In Part I we described some characteristics of the entitled child (and parent). In Part II we will try to analyze why this happens and what can be done about it.
When a parent leaves a family – because of divorce, death or long-term illness – a fracture is created in the family structure. Frequently an oldest child fills that gap.When that happens there is an overcompensation to make up for the absence of a parent. Often, structure, responsibility, obligations and discipline fall by the wayside
Sometimes, parents are just not on the same page or even the same wavelength and have widely different approaches to childrearing. One parent might be laid back, the other more strict. They are polarized because they overcompensate for each other. One parent is very laid back because the other is so strict, and the other is strict because the first is too easy. What happens is that the kids fall through the cracks and work their way around them. They go to easy dad and bypass tough mom. The cracks in the parental wall make it easy to slip through.
Adolescence often encourages entitlement, so the connection between adolescent stubbornness and entitlement is important to understand. The adolescent typically becomes more willful than the child because now the drive for independence begins. To reach this goal there is a need for more freedom, increased autonomy of choices and experience that is fortified with an urgency to keep up with what peers are allowed to do.
In the process, parents encounter a young person more intent on pushing against and pulling away from them to claim more self-determination, to protest their rules and restraints, and to conduct life more on the adolescent’s terms. If she or he was already a willful child, parents should expect the adolescent to become even more so. As a result, a significant change in thinking can occur when something is desired—a change called the conditional shift. “If I want something, I want it a lot.” Now there is an increased importance attached to wants. “If I want it a lot, I must have it.” Now there is stridency to get one’s way. “If I must have it” (here is the conditional shift) “I SHOULD get it.” Now there is a sense of entitlement to satisfaction.
“If I don’t get what I should (to which I believe I am entitled) I will feel treated unfairly.” Now refusal of a want feels like a deprivation of a fundamental right, hence the sense of feeling wronged. I recall a friend who was a good parent in terms of dealing with her children’s angst. When her daughter lamented, “It’s not fair,” her response was, “If you want fair, go to the beauty parlor.” Another parent did not allow that expression to be uttered in the house, so her children had to go outside to blow off steam, even in the winter.
Parents know they have a strong-willed adolescent when their refusal doesn’t simply cause sadness and disappointment, but generates anger, even fury at entitlement denied. Now they have entered the period of thankless parenting, when they must sometimes take a stand for the teenager’s best interests against his/her wants, and be resented for their efforts on their behalf.
At this time their family work and support are also increasingly taken for granted as adolescent entitlement becomes the enemy of parent appreciation. “Why should I be grateful? My parents are supposed to give me what I need. That’s their job.” This attitude of entitlement makes adolescence a more self-centered age.
Of course, some parents encourage a sense of entitlement in their adolescents. They often give and give and pamper, wanting to please the one they love. They can avoid refusal and saying “no” for fear of displeasing the teenager and incurring his/her disappointment or anger. They can get exceptions made, give extra chances, make and get excuses, bend the rules, and bail out of trouble. They can exempt them from normal responsibilities, require no family contributions, and make few household demands. They can treat the child as exceptional, create unusual opportunities, make family sacrifices and justify special treatment given. Like this, parental indulgence, avoidance, exceptions, rescues, excuses, exemptions and special treatment can all promote and encourage entitlement.
Entitled adolescents come in many forms. There is the indulged child to whom parents are forever giving and giving in. There is the star child who receives special privileges and exemptions for being a high performer. There is the adored only child who is used to being sole beneficiary of all that parents have to give. There is the assisted child who has grown so used to extra help that it has come to be expected. There is the manipulative child who keeps extorting rewards from guilty parents who can’t get over the suffering they have caused. There is the rescued child who keeps getting bailed out of trouble by parents who can’t stand the hurtful consequences if they don’t intervene.
It seems that there are two antidotes to adolescent entitlement. Parents must be willing to teach mutuality and moderation. Mutuality is taught three ways. It is taught by insisting on reciprocity: “We do and sacrifice for you and expect that you will likewise do and sacrifice for us.” It is taught by consideration: “We expect you to be sensitive to our needs just as we will be sensitive to yours.” It is taught by compromise: “We are willing to meet you half-way when we disagree and expect you to be willing to do the same with us.” By teaching mutuality they show the teenager that the relationship with them (and by extension with others) must work two ways, not just one way (the adolescent’s.) The lesson is that a healthy, caring relationship is ruled by mutually giving and receiving respect.
Moderation is taught two ways, neither of which is usually welcome to the adolescent. It is taught by delay of gratification: “You cannot have everything you want right away.” And it is taught by denial of gratification: “You cannot have everything you want at all.” Parents have a role in providing sufficient experience with both kinds of instruction so that the young person accepts that not always getting one’s way is okay, and that in most of life getting some, not all, of what one wants is going to have to be enough. The lesson is: when it comes to happiness, contentment is more important than gratification.
What makes the lessons of mutuality and moderation hard for parents to teach is the hard response they are likely to get from the teenager who will not be thankful for the instruction since refusal is not appreciated. Those parents, however, who cannot discipline their love enough to help their son or daughter modify a belief in entitlement, only defer the learning to harder hands – roommates that leave, friends that stop calling, employers that fire, professors that accept no excuses, a legal system that prosecutes, and a loved one that has finally had enough.
The very first step towards successfully fighting entitlement is looking into what may be driving the behavior. Usually, there is some misinformation or false beliefs driving the feelings that are feeding the entitled attitudes and behaviors. In addition, teenagers are developmentally inclined to be more wrapped up in themselves.
As far as false beliefs, it could be that they have bought into the message that their value is based on what they own and how they look. If your sense of personal worth is on the line, non-essentials can start to look like essentials. Those $300 sneakers aren’t just expensive stuff, getting them becomes tied to how loved and lovable you believe you are.
Feeling unequipped or unable to get what you want or need can drive entitled behavior. If you think that the only way you can get those sneakers is to demand them, that’s what you’re going to do.
Developmentally, we know that teenage brains begin to revolve more intensely around self as they begin preparing for independence. Consequently, teens need extra help during this time to think about others and empathize. Chances are that they are not thinking about how much work or money someone else spent to give them something.
Parents cannot be complacent if they want their teen to break free from entitlement. It requires effort and intention. The number one enemy of entitlement is gratitude. Gratitude isn’t just being thankful or appreciative, but also recognizing the effort of the giver. Explicitly teaching self-focused teens how to be grateful will help them develop gratitude more quickly and fully.
Help them interpret what they’re seeing. Remind them that all advertisements and commercials are meant to sell. Even their friend on social media is selling something – “I’ve got it all together” or “You should admire me.” These are all half-stories at best, but more often outright lies. Never compare your teen to others. Conversely, do remind your teen that their value is in who they are and not in what they have or how they compare to someone else. Teens often struggle with understanding that getting things requires effort. Let them work for it and find out for themselves.
Entitlement can be a tough attitude to turn around. Until their brains develop more fully (sometime in their twenties) expect to continue battling entitlement. Nevertheless, we must be patient with teenagers and pre-teens. We also need to be patient and kind with ourselves. Entitlement is difficult to tolerate and it takes time to get that train wreck back on the rails in the right direction. Mistakes will be made when dealing with an entitled adolescent. If you make mistakes, apologize, and keep working at it. It’s worth the effort.______________________________________
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Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is a veteran educator, parent and grandparent and has observed family dynamics for many years.