By Nancy Peterson, LCSW
We have all seen them—children who seem to be in control of the parents, while the parents appear to surrender to the child’s every demand.
Some call these children “spoiled,” but that gives the impression that the child’s quality is irreversible. After all, when milk is spoiled, you cannot make it fresh.
But I prefer to call them “entitled children.” They can be extremely difficult, but they can learn to change. So can their parents.
In my counseling practice, I often see children who display a strong sense of entitlement. These children think they should get whatever they want, and they tend to think other people exist primarily to serve them. These children have yet to learn how to appropriately give to others.
There are a variety of reasons why this behavior may be occurring, but here are a few possibilities:
Stage of Life. Two-year-olds and teenagers are typically more demanding and often expect their needs to be met without giving much in return. So the sense of entitlement could be a stage of life.
A Deep-Seated Loss. In many cases, entitlement is more than a stage of life. It can result from deep wounds stemming from a loss, such as the divorce of parents. Some children react to this loss by becoming more demanding. As a result, parents may feel guilty about the divorce and, in the case of the non-custodial parent, will feel added guilt for not seeing the child as much as before.
The parents sometimes respond by lavishing the child with gifts, or by feeling that they have to constantly entertain the child. These actions only reinforce the selfishness and increase the sense of “I should get what I want.”
Lenient Parents. When a parent feels sorry for a child and is too lenient, the child will come to expect the parent—and others—to always strive to meet their needs.
This pattern sometimes occurs if the mother or father was raised by parents who were overly strict or even abusive. The mother or father decides, “I don’t want to be like my parents,” so they veer to the other extreme. They became lenient parents.
Parents who work long hours might be too tired to be consistent in their discipline. If the child is especially persistent and strong-willed, a tired parent will throw in the towel in the first round and decide it’s easier to give in than resist the child’s demands.
When parents are not able to get their entitled children to obey, and when these children talk rudely to them and others, the parents may eventually reach a bursting point. Instead of offering calm, firm, and consistent discipline, the parents explode, and this only makes matters worse.
Problems can compound when an entitled child brings this same sense of entitlement to school. They butt heads with teachers, and other children may reject them. This, in turn, lowers the child’s self-esteem, which can lead to them acting even worse.
It becomes an ever-worsening spiral.
When I work with such children, I try to help them to build insight into their behavior. I help them face their feelings of hurt, which they have built strong defenses against. My goal is to get behind these defenses and help them correct their distorted thinking and learn to build social skills and empathy for others.
With the parents, I work to help them refrain from always giving in to their child’s demands, which just reinforces the child’s narcissistic thinking. I stress the need to be firm and consistent with consequences for inappropriate behavior and disrespectful talk. Also, I help the parent figure out why it is so hard for them to be consistent and firm.
Together, the parents and I work together to help the child develop a tolerance for frustration by separating the big deals in life from the little deals.
As the Rolling Stones famously put it, “You can’t always get what you want.” The sooner a child learns this lesson, the better.