Why do so many kids act entitled? No matter what they get—clothes, sneakers, toys, gadgets—they seem to want more, and they don’t understand why they can’t have it immediately. It can be incredibly frustrating when your child reacts with a bad attitude or acting-out behavior when you say “no” to a request. You think to yourself, “I wasn’t this way when I was a kid. What happened?”
Parenting is not a popularity contest. There will often be some anger and disappointment when children aren’t able to get what they want, but acting out behavior shouldn’t determine your response.
There are a few reasons why kids are behaving in a more entitled way these days: parents are working harder and longer than before, and are generally more stressed out. When you are exhausted and overwhelmed, it can be easier to give in than to fight with your kids. Along with that, it’s natural to want our kids to have what we didn’t have when we were growing up, and it feels good to give them things when we can. On top of all of that, modern technology has changed the pace of our expectations. Texting, email, and the Internet have made everything move at warp speed. Everything happens with the tap of a finger. Let’s face it, we’re not accustomed to waiting for things anymore—and neither are our kids. It’s a very different world with a different set of expectations about the pace of gratification, and parents don’t always know how to cope.
If you find your child isn’t appreciating what you’re giving him or doing for him and is acting increasingly spoiled, it’s important to realize that you can change this pattern at any time. You can learn how to pause and say no when your child asks for something. You can also learn how to walk away from an argument and not get pulled into your child’s negative behavior. At first this is really hard to do, but over time you will get more comfortable with it—it just takes practice. (More on this coming up.)
Sometimes we look at our kids and see their behavior and realize we don’t really like it very much. You love your children as people, but you might not like how they’re acting. But remember, nobody wakes up saying, “I’m going to spoil my child today.” We really want to raise grateful children. If you’ve played a part in your child’s sense of entitlement, it’s not the end of the world—don’t beat yourself up. You can start changing right now, even if you have a demanding teen in the house. Here are 8 things you can do to change the climate of entitlement in your home:
Be clear with expectations: Make the statement that things will be different. Let your child know that things will need to change and that he can expect a different response from mom and dad. This is a commitment that you’re making to change your behavior, too. By saying that you’re going to behave differently, you really begin to make that change as a parent. Tell your child that they’re going to hear “no” more often.
Sometimes these changes are due to the family situation changing—there’s been a divorce or someone’s lost a job and the financial realities are different. Or maybe you’re simply realizing that you can’t or shouldn’t give your child all that he asks for—that you’re creating a monster. Be clear with your kids about what’s going to change, and let them know that everyone’s expectations will have to change because of that. In the moment, you can start by saying to your child, “I don’t like how you responded when I said no to you just now.” Then walk away, and do not engage in a fight. Understand that things may get worse before they get better—your child might not accept hearing you set those limits at first, which is really what you’re doing. But over time if you stand firm, they will see that you mean business.
Don’t get pulled into a fight: The most important thing is not to get pulled into the drama and the emotionalism of your child’s response to hearing the word “no.” Be specific about how you’re going to handle the situation with your child. Depending on the age of your kid, you might say, “If you scream, yell or curse at me, there’s going to be a consequence for your behavior.” The bottom line is that if your child acts out when denied what she wants, whether her behavior is mild, moderate or severe, you need to acknowledge the problem and change the way you, as a parent, respond. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Make no mistake, it’s critical that you not give in when your child acts out. Above all, you don’t want her to receive some goody for her misbehavior. That definitely sends the wrong message—that she should yell and scream to get what she wants.
Prepare your child when the situation arises again. Let your kids know that they can’t threaten and misbehave to get things. “Last time I said no, you threw a tantrum and couldn’t stay at your friend’s house that night because of your behavior. So the next time I say no, what are you going to do? Are you going to act out again or are you going to handle it better so that you’ll have a better weekend?”
Parenting is not a popularity contest. Your child is not your friend—and parenting is not a popularity contest. There will often be some anger and disappointment when children aren’t able to get what they want, but acting out behavior shouldn’t determine your response. You need to hold fast. Try not to get caught up in the moment when your child is begging, pleading and yelling, because you will lose your perspective. You may want to just step away from the situation and take some time to consider your response. Don’t get drawn into a debate with your child. You need to stay firm, say no and not engage in a heavy duty discussion about it.
Practice, practice, practice. It will feel weird at first to say “no” or not give in like you have in the past. But trust me, it gets easier over time and starts to feel good and right to hold firm. The more you are able to do it, the more clearly you see the situation. What’s more, it helps you gain self-respect, regain your parental authority and begin to recognize how you’re being a responsible parent. It’s hard to deny your child something she “really, really has to have” at first, but it gets easier over time.
Know that your child will try to pull you back into the old behavior. But believe it or not, kids actually feel safer and better about themselves when you put these limits in place. When it comes right down to it, your child doesn’t really want to be demanding and throw tantrums all the time—that’s not behavior that she’s really proud of. Eventually when she can tolerate hearing no, she’s actually going to feel better about herself.
Use hypodermic affection. Catch your child being good. When you see your child starting to take the word “no” better, say something. Give him some credit or reinforce it when he’s thanked you for something or handled a disappointment well. And use that as a teaching moment, too. “Hey, I saw you deal with it really well when we couldn’t go to the movies the other day. Good job.” In the Total Transformation, we refer to this as “hypodermic affection,” because you’re picking something specific to compliment your child about. It’s also important to realize that empathy is something that develops over time in children. They are not born with the “thankful” or “grateful” gene. We have to teach them and reinforce a sense of gratitude whenever we see it.
Teach your child to earn what he wants: With older kids, you can talk with them about other options for getting what they want. They can babysit, pet sit, mow lawns, or get a part-time job. You might decide to give your younger kids a small allowance if that works for your family. When children are able to earn things for themselves, it gives them a dose of reality and it helps with their own feelings of self-respect. And part of your role as a parent is to teach your child how to work to earn things. In this way, you’re teaching responsibility and preparing your kids for real life.
Reinforce your decision: Look at it this way, if you’re giving in all the time, you’re really not teaching your kids how to be self-sufficient or responsible. It’s worth imagining what a child who grows up this way will be like as an adult. How will they be as a worker or a partner? Will they be able to take care of themselves? Thinking about what you want your child to learn as he grows up—the big picture—will reinforce your decision to do things differently.
About Janet Lehman, MSW
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. In addition, Janet gained a personal understanding of child learning and behavior challenges from her son, who struggled with learning disabilities in school. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.