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Recently, my 3.5-year-old daughter started saying, “I don’t love you, I love mommy.” Also the same phrase with "like" instead of "love".

It’s killing me to hear her say that. But, I know she’s little, and emotional, and doesn’t have a full grasp of the nuances of language yet. So, I’m trying to figure out why.

Quick background: I’ve been the main care provider for most of the 3.5 years. Two days a week, my wife’s parents watch her. When my wife is home from work and on weekends especially, she takes the reins. For well over 3 years my daughter was inseparable from me. But, over the past 3-4 months, as my stress level has become very high, and I’ve snapped (yelled) at her a couple of times (for doing the normal toddler button-pushing stuff, like tantrums and whining, etc.) she’s become quieter towards me.

Now, for the past couple of weeks, she’s started saying, “I don’t love you I love mommy.” I’ve asked her why, and it might have been the yelling, but, she’s been mostly not giving an answer. The few times I had lost my temper and yelled at her, I apologized after and explained that it wasn’t her fault, but mine. Before apologizing and after, I talked about the behaviors that led to my outburst and why they’re not acceptable, then I reiterated my apology. It all seemed fine after.

She still plays with me, doesn’t push me away, and is still excited when I come home. But, the “I don’t love you” has started cropping up randomly, and I don’t know what to do. I just want to make sure there isn’t more I need to do to fix this; other than handling my stress and my time better and giving it time. Does anyone have advice?

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When it comes to words that don't have very concrete meaning to a young mind (such as "love" and "like"), children learn to associate those words (and phrases) with the contexts that they're used in before they actually understand the meaning. This can result in children using phrases in situations where the phrase has valid meaning, even if the child doesn't fully understand it.

So be encouraged by the fact that a 3.5 year old doesn't really understand the depth of that phrase - even though it may seem like she understands it due to using it in similar ways that adults do.

Additionally, it's common for toddlers to attach phrases to patterns in their activities with people. For example, if a parent says "I love you" to a toddler whenever they are dropped off at daycare or tucked into bed, the toddler may view that phrase as "the thing we say to each other when we will be apart for a while".

My recommendation would be simply asking her what that means when she says "I don't love you", or perhaps asking why she loves mommy. You may end up hearing an unexpected definition of "love" :)

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I would suggest that every time you hear her say "I don't love you" or "I hate you", you just translate it in your head to "I am angry at you". Because, essentially, that's exactly what it is. You know she does like you, and she loves you and needs you. She is just misusing the words. If you gently correct her and give her the correct words ("It sounds like you are very angry right now. I think you are angry because .... Is that right?) and then help her to deal with her anger (kids need to express their anger, so don't come down on her for that) and don't make a big deal out of her wording, she will learn how to more appropriately express her feelings. Show her that she gets a better result when she expresses herself correctly.

I've seen this happen time and time again. I think most children use this phrase at some time. The younger ones use it out of ignorance, expressing a permanent condition when they are actually reacting to a temporary emotion. The only ones who I have seen express it as older children are the ones who have learned that it can be used to manipulate their parents. Sometimes they use it to punish, sometimes to set parents against each other.

That's the danger at this age. If she gets a reaction out of you when she does something, she will explore it. That's just the way kids at that age are. They try things out without understanding the consequences. It sounds like she has accidentally stumbled upon a way of expressing her anger which seems more effective than the other ways she has tried.

I would absolutely disagree with the advice that you let her know that what she said hurt you. That would be a little like finding a child waving a gun around and loading bullets into it to show them the seriousness of what they were doing. Don't give it more weight than it deserves at this age, which is none.

One last suggestion. It might be that the "I love mommy" came out of the fact that your anger may have frightened her. What she "loved" might have been the not-yelling. Raised voices can be very frightening to children. If it never happens again, she will hopefully forget about it. But you need to look out for repeats. I have a sibling with anger problems, and he had some problems with yelling at his young son. His son started having nightmares about daddy being a monster. So he made a promise to his son that if he was yelling, all his son had to do is hold up the peace sign (two fingers in a V) and he would stop yelling. No matter what. And he has kept that promise, as far as I know. It gives his son the feeling that he has some control over a situation that frightens him, and that's something kids need.

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    I love this answer! But since I'm disagreeing today, I'll disagree only with "I would absolutely disagree with the advice that you let her know that what she said hurt you." The truth isn't wrong. It's no different from telling her that hitting her little brother hurts him (but in a different way.) It's teaching emotional intelligence, and it may well be better than swallowing the hurt. I don't know why, but when he was 4, my little brother told my mother one night at bedtime that he hated her. She never put him to bed again. People can do some pretty stupid and destructive things when hurt. – anongoodnurse Aug 19 at 17:05
  • @anongoodnurse, I see what you are saying and I agree that I shouldn't have phrased that so absolutely. The trick is to model hurt feelings to your child without actually allowing the hurt to control your actions. I know entirely too many people who use their emotional state to manipulate people into doing what they want, and saying "see how what you just did hurt my feelings" is the first step toward that category of manipulative behavior. Not saying OP would do that, but I wanted to mention it. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Aug 20 at 16:13
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So first thing's first. You're correct to downplay it and not let it bother you. All kids go through this phase. It's normal. And what's more due to age the definition of "love" may not be the same as it is for you. Your child doesn't have to like you, that's not your job. And that might be all she is saying is that she doesn't like you right now. That is fair, normal, and will happen quite a bit. She may even be trying to say she would rather spend time with her mom than you. Again totally normal, especially if your there all the time and mommy is there only a little bit.

That said, however, parents need to be able to express their feelings too. It's a great way to model to their children how things should make you feel and how to handle those feelings. I would suggest, at the start, you simply respond with something like "That's ok I still love you." If it keeps happening then it's time to teach the lesson that words can hurt.

You need to be careful here, but you want to make sure your child understands that what she says hurts you. And you don't like that she says it. At the same time, you want to take extra care to make sure you're not saying "Don't say that combination of words or you will get in trouble!" You want to let her know you are hurt and sad because she says that, but that you still love her.

If it continues past that then I suggest you Mope a bit. Something like "Ok, I hear you, but I still love you." then put on a sad face and go sit in your room. Let her see that it made you sad.

This is a great chance to teach that words can hurt, but again you don't want to limit her expression, and you don't want to take too seriously what she is saying.

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    I did upvote this; it's good advice. I do question this, however: "If it continues past that then I suggest you Mope a bit. Something like "Ok, I hear you, but I still love you." then put on a sad face and go sit in your room. Let her see that it made you sad." This is an example of emotional manipulation. If you don't want to teach the child how to be emotionally manipulative, you should not model it. It does limit her expression through guilt. The rest of the answer is spot on, though. +1. – anongoodnurse Aug 19 at 13:43
  • I see your point, but while I can't think of a good way to word it is essentially, that if just saying that it makes you sad doesn't work, then show that it makes you sad. Some kids understand a sad face much more then they do "that makes me sad". It can be just as bad to say something like "That really hurts me when you say things like that, here have a cookie and hand me the glitter sparkels." You may have to demonstrate what hurt looks like so that they understand. Again, though great care should be taken, your trying to show "being hurt" or sad but as the bad nurse says there are risks. – coteyr Aug 19 at 16:15
  • I think putting on a sad face for a moment after explaining is fine. A 3.5 year old will understand much more than most people think (hence don't model manipulation.) As I said, the rest is spot on, and I could not agree more, but beware of the bad nurse. :) (Or is it, not a good nurse but something else?) The rest of your answer models acceptance, respect and forgiveness beautifully. – anongoodnurse Aug 19 at 16:48
  • a-non-good-nurse – coteyr Aug 19 at 19:00
  • a non-(good nurse) – anongoodnurse Aug 19 at 20:51
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I feel like this is standard toddler exploring boundaries. My children did similar things around that age. Some of it is just seeing what you say and how you react; this is how she learns.

It’s not a reaction to your behavior, I don’t think. For the most part kids that age seem to have pretty short memories - as long as you ended the interaction on a positive note in particular; and as long as it’s not very extreme or very frequent.

I think that the best reaction is to let her know that it’s okay to feel that way if she does, that you still love her, and that it makes you feel sad that she says that. All of those are true and that helps her learn what impact her language has. Help her develop her emotional vocabulary so she can describe exactly what she feels.

It’s also pretty common for this to happen to the primary caregiver specifically, as the secondary caregiver often is seen as the ‘fun’ parent as they are less involved in the mundane side of things and a higher proportion of their time is spent doing fun things. Toddlers who don’t have the emotional vocabulary yet can see this as liking one parent more, when they really mean they like the things they do with that parent. Odds are she’d also like to see Mom more (since she sees her less often now) and that affects this as well.

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