Son Says, “I Don’t Love You, Mommy”

Dear Miss Faith,
My son is 2.75 years old and recently shocked me by looking me in the eye and saying, “I no love you mama.” Shocked. I said, “you don’t love me? you don’t like that I am changing your diaper right now, do you.” He said, “I just no love you mama. I no love you.” I was stuck. He normally tells me he loves me 20 times a day and is effusive. I feel hurt, of course, that he said this– but mostly have no idea what to do about it. I don’t want to encourage it, but it seems strange to ignore it. I kind of ignored it, “I said, you are upset with mama right now. I love you, bug, even when you are upset with me.” And then I walked away, because *I* needed a moment. ugh. Do you have any insight into this. I don’t want this to become a pattern. I feel rather manipulated and stuck.

Dear Mama,
You poor thing! Thanks for writing. As hard as it seems, I want to encourage you not to take it personally when your son says this. If your son is normally ‘effusive,’ then telling you that he doesn’t love you isn’t going to mean much–unless he sees that it means a lot to you when he does it. At this age (and most other ages, really) children try out different things, and when they hit on one that gets a big reaction, they feel compelled to try it some more.

“Play” Sad

I thought the words that you used were lovely, but you are obviously still feeling upset about it, so it seems it wasn’t quite enough. When a young child does something that hurts your feelings, it can be good to tell them how it affects you, but it’s important to do it in a way that isn’t overwhelming. On way you can do that is by ‘playing’ your emotions. “You don’t love me?! Oh no! That makes me feel sooooo saaadddd.” Make a frowny/pouty face. Or even pretend to cry. “Boo-hoo-hoo! Boo-hoo-hoo! My son doesn’t love me!” Peek out of the corner of your eyes or through your fingers, and see what his reaction is (it’s often a little smile). At that point, instead of wallowing in bad feelings –yours or his–, make an effort to re-connect with him.

Re-Connect

Do this in one of the ways that kids feel connected, through humor, imagination, physical fun, or snuggles. Blow a raspberry on his belly, nuzzle his neck, chase and tickle. This might also be a good time to show him that you’ll love him no matter what. Do you know the classic picture book, ‘The Runaway Bunny“? The little bunny says he’ll run away in different ways, and every way he comes up with, the mama bunny comes up with a way to bring him back and love him (as in, “I’ll turn into a fish in a trout stream and swim away from you,” “Then I’ll turn into a fisherman and catch you and hold you in my arms” etc.). You can do a version of this with your son. “Even if you don’t love me, I will love you forever!” “In fact, I love you so much, I’d climb a tall mountain to show you how much I love you.” “In fact, I love you so much, I’d change a thousand diapers for you. Oh, wait! I have! I must love you more than anything!” Make it playful and fun, showing him that you’ll love him no matter what.
I think that this type of thing is very common with kids around this age, because they’re realizing that they’re really separate from you, and they’re also realizing that they have the power to affect you. You can show them that it DOES affect you (by playfully being sad) and then show them that your love for them is not fleeting, but is strong and steady, no matter what they try or how mad they get, or whatever big feelings they have. Does this make sense?

Address Needs Before Methods

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, if I turn it into a game, won’t that just encourage him to do it more and more?” Here are my thoughts on that: I suspect that what your son is trying to tell you is that he doesn’t feel as connected to you as he wishes he did. I believe that it’s best to address the underlying need (for connection) first, and address the means by which it’s communicated later. If you find that he does start saying “I don’t love you” in order to get the game, you can let him know how he can ask for connection in ways that you both can enjoy. Give him the words to say, and then be sure to listen and respond when he does ask in the way you’ve taught him, so he doesn’t have to do something that gets a big reaction to get your attention.

Remember, our kids DO love us, and they want our love and attention more than anything. Being 2.75 is a hard age, full of new emotions and experiences. We can start teaching them the murky realm of relationship, in ways that are fun and loving.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this post! We are going through this same issue right now – though my son is 3.75 and is saying it more and more. He is grumpy lots of the time and isn’t wanting to connect through snuggles and hugs. I’m wondering if it is post-holiday let-down or a bit more. I will try some of these strategies to see if they work.

    • Michelle, When kids don’t want to connect in the ways we try to connect with them, it’s often because they are longing to connect in another way: physical fun, humor (toddler humor: sound effects and funny voices are hilarious) or imagination. Telling stories about when you were a little girl and didn’t want to do whatever it is that he doesn’t want to do, can be great. Singing silly songs can also be very connecting, once you’re beyond your hurt feelings. Give some of those a try.

  2. I’ve gone through a few phases like this with my own son! Wow, they are painful. In our case, it was clear that our child was feeling disconnected. “No like Mommy” was his mantra, and he really seemed to mean it. The first time we went through this was just after his little brother was born, and the second time was during a difficult nursing period where little brother needed extra attention for health reasons. Our 2 year old was clearly feeling neglected, so I think he started protecting himself by pushing me away (very forcefully!). Once we realized what was happening, we changed our own habits in small but significant ways, and my little guy and I gradually reconnected. Our new house rule is that when one of us is spending cuddle, play or reading time with our oldest son, the other parent automatically becomes solely responsible for the baby. If we think the baby is going to need to nurse, we transition FIRST to an irresistibly fun activity with Daddy, like going outside to shovel snow. This has really helped!

  3. I go through this a lot! My daughters father recently passed away. So when it was time to go see her grandfather she would say I don’t love you, I love paw paw. I just explained to her that I love her and it hurts my feelings that she doesn’t love me and cried. She said its ok mommy I love you. I explained that it is ok to love mommy and paw paw and she understood and I haven’t heard her say it since!

  4. Kendra Bean says:

    My son will be 3 years old in 3 December. In the last couple weeks he has been extra difficult and very whiny. When I tell him i love him he just yells “no! Don’t say that to me!” Or “no!”. He stopped saying I love you and only wants daddy to put him to bed. I’ve been crying bc it hurts so bad.

    • Kendra, that sounds so hard! Children often go through phases of preferring one parent over the other, and it hurts. Especially if there is hurtful language as well. It sounds like your son is asking for both connection AND boundaries. Talk with your husband and decide who will do bedtimes. If it is him for awhile, that’s fine. Or you can have a “rule” that you alternate nights, or whatever. But if it’s your turn, let your son know that he doesn’t get to make the choice tonight. It may be upsetting for him, but that’s OK. He is not the decision-maker in this part of his life. At the same time that you’re increasing your discipline/boundaries, increase your connection as well. If you tell him that you love him and he yells “don’t say that to me!” rather than taking it seriously and feeling hurt, act like he just made the biggest joke in the world. Laugh and say, “I love you NO MATTER WHAT!” After a second, tell him, “Tell me No again!” If he says “No,” you say, “Yup! I STILL love you! Say No again!” He might say “No,” but it’s likely to turn into a game at this point. Tell him, “I love you no matter what! I love you no matter what!” and start chasing him around and trying to tickle him. This little game can accomplish a lot of things at once. First, it lets him know that he’s not in charge of your feelings. Children act like they want to be in charge, but when they feel like they ARE in charge, it brings on anxiety. Second, it lets him know that your love is unconditional. He doesn’t have to make you feel good in order to get it, your love is just a fact. Third, it works on reconnecting with him through humor (very connecting) and physical fun (also very connecting). Despite his unkind words, all children long to feel connected to the important adults in their lives, and your son is certainly no exception. If you can figure out how to side-step these negative interactions that you’ve gotten into, to re-establish connection and establish some boundaries (he’s not in charge), then this will likely take the two of you a long way toward repairing your relationship. Good luck!

  5. Hi im a single mo. Doing all this alone really and recently my 3 year old is now in school first time and he been having alot issues sayi g he dont wanna go home when hes in school or im scared to go home when he gets home hes ok but hes been saying he. Do t love me anymore and its really killing me i side couse this lil boy is my world seriously and i dk how to fix this i tell i love him anyways and i do make laugj and then he starts to say i love u and and. Stuff what am i doing so wrong i need help on this im crushed im in tears writi g all this

    • Oh, Tiana, hugs to you! Starting school can be such a big change for children. I think that you’re on the right track. You’re reassuring him that you love him no matter what, and then you’re connecting with him by being silly and making him laugh. Laughter really is a wonderful connector, so be sure to get there as often as possible: being silly, chasing games and physical fun, talking in funny voices, and more. It can feel so hard to do this when you’re tired and when a child is really pushing your buttons, but it will be so reassuring to him and he can drop those hurtful phrases at school. Hang in there, Mama!

  6. Hi, im a single mum. My ex husband had an affair and now he is still with the woman he had an affairs with.
    My son is very angry. Everything seems to be happy and smiley when things are going his way. He laughs and says he loves me all the time. He loves higs and kisses. Sometimes tho especially at bed time he geta completely out of control and im loosing my temper at times. It happened i gave him a slap in the bum w h och i felt was the only way to get through to him, also shouting seems to be only thing that works to get him to pay some attention. It’s like a competition whoever shouts louder is the leader. Its killing me. I don’t like that way i dont like the shouting and slaps. It’s killing me on the inside. He often says i dont love u mummy, i will go away, also he says that my ex husbands partner is a good girl and mummy is a bad girl cause mummy shouts, it hurts me so bad. I have no one no mum no dad to nana to support me, im on my own completely, i burst in tears at times cause i feel like all my efforts are going unnoticed.
    I don’t know what to do. Im trying everything talking to him, explaining hoe it makes me feel,that im doing everything i can to be the best mummy. He’s just turns away from me and he refuses any higs and snuggles
    I feel like such a failure as a mother. I feel like i cant manage jim, like i have no control. My ex husband left us never looked back. He treats my son like a on call child. Doesn’t take him regularly and now he’s after having a baby with her. So im affraid he wull neglect my son even more abd my son will be even more confused and angry. Please help me.. i don’t know what to do any more.

  7. Hi Liz, Thank you so much for writing and for sharing so deeply. What challenges you’re going through! You say you don’t have any family to support you, so I wonder where else you can get support? Nobody can do everything alone; it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent at all. I am absolutely available as a resource for you, please send me a private message at faith@joyfutoddlers.com and we can talk about setting up calls together. Hugs to you, Mama.

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