My four-year-old seems to be going through a big “I hate you” phase. It’s usually when he’s frustrated by something I won’t let him do, or when he’s mad that my attention is on the baby (I have an 8-month-old, too), though sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. What’s the best way to respond?

Ah, the old I hate you. Not just for teens! Let’s start by saying that, as with all parenting, there is no single right answer here—it depends on your child, the specific situation, and you. I am considering getting this tattooed on my body (or, maybe less dramatically, repeating it at the beginning of every Q&A). That said, here are a few principles to keep in mind when thinking about how to respond:

  • Accidental reinforcement. When we give lots of attention to a behavior, it tends to occur more frequently (i.e., it gets “reinforced”). This is true, even if we think that attention is negative (e.g., yelling, a long lecture about respect, a deep exploration of where these feelings are coming from). Try to avoid this.
  • Set a boundary. The first few times this happens, you might try setting a firm, simple, and emotionally neutral boundary, like: We do not say “I hate you” in our family.
  • Validate the emotion. You can validate the emotion behind a behavior, without indicating that the behavior itself is okay. So, you might say something like: It seems like you’re feeling frustrated. It’s okay to be mad. And then hold the boundary: *And* we do not use those words in our family. 
  • Ignore. If this keeps happening, you might try an “active ignoring” approach. They say I hate you! You act as if you haven’t heard it, maybe even turning your head away and looking in the other direction. You might try prompting: As soon as Billy is using kind words, we can start playing trains again. And once they stop, you resume playing and giving positive attention: I love how you’re using nice words!
  • Natural consequences. Another option: trying a natural consequence. They say I hate you! You give a warning, i.e., We don’t use those words in our house. If you say those words again, we will have to stop playing trains. If they do it again, follow through: Because you used those words again, we have to stop playing trains now. We can try again later.
  • Talk about it later. If you’re worried the I hate you’s are indicating some larger difficulties (e.g., feeling that they’re not getting enough attention, frustration at not being able to do things they want to do, adjustment to a new sibling), try bringing it up later, when everyone is calm, and helping them think through other ways to express it. Before, when you said I hate you to Mom, I know you didn’t really mean it. I wonder if you were feeling frustrated that your brother got to play with your train. It can be really hard to share. Let’s think of some things you could do next time you’re feeling frustrated.
  • Try not to take it personally. This can be hard, I know. But kids are just little experimenters, constantly throwing spaghetti at the wall (literally and figuratively) to see what sticks, to test out how we (and they) will respond. Try to see this as, simply, the latest strand of spaghetti. Nothing personal—if, at times, a little messy.

I’ve always been a worrier. It’s usually about big stuff, like my job, my kids, or my family’s health, though sometimes it’s about stuff that I objectively realize is silly (like, remembering I need to get our HVAC serviced, or to pack my daughter’s school lunch tomorrow morning). It’s usually worse at night, when I’m trying to go to sleep. How do I stop it? 

Worry involves repeated, unpleasant thoughts about the future. Key word: unpleasant. It’s common for it to come up at times of day when our brains have fewer distractions (i.e., right when we lay down to sleep, with our partner, somehow, snoring unbothered beside us).

So can’t we just, you know, make it stop?

Yes and no. On the one hand, some amount of worry is totally normal and, actually, good for us (boooo!). Research suggests that in reasonable doses, worry can motivate us to take action to prevent negative outcomes, and can point us toward our values (e.g., worrying about our job might indicate that our career matters to us). For many people, though, worry takes on a life of its own. It quickly becomes so intense, or so frequent, that it’s no longer helping. Instead, it tricks us into thinking we’re being productive (if I just spend a few more hours ruminating over the varied yet equally horrific ways my work presentation could go wrong, maybe I can avoid them!), while actually making things worse.

What can we do when we get into a worry spiral?

Imagine the worry is an ice cube (bear with me, here). When we go all-in on worrying, we’re grabbing the ice cube in our hands, squeezing as tightly as possible, and hanging on for dear, frost-bitten life, hoping it will melt. This is one option, but we have other options, too:

Option 1: Engage with it. Throw it up and down a little, move it back and forth between your hands, try to work through it as it melts. In other words, apply reason to the worry. Ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it that this will happen? If the worst thing did happen, how would I handle it? Often, our feared outcomes are highly unlikely, and we’d be better equipped to handle them than we think. (For the therapy nerds among us, this is a CBT approach called “cognitive restructuring”).

Option 2: Lay your hand flat, let the ice cube sit there, and just watch as it melts. This will still be slightly uncomfortable, but less so than the ice cube death-grip approach. In other words, observe the worry. Instead of trying to reason through it, look at your worry as if you’re an outside observer. Just notice it, get curious about it, and know that eventually, it will fade away. Approach it neutrally and without judgment (How interesting that this thought just popped into my head). (This is often used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT).

Option 3: Put the ice cube back in the freezer and take it out later, when you’re ready to deal with it. Try scheduling times of day when you will worry. When a worry pops up outside of those times, tell yourself I’ll just save that for Worry Time. Then, in the moment, try some distraction (e.g., go for a walk, listen to a podcast, try naming all the state capitals, count backwards from 1000 by 3’s, etc). Seems too simple, but can be surprisingly effective.

Note: If you are concerned that your level of worry is getting in the way of your day-to-day life, or are finding it especially distressing, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for support.

I keep hearing about this new law about kids and social media in Utah. What’s the deal with that? 

On March 23, Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox signed two bills related to social media use. They are here and here, and are set to go into effect on March 1, 2024.

The bills define social media platforms as online forums that allow people to create profiles, upload posts, view posts of other users, and interact with other users. Qualifications are made to rule out things like email, Google docs, and text messaging. The rules apply only to platforms with more than 5 million users worldwide.

Here are the highlights. Social media companies:

  • Must verify the age of anyone with a social media account
  • Must get parent/guardian consent for any minor (under age 18) with an account
  • For minors, cannot: display ads, allow direct messaging with “certain accounts,” show their accounts in search results, or target them with any accounts or content.
  • For minors, must prohibit access between 10:30pm and 6:30am. Parents/guardians can change or modify this.
  • For minors, must “provide a parent or guardian access to the content and interactions” of their accounts, including all posts and messages.
  • Cannot use any “practice, design, or feature” that “causes a Utah minor” to “have an addiction to the social media platform.” Addiction is defined as use that indicates “substantial preoccupation or obsession” or “substantial difficulty to cease or reduce use” of platforms, and that “causes physical, mental, emotional, developmental, or material harms.”

I am not a legal or policy expert, so I won’t weigh in here on the likelihood that these will actually go into effect, or on the best ways to regulate (or not regulate) these companies. Instead, I’ll say this:

  • Age verification and parent/guardian consent seem reasonable to me. How these would happen, while protecting users’ privacy, is less clear, but I am optimistic it is possible.
  • Between not allowing any “targeted content” and removing any feature that might cause (very broadly defined) “addiction,” these bills would render social media platforms…not social media. They’d probably look more like simple messaging platforms.
  • A parent viewing all their 17-year-old’s private messages is, really, not developmentally appropriate. I’m not sure that preventing all access between 10:30pm and 6:30 am is, either. Whether parents should have the option to do that, as these lawmakers argue, is a different question.
  • My guess is that if these changes were to go into effect, teens would just stop using these platforms and move onto something else. Maybe that’s the point.

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About the Author: Jacqueline Nesi
Jacqueline Nesi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and the author of the popular newsletter Techno Sapiens.

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