her father).

While it's hard to tell with certainty what your daughter means, I think there is a good chance she is applying a model of interpersonal relations that was shaped to a large extent by relations with other children. She likes children who do what she tells them, and she doesn't like children who do things she doesn't like, such as hitting her or not giving her the toys she wants. In this logic, it's quite normal for children to 'like' or 'love' their grandparents better than their parents. Grandparents typically get all the positive interactions involved in parenting, whereas parents are involved in the daily grind. And for similar reasons a typical modern father who sometimes (albeit perhaps too rarely) spends quality time with a child but rarely has to forbid something is often 'liked' or 'loved' better than a typical housewife mother, who tends to be associated with having to clean up the room and not being allowed to eat chocolate before dinner. Or even, as in your case, with spending more time on a younger sibling. Children don't 'like' such mothers any more than they like playmates who prefer playing with other children.

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    Definitely have different meanings. My (3.5 yo) son told me this morning that he wasn't friends with mommy anymore, because she re-sorted his socks in a different way. Then he told me he doesn't like ketchup (at all) after having had a bunch with a hot dog earlier that day. "I don't like" translates to "I don't want/feel like right now", mostly, and "I'm not friends" means that he is irritated. Totally different from how I'd use the terms. – Joe Apr 13 '15 at 19:57
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I also have a four-year-old daughter, and she is very socially adept. She uses different techniques to get things she wants from different people, and she can be very dramatic for effect.

If your daughter is at all like mine, she probably just enjoys the impact that her words are having on her mother, especially if her mom responds by trying extra hard to "win" her love. Whatever this statement really means, your daughter's mother should be reassured that it doesn't mean she is doing anything wrong, or that her daughter actually doesn't love her.

As a side note, my children once spontaneously rated the grownups in their life, calling their out-of-state grandma the "nicest" and their mother the least "nice." We quickly realized that they perceived the grown-ups they saw the least often (and thus the ones that least often had to provide any discipline) as the "nicest."

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While it's not 100% relevant to you (unless you have more kids :) ) - one bit of advice I think makes sense is to not relate too many changes to the newborn in a way that makes the existing kids feel less of a priority.

An example: friends of ours had two boys, each with their own bedroom. Their plan was to move the boys into bunkbeds in their own room when the next one came along (a girl).

We advised them to move the boys first, a few months before the baby came. That way they would be settled into their new place, and it wouldn't feel as though the new child were being prioritised.

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Definitely don't write off the fact that a stay-at-home mom is taken for granted automatically by their children for being present most of the time (even if they don't think they get enough attention), and you are fascinating and "scarce" (economically speaking) simply by working and not being home all of the time. The stay-at-home mom is more constantly saying "get out of there, don't do that," and a good working dad is liable to lay on affection that may seem more noticeable to the child because they don't get it as often from you, and you might tend to "spoil" your children even in simple ways like not reacting to a situation as acutely as mom might be, who has been putting up with their shenanigans all day. I know that as a working father by Sunday afternoon (when I'm with the kids all weekend) I am way less likely to put up with arguing, backtalk, fighting amongst themselves, etc because you get burned out.

With me it goes both ways -- sometimes it's obvious that they are more excited about me in the moment because I'm not around all day, and I bring goodies home randomly and so on, and sometimes mom gets more authority and credence because she is around, and I have to explain that we are equal partners, both in charge.

  • Welcome to the site! This answer seems to be tackling a different issue than asked. That is, your answer seems to be to a question "Why does my daughter says she loves me, but not my wife?" instead of the question "Why is my daughter explicitly saying she doesn't love her mother?" – user11394 Apr 16 '15 at 3:14
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At once I read this, I feel what I felt inside so long. And I want to explain you about that according to your post. I am also a daughter of my mom (who is angry almost everytime). I loved her so much. When I feel good things, I also want her to feel. When I eat good food, I want her to taste it too.. Now.. she started to refuse it, talking against every word I said. I feel really stupid and felt like she never loved me enough.

You daughter is saying "She doesn't love her mom"? [First] Thing, she loved her mom alot before. [Second], may be she is feeling jealous in being compared with her younger. [though it might not being compared, girl feels it being compared, means every words is important for a young girl mind!] [Third] She started to ignore her (mom). She might feeling herself stupid when she talk to her. Maybe Mom is not replying every words she said, she thinks no one loves her. OR [Fourth] She started to stay strong without her mom, thinking she can be better without her.

Since every reason real or not, I think you are a good father sharing people about this to get back your daughter with love on her mom. I think giving time with her mom is not just enough. There would be some reasons she's saying that. So find it out. And let her talk/share. Be the good parents by listening what she wants to tell....

Hope it helps!

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I sometimes tell my children I do not like them right now (when they have done something wrong) but that I will always love them with all my heart. That it is OK to be angry at someone (me at them, or them at me) but one must never, ever forget that we are a family and love is always there.

I found that it helped them a lot to make the distinction between short-term moods (and they feel that they can be angry but that this is temporary) and long-term bounds. I actually think that it reduced the amount of bad temper.

Four years old may be a bit early for that, I started to have these discussions about 6 if I remember correctly. Worth a try, though.

PS. it is easier if in your native language there is a simple distinction between love and like. This is not the case in French so the wording gets complicated.

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    Never tell kids (or anyone else for that matter) that you don't like them. They remember it for ever. Say, that wasn't a nice thing to do, or later on say, I don't want to do X with you because you had a screaming fit last time we did X. – RedSonja Apr 14 '15 at 8:24
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    I’ve been on the receiving end of “I love you, but I don’t like you right now.” Please, don’t ever do that to a child. It’s horrible. The nuance that I picked up from that was “I don’t really love you, either.” – Bradd Szonye Apr 15 '15 at 2:23
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    The key thing with all people is that they view their behaviors and their selves as different things. So saying "I don't like how you are acting" is completely different to them than "I don't like you." Just like saying "You are stupid" on the Internet doesn't get the same results as "What you just said does not make sense." People respond much more emotionally to things which are aimed at their "self" (positive or negative); people respond more rationally to things aimed at their behaviors. – Kyle Hale Apr 15 '15 at 16:11
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    I think it would be better to say I don't like what you're doing right now, or I don't like how you're treating me right now, or I don't like your behavior right now. There is a big distinction when talking to your kids, or anybody for that matter, between I don't like you and I don't like X thing you're choosing to do right now. – axiopisty Apr 15 '15 at 17:40
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    I'm a licensed counselor that specializes in counseling children. So, please listen when I say what everyone else has been telling you. Never, ever say this to a child. You cannot assume this has no negative effect on the child just because it doesn't seem like it. I'll clarify. Never do this to anyone, least of all a child in their most formative years. Doing the opposite can be very healing. It's a counseling technique called externalization, the process of speaking to behaviors and habits as separate and distinct from the person. Please, please, please do that, instead. – Attackfarm Apr 17 '15 at 6:37

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