“Michael, you’re going to have to get yourself to school tomorrow, I’ve got an early meeting so I can’t take you.”
“Mom, how am I supposed to get there, I don’t have anyone to give me a ride.”
“I guess you’ll have to take the bus or walk.”
“There’s no way, it’s way too cold for me to walk that far, besides I think I’m already starting to get sick. I don’t know when the bus even comes, it’ll probably make me late for school. I don’t think you want me to be late for school do you? I’m already struggling in my first period class.”
“It’s only 10 blocks or you can look on-line to get the bus schedule.”
“That’s not fair, you’re so annoying… if I’m late for school tomorrow it’s your fault!”
As a parent of a teen, you’ve likely experienced some version of this frustrating exchange with your child. And as you know, this back and forth has the potential to go on and on in a downward spiral. Why are these types of exchanges so infuriating as a parent? One reason is that Michael has shown zero acknowledgment or appreciation for the almost daily rides he has received from his mom. Another is Michael’s uncanny way of pushing his mom’s buttons by getting her to question herself as a good-enough mother. This leads to unspoken sadness and disappointment while thinking, “what did I do wrong, why is my child so ungrateful, demanding and entitled?” In this article, we’ll give you some tips and hopefully help you sort through the challenge that so many parents of teens today struggle with, entitlement.
What Do We Mean By Entitlement?
Some degree of entitlement is natural for most teenagers. Their limited life experience combined with their intense focus on autonomy and self makes it unrealistic to expect empathy or appreciation for you on a regular basis. In thinking about your own teen, it can be helpful to view entitlement on a spectrum of low to high.
If your teen is on the high end of the spectrum you may feel that you’re taken for granted virtually all the time. Experiences and possessions that should be considered a privilege are instead viewed as rights. A general tone of “what’s in it for me?” pervades the majority of interactions. These teens frequently expect others to do for them what they can do for themselves. Highly entitled teens often present with poor motivation or effort. At other times they can appear arrogant with little respect for others. It can be especially frustrating because as your teen may appear entitled when interacting with you, they may appear the opposite with other adults. Parents with teens who behave in these ways often find their love for their child obscured by feelings of guilt, self-doubt and anger.
Why Do Teens Seem So Much More Entitled Today?
As a parent, it’s likely that you’ve worked hard to provide a better and easier life for your child relative to the one you had. More things, time, attention, educational opportunities, vacations, lessons, convenience and self-expression are some of the many benefits that this current generation of teens has gained. However, inherent in these opportunities are some unique challenges.The natural adversity that comes from life’s obstacles are largely absent from the lives of many teens today. In previous generations, walking long distances, working manual labor jobs, experiencing poverty and war, all were part of the fabric of adolescence. These experiences have largely been replaced with instant gratification, comfort, a superficial connection to the plight of others and less respect towards parents and adults in general. As a result, we have to be more intentional about building the character in our teens that doesn’t come as naturally as it once did.
What has helped you build character, work ethic and gratitude as an adult? Was it the blessings and successes of your life, a nice home, financial security, having good health? Or has it been the trial of going through a major illness, the loss of someone dear to you, experiencing what it’s like to go without and sacrifice, or failing at something and realizing that you’re stronger than you thought? With a bit of reflection most of us understand that it’s the setbacks and challenges, both great and small, that enable us to grow and learn. An essential aspect of parenting during adolescence is helping your child grow and learn through experiences that challenge them and put them in positions to make adult like decisions.
Consider the following tips to help your teen replace their entitlement with a greater sense of gratitude and empathy.
1. Don’t let happiness be the goal. Too many teens trade a charmed and easy childhood for an adulthood filled with low self-esteem, bad relationships and loneliness. It takes life experience to understand that true happiness is born out of loving and meaningful relationships, hard work, delayed gratification and overcoming adversity. For many of us, allowing our kids to experience failure and pain goes against our instinct to protect and nurture them. However, shielding our kids from emotional distress and difficult situations sets them up to navigate these challenges later in life on their own.
2. Clarify what should be earned and what should be given. Explore your own values about what your teen should just get no matter what (ex: school clothes, family vacations, a bus pass) and what things your teen should earn (ex: car privileges, electronics etc.). These things will vary from family to family, the important thing is that your teen has an opportunity to practice earning things for themselves, and in the process, learn that some things must be earned in life. It’s also important to be very clear with your teen about what you expect from them in order to earn extra possessions and privileges and then be consistent with your follow through.
3. Ensure meaningful opportunities to help others. For a lot of teens, important social issues like homelessness, poverty, people with disabilities and seniors are abstract ideas that are too far removed from their realities. Giving your teen opportunities to make a difference for someone else in a way that has personal relevance to them will increase their level of empathy for others and appreciation for what they have. Volunteering individually or as a family in the community are great ways to do this but so is visiting a grandparent on a weekly basis or helping a neighbor with a project. When considering volunteering, be sure that the work gives your child an opportunity to see the results of their efforts. Watching a homeless person enjoy the food you helped prepare and serve is an experience that leaves an imprint on most people. If your child has tried to get a job and has been unsuccessful, consider paying them for the volunteer work they do.
4. Give your teen more experiences and fewer talks. When it comes to learning, experiences are more valuable than information alone. Instead of telling your teen what they need to learn or do, give them experiences that will help them develop those skills or qualities. For example, instead of saying “you need to appreciate the fact that we pay for your insurance and gas.” Sit down with them and go over the insurance, gas, maintenance and other costs, then let them know that you would like them to begin contributing to some of these expenses. Remember that it’s not about the money. The goal in this case is to help your child learn about the cost and responsibility that goes into having and maintaining a car.
5. Model a healthy expression of emotions and valuing others. If you want your teen to value you, start by expressing praise and showing appreciation when they demonstrate caring for others feelings and experiences, are helpful or working hard. Many parents make the mistake of never sharing their own feelings with their teens and difficult feelings end up coming out in hurtful ways during family arguments. Its OK and important to tell members of your family that you need more appreciation, to expect a thank you when you drive your child somewhere or give them lunch money. Just make sure you are modeling the same expressions of appreciation for your teen that you are expecting from them.
The exasperating behavior of entitled teens are capable of driving the most patient parent to at least consider dropping their child off at the doorstep of another family with a note saying “perhaps she’ll be nice to you”. However, it’s important to remember that these kids aren’t inherently bad, troubled or lacking a specific empathy gene. Rather, they’re responding to their environment and it’s not all your fault. Adolescents today have grown up in a unique context that has offered unprecedented opportunities that we as a society should be very proud of. However we would be remiss not to also acknowledge and address the natural pitfalls of so many blessings. As frustrated as you will continue to be at times with your child’s entitled attitude, we hope you continue to chip away at it and stand firm. Before you know it your teen will begin to show more of the gratitude and empathy that you’ve been waiting for. He may even offer to take the bus.