Chances are good that you know one or perhaps you were one: a self-absorbed, entitled teenager who’s convinced the universe exists for her. Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Overly-Entitled World, says that “The entitlement epidemic usually begins with over-parenting — over-indulging, over-protecting, over-pampering, over-praising and jumping through hoops to meet kids’ endless demands.” Similar issues can arise with boomerang kids, too. In both cases, we need to establish house rules for kids that make things better for everyone.
McCready, who has two teenage sons, acknowledges that our willingness to satisfy our children’s demands is motivated by a deep love. Still, it can backfire. “In our attempt to shelter our kids from adversity, we rob them of the opportunity to make decisions, learn from their mistakes, and develop the resilience needed to thrive through the ups and downs of life. Over-parented kids begin to believe the world revolves around their needs and wants, and the seeds of entitlement are sown.
“Relationships suffer as kids with a ‘me, me, me’ mentality lack empathy and a willingness to put others first. Employers struggle to hire teens and young adults with the people skills and work ethic to be successful. Entitled kids grow into narcissistic adults, demanding spouses and high-maintenance employees. That’s certainly not what we want for our kids.”
If your teen has begun to sprout a crown (or horns), it’s not too late to intervene. Here are McCready’s guidelines for success.
Give your kids the gift of you. “We make the assumption that teenagers don’t want to spend time with us, but they do,” says McCready, who advocates time where you are completely focused on your teen every day. It could be just 15 minutes when you agree to do what your teenager wants, even if that means sitting at a game console. “Whatever they’re into, you’re going to get into that and connect with them emotionally," says McCready. “You are not going to change any of those entitled behaviors unless you make that connection.”
Watch your mouth. “Before you attempt to correct, you need to watch your communication. Use a calm voice, and help them understand you are on their team.” Then when you help them develop life skills — balancing a checkbook, changing the air filters in the house, contributing to family decision making — you’ll get less resistance. How you label things matters, too. McCready uses the term family contributions. “Chores sound like drudgery. Family contribution implies you make a difference, you matter, and that’s a really important message to send.”
Don’t be the butler. “Kids who are constantly helped gradually fall behind in their ability to look after themselves in practical, everyday matters.” Instead of becoming a personal assistant to your teen, teach them to help themselves. “A key step to reversing our kids’ notions that we need to do everything for them is to empower them to do it themselves.”
Practice When-Then. “Structure your child’s less-desirable tasks to occur before a highly desirable activity,” like media time or a sleepover. It’s simple: You describe the expected behavior (when), and the reward that comes upon completion (then). For example, “When you finish cleaning your room, then you can go over to Miguel’s house.” Once you deliver your When-Then statement, leave the room. “Ignore protests, whining and negotiations, and be sure to follow through with the then part of the tool.”
Create consequence. McCready calls consequences “the steamed broccoli of the parenting world. We may love the idea, but when it comes to serving them up every day, consequences can be hard to choke down.” Yet a childhood without consequences sets our kids up for massive failure later on. “If we remind our kids every day to remember their lunch box, we’re only teaching them that they don’t need to take responsibility for themselves,” says McCready. “If we want our kids to internalize good behavior, we have to find a way other than badgering them into it. That’s where consequences come in.” Experiencing consequences teaches kids that if they sleep late, they’ll miss the bus; if they don’t eat, they’ll get hungry; and if they try to drink a glass of milk while balancing on a ball, they’ll have a big mess to clean up. “If the burden is not on our kids to make good decisions, they get used to a pain-free lifestyle, and when they expect easy living, they feel entitled to it.” So if your child forgets her soccer gear, let her explain that to the coach (while you deliberately do not run home to get it).
For parents who have a hard time saying no, McCready offers this advice: “Understand that while your intentions are loving, you’re doing a disservice to your child. If kids can’t handle hearing no, how are they going to survive in an adult world? Let your kids learn how to handle disappointment and fail at home, where the stakes are lower and they’re in a loving environment. If you wait, there’s going to be a rude awakening for your child.”