By Ruth E. Freeman, LCSW.
Recently, we received this message from a parent:
“I have an only child that is almost 5 years old and is very entitled. He throws temper tantrums and pushes his limits to the VERY end. He listens well to everyone except his father and me. Any ideas?”
“Entitled” children expect to “get their way” – that is to get what they want, when they want it, at least a good portion of the time.
If that is the case with your child, it is likely that his intense emotional displays cause you or your partner (or both) to periodically give in to the intense emotion. Unfortunately, your natural instinct to give in to stop the upset tends to backfire. Even if you only reward those emotional displays from time to time, that will keep them going and may lead to more intense behavior. Your attention and giving the child what they request are both enormous rewards, and you will get more of whatever behavior you reward with your attention.
It is hard to resist, but once we start labeling children, they will live up to those labels. Even if you don’t call your child entitled to his or her face, they are tracking parent behavior and may overhear conversations. And not only will you cue the child to live up to the label, but you have set your brain to track for that behavior. Your brain will be collecting, storing and savoring evidence of your theory about the child’s behavior. So now you are both set up to expect and collect the negative behavior.
The good and bad news is that most parents who have children they call entitled would really benefit from turning the mirror around and noticing which parent behaviors are contributing to their child’s demands and upsets.
If you are concluding that your child is “entitled” consider these questions:
- How do I feel when my child is upset about my responses to her requests and what do I tell myself about that?
- What tools do I have to respond in helpful ways when my child experiences disappointment and displays upset feelings?
- Are there some ways that my own childhood experiences might be influencing my strong reactions to my child’s upset?
- Did I feel seen, safe, soothed and secure as a child?
- How did adults respond to displays of emotion?
- Did it feel to me like adults cared about me or that my needs and wants were important?
Sometimes parents who are uncomfortable with displays of emotion establish patterns of responses when children are young and can’t manage their upset. When your toddler cries or tantrums, do you periodically “give in” after just setting a limit? Do you sometimes give children what they want, even though it might not be best for them, just to avoid a “scene.” Young children are often not able to manage their emotions and if their emotions upset us, we may take action to relieve our own internal upset that teaches the child that intense displays of emotions produce positive outcomes!
Here are 3 strategies to use when your child displays intense disappointment or anger about not getting what he wants:
1. Get clear about who owns this problem.
That is, who is responsible for handling the problem? Often when your child wants something and you say no, the problem belongs to the child. It is their job to handle their emotions. But you can help – here are a couple of ways:
- Acknowledge your child’s emotions
You may say something like, “I see you are super frustrated that we are not going to the park this afternoon.”
- Coach problem solving
First, understand the problem from the child’s point of view. Then, invite brainstorming. Invite discussion on outcomes of each idea and support child to choose an idea. Start with, “What do you think will help you feel better about this problem?”
2. Model and teach self-regulation.
Self-regulation is the ability to calm down from stress and intense emotion. Children who have parents who can calm their own stress and manage their own emotions tend to be more effective at self-regulation. When you take deep breaths or use other brain calming strategies before responding to your child’s upset, it helps their brain calm down as well. And if you teach self-regulation skills at times when things are calm, children learn to notice when they are getting upset and have some tools to handle that distress.
3. Reflect on the ways your childhood experiences influence your parenting.
You can do this by talking about it with trusted friends, family or faith leaders or talking with a professional like a therapist. Sometimes journaling with the purpose of purpose of reflecting about your day and the connection to your childhood can make a big difference. There is also an e-course by Drs. Daniel Siegel and Lisa Firestone called “Making Sense of Your Life” that might prove helpful.
Hopefully it is a relief to recognize there may be ways we have taught your children that they are “entitled” to have us meet their demands. Take some time to reflect on any ways this might be true with your entitled child and consider steps to help them manage disappointment and help yourself manage your response to their disappointment.
For more information on this topic, join one of these classes:
“Positive Discipline for Peace At Home”