Are Teenagers Selfish, or Just Cocooning?

Posted April 22, 2015 by

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Just a few years ago, it was, “Can I get you anything while I’m up, Papa?” and “Look what I made for you at school today,” as well as “Let me make you breakfast in bed.”

Today my daughter Riley is fifteen, and I consider myself lucky if I can get her to look me in the eye for more than a nanosecond when I’m talking to her. Her computer screen and iPhone see her face far more than I do. But, that’s not the worst of it. She doesn’t seem to be as caring or giving as she used to be.

If you are a parent of a teen, odds are this sounds familiar. Teens are selfish. I don’t mean it in the way that they want everything because they’re brats. I mean it in the way that they want everything because they can’t help it.

For many years, this planet we live upon used to revolve around the sun. Apparently now, according to Riley, it revolves around her.

She gets a package in the mail, opens it in the kitchen, takes the contents to her room and leaves a pile of cardboard and bubble wrap for someone else to clean. She makes a bowl of cereal, takes it into her room, and leaves the Cheerios and milk on the counter until the cereal becomes as stale as wood chips and the milk can pass as cottage cheese.

My wife and I know our teen wants something the moment she emerges from her cave of a room (filled with package contents, old cereal bowls, and God knows what else), looking at us in the eyes whilst feigning a smile.

And, if she can’t get what she wants, she huffs and puffs and the whole house gets blown down by Hurricane Riley. It’s all about her. And…I…don’t…like…it!

The funny thing is, none of our friends seem to notice it. She only displays her selfish ways in the privacy of our home or only within the range of immediate family.

I was at the post office last week and saw the mother of one of Riley’s best friends since first grade. I asked the mom, “How’s Gloria? We haven’t seen her around lately.”

Her response: “You can have her. She’s so difficult now.”

I asked, “You wanna trade?”

Her reply, “In a heartbeat.”

This woman thinks my daughter is an angel, and I am sure that hers is a saint. So, that tells me, that these teens still have the capacity to be the wonderful young people they once were, making cookies for fire fighters and asking Santa to heal the girl in the news with two broken legs from a car accident (yes, my daughter really did these).

So, what exactly has happened to our teens?

Recent research on this topic has shown that due to hormonal changes, it is developmentally normal for teenagers to go through a self-absorbed or self-centered stage. During this time, teens tend to produce more oxytocin receptors. Although oxytocin is often called the ‘bonding hormone,’ its effects on a teen’s limbic system (the emotional side of their brain) can cause him or her to be self-focused. It is also a time of healthy self-discovery when teens are naturally separating their identity from their parents.

What all that really means to me is that our kids are caterpillars, and the ages of thirteen through eighteen are the cocoon years (technically
“the chrysalis years,” but “cocoon years” has a better ring to it). And, one day they will emerge as beautiful butterflies.

This is their official metamorphosis, the time that our little caterpillars are being hit with megadoses of brain chemicals and hormones that make them the selfish stinkers that they are, not unlike the three-year olds they once were.

Here’s the big difference: caterpillars get to go through their changes in the confines of their mouth-made sleeping bags, whereas teens have to do it out here in the open for all to see (and film—maybe even post on YouTube). We may not like how they are acting, but it’s no cake-walk for them, either.

I remember being a selfish teen myself. No one understood me except other selfish teens. I’d be on Cloud Nine one moment because a senior girl smiled in my general direction, then would crash and burn when I noticed a pimple on my nose. It was all about me…and I had nowhere to hide until my hormones balanced again.

So, what’s a parent to do? Being a teen is not an excuse for being selfish, but it is a reason. What that means is don’t just accept that your kid is acting out because she’s cocooning. It’s important to find the balance of giving your teen enough space to figure out their future identity, while also setting limits around their behavior, especially when it impacts others. You still need to parent. Catch her when she’s being “all about herself.” Point it out, and let her know that you’d like her to think of others.

Will she? Probably not. But, don’t worry. You’re not really even talking to her. You’re talking to the caterpillar that’s still in there somewhere. And, that caterpillar is going to pass on all you say to the butterfly that will eventually emerge. You just have to be patient.

About

Leon Scott Baxter, "The Dumbest Genius You'll Ever Meet," has been an elementary educator for the last eighteen years. He's the author of Secrets of Safety-Net Parenting, which helps parents raise happy and successful children. Learn more about raising happy successful children at SafetyNetters.com or on Baxter's YouTube Channel.

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  1. Akiva kent Report

    What can be done by a step-parent who has no real authority to “parent,” other than “grin and bear it?” Conflict results If the behavior is discussed with my spouse, the parent of the step-child, who says “why are you picking on …”, yet she gets upset when her child does the same behavior as it relates to her.

    Reply
    • Empowering Parents Coach Rebecca Wolfenden, 1-on-1 Coach Report

      Appropriate discipline and consequences are common sources of conflict in most families, and this can be magnified in stepfamilies. You are not alone in dealing with this issue. As outlined in “My Blended Family Won’t Blend—Help!” Part I: How You and Your Spouse Can Get on the Same Page, it’s often useful to talk with your spouse during a calm time, and try to come to an agreement about standard house rules. If you’re having a hard time coming to an agreement, it could be useful to involve a neutral third-party, such as a marriage/family counselor, who can help you to compromise and develop a plan moving forward. For assistance locating these and other resources in your area, try contacting the 211 Helpline at 1-800-273-6222. I recognize what a challenging situation this must be for you, and I wish you all the best moving forward. Take care.

      Reply
  2. timerin Report

    My oldest son is 15 and is so self-centered. He wants for nothing, but can’t handle sharing with his sister (12) & brother (8). He can be so mean & condescending towards them. He acts like he knows everything, deserves everything & how dare his siblings’ activities get in the way! My husband and I are very frustrated. We’re thinking of getting him involved in more charity work…like working at the local soup kitchen. He needs to realize how fortunate he is & stop living in Disneyland! Any advice you can give…would be fabulous!

    Reply
    • rwolfenden Report

      ErinStevens We hear from many parents who are frustrated and confused by their teen’s self-centered attitude, so you are not alone.  It’s actually pretty normal for teens to be more focused on themselves and their needs, as this is a typical aspect of their developmental stage.  This doesn’t mean that you cannot help your son to think of someone other than himself.  Taking him to volunteer can be a great way of doing this.  You might find some additional tips in our article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/demanding-children-and-teens-is-entitlement-just-a-stage/  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.

      Reply
  3. Emma Report

    My two boys 14 and 16 didnt get me a christmas card or present and now today no birthday card it really hurts especially as i break my back trying to please them on both their birthdays and christmas

    Reply
    • rwdas72 Report

      I feel you. I had a birthday Friday and my son got me nothing. He woke up on Saturday morning asking me to take him to the mall so he can buy himself a pair of shoes. It hurt. I havent said anything to him yet. I want to go to him calm and point out that it was selfish of him to behave that way. Im planning to teach him not to be selfish. Right now i have denied all request that he has had yesterday and today. Im doing the bate minimum. Anything he xan do on his own, im having him do it himself. I need to allow him to be more independent. Hopefully it helps. I dont want him to be a selfish adult.

      Reply
  4. Imhines Report

    I have a granddaughter who is stealing from her own cousins. A lot of cash in the hundreds, iTunes gift cards, just so many other gift cards she order thing from them under an fake name and had it sent to her house. Mom says she’s punished but not really, she gets away with it by blaming her brother or sister she always has an excuse what do I do. I’m tired of seeing my other grandchildren hurt. This girl has no remorse for her actions.

    Reply
    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      Imhines
      What a difficult situation. It’s understandable
      you would want to take steps to turn your granddaughter’s behavior around. I’m
      sure it is quite upsetting to watch your other grandchildren suffer because of
      her choices and behavior.  From what you have written, it sounds like you
      don’t believe enough is being done to hold your granddaughter accountable for
      her behavior. The situation is a bit tricky because it is up to her parents to
      determine what consequences to use when she takes things that aren’t hers. When
      parents and grandparents disagree, it can cause a lot of resentment and hard
      feelings. As Debbie Pincus explains in her article http://www.empoweringparents.com/grandparents-and-parents-disagreeing-11-tips-for-both-of-you.php#ixzz3YcTv29Hb, it can be helpful to
      determine what your role is as a grandparent in this situation and then focus on
      what you have control over. You’re not going to be able to control the choices
      your granddaughter makes nor can you control how her parents respond to those
      choices. You can control what types of gifts you continue to send to her
      siblings and your other grandchildren. This may help to decrease the
      opportunity she has to steal those things from others. Granted, you shouldn’t have to do this,
      but, this may be the best you can do to have an impact on her negative
      behavior. I wish I could offer you more. Good luck to you and your family
      moving forward. Take care

      Reply

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