Your 10-year-old son begs you to buy him the newest video game. He cries, “All my friends have it. Why can’t you be like all the other parents? They buy their kids the stuff they want!” Or, your 16-year-old daughter is annoyed that she has to drive the old beat up Chevy to school. “I don’t want to be seen in this piece of junk! Have you seen what kind of cars the other kids drive!?”
If you’re like most parents, your pulse probably rises as you listen to your kids’ demands and witness their attitudes of entitlement. You might even be wondering what went wrong. It’s easy to get down on yourself and think, “How did I raise a child who is so self involved? Where did she get the idea that I am on this earth to just serve her needs?!"
The truth is, self-absorption is not easy to live with. Children, particularly teens, deeply believe that they are entitled to the things they want and need – and that you should provide it for them on demand. They rarely recognize that their insistence that they get what they want and their entitled ways impact others. And let’s face it, teens and tweens can sometimes be arrogant with their belief that they are special. Many act defiant, demanding and down-right rude if they don’t get their way. They will plead, threaten, manipulate and can drive you crazy with the relentlessness of their demands and their righteous belief that they deserve whatever it is that they want.
Don’t panic. You are not to blame.
Believe it or not, your child is not the only one. His or her sense of entitlement is actually a normal and necessary stage of development on their journey toward adulthood. Your job as a parent will be to steer them out of their self-centeredness and toward self control.
Understand that kids do not yet have the power or resources to influence their world, but they believe that getting their desires satisfied is crucial to their survival. Their sense of entitlement helps them “survive” by going after what they think they need. Your child’s job is to demand things and communicate the urgency in obtaining them. There’s even something to admire about the passion that your child expresses. Your task is to guide them and help them to find balance between their desires and their self restraint – not an easy thing for us or for them! As frustrating and annoying as it is to live with your adolescent’s self absorption, knowing that it’s a normal part of their development will make it easier for you to deal with their urgent demands and attitudes without your strong feelings of anger, fear or guilt.
Oops, I Did It Again…
Don’t beat yourself up if you give in to your child’s demands. Sometimes we are simply worn down by them and we say "okay." Sometimes we say yes because we feel badly for them, or because we feel guilty. Sometimes we give in for reasons we don’t even understand in the moment. It’s a good idea, therefore, to keep an eye on your own tendencies and behaviors so that you don’t inadvertently contribute to your child’s sense of entitlement.
Ask yourself these questions to help you observe your tendencies and habits:
- Do you ever find yourself saying “yes” to what you want to say “no” to? Do you say yes because you want your child to like you, or do you want to avoid conflict?
- Do you ever find yourself living through your kids? Perhaps you buy your daughter that expensive dress because she looks so good or get her the expensive stuff that you wished you had. But do you then label her spoiled?
- Do you put too few demands on your kids – is your hidden message that school work, doing well, achieving, being on top trumps good character?
Our own needs can slip in to our parenting if we don’t keep a careful eye on ourselves. That’s why it’s important to continually do our own self-inventory. At the same time, we need to help our kids manage their desires and learn self-restraint, limits, manners and respect of their own and others boundaries.
Here are some tips to help you guide them away from self-centeredness while helping kids to maintain their passions in life.
- Listen first: Allow your kids to express their desires and demands and try to just listen. Calm your own inner voice down by remembering that they have a right to their feelings. Don’t be threatened; these are just feelings. Because your kids want something doesn’t mean they have to have it. Nor does it mean that they are ungrateful, lousy kids or that you have been lousy parents. Instead of blurting out comments like, “You only think of yourself, “ or “You know we don’t have the money, so why are you asking,” “You are so spoiled." or “What’s wrong with you?” try comments more like :
“I understand how much you want that. I know it means a lot to you. We are willing to give you x dollars toward it – the rest you can either save up for take from your allowance.” Or, “I know that you really want this new video game. Perhaps we can get it for you on your birthday, but if you want it sooner, then maybe you can try to get an extra tutoring job or mow the lawn for Dad and make some extra money.” This way, you’re putting the responsibility on the child rather than saying NO all the time or saying YES all the time.
- Don’t let them think they’re the center of the universe: Notice if your conversations are overly child-centered. “Do you need anything for your science project? What would you like for dinner tonight?” Try to balance these conversations by including yourself more. “I had a long day at work and I’m looking forward to some relaxation time tonight; what’s on your agenda this evening?” Try to not make your child the center of the universe – they are not. Don’t make them believe your purpose on earth is to provide for them by jumping quickly to their every request.
- Remember to teach your kids to think about you and others: Teach them to always ask if others would like something if they’re getting up from the table. Ask them for help when you have a dinner party or a project to complete. Expect them to do jobs and chores around the house. Remind them to say thank you. Make sure they call their grandparent to see how he is doing or if there is anything he needs. Teach them to ask about your day. Make sure they do something to help out in their school or community. Show them they’re not the only ones that matter. Respect yourself so that they learn to respect you.
- Don’t over-empathize with pleading: Every child and particularly teens want, want, want. Remember to not over-empathize with their pleading, begging and crying. Empathize but don’t over-empathize, because if you do, you might automatically give in to their every wish. The danger of indulging them is that you risk resenting them – they, then are at risk of being resented, undermined, ungrateful and unsatisfied.
- Talk about advertising and media messages: Living in a society that prizes material things above all else is a force we must counteract. Watch TV together or look through magazines and discuss ways advertisers attempt to manipulate. Enforce the old fashioned values of success and perseverance, which come from developing a good character versus success that comes from being the best or having the most. Make sure you to live by these values, as well.
Defiant Kids Who Threaten and Misbehave to Get What They Want
When it comes to more defiant kids, the same applies: you just have to hold on stronger and not let the intimidating, threatening behavior cause you to give in to the "gimmes." Let’s say your child is being rude, disrespectful, aggressive or defiant when he does not get what he wants. His birthday or Christmas is coming up, and you are probably tempted to withhold his gifts since he’s been treating everyone in the family poorly. This is understandable, but it’s not be the most effective way to handle things in the long term.
Instead, hold him accountable to better behavior. Deal with the unacceptable way he is taking out his frustration on everyone when he’s not getting what he wants. Let him know it’s unacceptable to act out that way and hand him consequences when you are both calm. Perhaps he loses cell phone privileges for a short time until you see better behavior. Perhaps he loses his social privileges and stays home so you can have a problem-solving conversation with him about better ways to handle his emotions. No matter what, make sure you teach your child successful ways to manage himself when he’s faced with disappointments and limits.
If your defiant child uses threats to get what he wants, be sure to not let this behavior work. Stay in charge of yourself and don’t be controlled by the intimidation. If he’s a young child, remove him from the situation if he’s ruining your holiday or yelling in public. If he’s an older child, ask him to leave the house if he is acting out during holiday festivities. He will need to pay for any damages if he destroys property. If he refuses, you can take the money he owes for the damaged property and deduct from a holiday gift. (Let him know ahead of time if this is what you have in mind.)
Children need to be “all about themselves” in order to successfully separate from us and create their own identity. Their need to believe that they are important and amazing is not a bad thing as long as it has its limits. Remember this is a stage of development. No need to "futurize," and worry that they’ll never change. Being an understanding parent and setting firm boundaries will help assure that your child will blossom into an adult who likes herself, and knows how to get her needs met in the world while thinking, caring and giving to others.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.