You Owe Me!!
Dealing with Entitlement

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D,

Every parent will eventually face a child who wants something they canít have.

It is normal for children to ask for what they want. Every child will become needy and demanding once and a while. Wanting, needing and demanding behavior is a necessary part of how children learn to become independent, assertive and self-confident. But you are probably in trouble if your child is angry and starts saying things like,

  • "I want that!"

  • "Why canít I?"

  • "You Owe Me!!"

  • "You donít love me!!!"

Children must learn the difference between what they want and what they need. They must also learn the difference between "askingí and "demanding". It is a good sign that children will grow up healthy and well adjusted if they learn to "give" to others and to "ask" for what they need. It is even better if they can find ways to express their disappointment in healthy ways when they donít get what they want.

Infants know what they need and not much else. Toddlers act like they need whatever they want. And while curiosity, walking and grabbing things are important activities, children cannot be allowed to explore and become involved in traumatic and dangerous activities. Teenagers are the most difficult. They have confidence and a desire for independence without the necessary experience or wisdom.

Unfortunately for parents, children can have powerful emotional reactions when they are given what they need and not everything they want. Parents will face different challenges with each child and at different ages. Parents must balance "giving" children what they "need" and "want" with the goal of teaching children to "ask" for what they want and to "accept" what they get.

Children who donít ask for what they need will fail to thrive. They become insecure, withdrawn and resentful of others who do not anticipate their needs and take care of them. They go through life feeling incapable, afraid and sad. Depending on their parentsí reaction to their despair these same children may become demanding, impatient and angry over the least little thing. They can become "entitled", "bullies" or never satisfied.

By far, the most challenging and exhausting are those children who feel owed or entitled to get their way. These children have not learned to balance "taking" from others with "giving" to others. They have not learned the difference between what they "want" and what they truly "need." Entitled children are focused on their needs and what they want. There is little effort except to negotiate, argue, intimidate or make parents miserable in order to get what they want. Their anger can become rage in a heart beat.

Older children and adolescents are especially difficult these days because they want the best of everything. A lot of these kids are completely materialistic. They are not focused on matters of personal integrity and character but rather on how they look, what they have and what they are allowed to do. The reason is simple. A large part of American culture encourages children to get everything they can out of life, to do whatever they want and to get things without having to work for it.

Why Do Children Become Entitled?

There are many reasons why children become entitled and demanding. Most of these reasons are simple. Here are the main reasons.

  • During a prolonged separation or after a divorce, children naturally react to stress and their sense of loss. They become insecure, needy and more demanding.
  • Chaos, unstable relationships and weak emotional bonds between parents and children can push kids to escape their emotional needs and to place greater importance on how they look, what they can do and material objects.
  • Children learn to get what they want from parents who are manipulated by guilt - and especially so when parents over indulge their children in material ways after neglecting them emotionally.
  • Children become demanding and entitled when one parent tries to be the favorite parent while letting the other parent fail.

How to Prevent Entitlement

In a "good enough world", children will naturally learn the difference between their "needs" and what they "want". And they will eventually learn to ask for what they want and to accept what they get. But this will only happen if parents avoid making the same mistakes over and over. Here are some useful suggestions.

  • Avoid giving children favors and making efforts to demonstrate a perfect relationship after a child is upset and not when they child is acting appropriately.
  • Do not sympathize with a childís feelings in order to avoid an important issue and a difficult choice that your child needs to make.
  • Avoid becoming angry, arguing and getting into a power struggle when a child will not accept what they get.
  • Do not try to reason and persuade a child to accept what they will get at the same time they are focused on getting what they want.
  • Do not express your own despair or sadness if your child does not get what they want.
  • Do not make a decision when you are angry. Wait until you are calm and do not change your mind once you have made your decision.

Communication Options

There is no single best response to a child who acts entitled and demanding. Preventing and correcting this behavior requires consistent and caring responses over time. There are no immediate results. It takes time. Here are some practical responses and examples of how to prevent and respond to entitled and demanding behavior.

  • "I wonder why you get angry when that does not get you what you want. What do you think?"
  • "Maybe you get angry to avoid feeling bad inside. You could make a different choice."
  • "You seem to get angry when I donít give you what you want. I donít always get my way."
  • "How would you feel if I got angry when I did not get what I wanted from you?"
  • "When you get angry you act like you want to hurt people. Are you trying to hurt people to get what you want? I know you donít want me to do that."
  • "You might feel better if we talked about your feelings now or little later. How do you feel about that idea?"
  • "I think you can learn to handle your feelings. I know they make you feel upset."

There is just one more suggestion that can make a tremendous difference. It is simple, powerful and I could write a book about why it helps Ė but I wonít. Spend some time trying to notice how you talk to your child when they are upset and not upset. The best way to do this is to notice how you are acting and talking as well as what you are talking about when your child is making eye contact with you. Try to notice how you talk when your child is looking at you and stops looking at you. Children are truly listening and open to what you have to say when they can look you in the eye at least once and a while. As much as possible, never end your discussion over an issue without your child wanting to look at you.

copyright 2002 to 2008, Michael G. Conner