Entitled Children: Strategies for Improving Behavior
June 16, 2022
While the word “entitled” is sometimes used interchangeably with other terms like selfish, overindulged, or spoiled, there is a small but significant difference between these words. A spoiled person gets everything they want from a material perspective. But entitlement refers to a person’s expectation that they are deserving of certain treatment, says Michael G. Wetter, PsyD, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology and author of the book Earn It! What to Do When Your Kid Needs an Entitlement Intervention.
“It’s hard to find somebody who’s spoiled and not also simultaneously entitled, but you can be entitled without being spoiled,” he said.
In other words, an entitled person feels that they deserve something even though they haven’t earned it—recognition, rewards, good grades, or a promotion. They see only their needs as important, and often feel the rules don’t apply to them.
What Does Entitlement Look Like?
While adults can certainly be entitled, the behavior often begins in children. Wetter says that it’s not unusual for any child to act entitled at certain moments, but he recommends that parents look for specific themes that could signal a need for correction. Those themes include:
Expectation of instant gratification. This may be a toddler throwing a tantrum in the grocery store. Ex: “I want a lollipop now!”
Lack of accountability. This could be a middle-schooler who blames their teachers for their bad grades. Ex: “I didn’t turn in my homework because the teacher didn’t post it on the school portal in time.”
Discomfort with frustration. This may be a teenager who complains because they didn’t get what they wanted for Christmas. Ex: “I need the new iPhone. Everyone else has one.”
Belief they have a right to something. This could be a person who thinks they deserve accolades for doing the bare minimum. Ex: “I should get a good grade because I show up to class.”
Parenting Mistakes That Can Lead to Entitled Kids
Children don’t become entitled on their own. Parents can unwittingly cultivate an attitude of entitlement. If they are worried that their children are becoming entitled, Wetter recommends parents reflect on their own behaviors and the changes that might need to be made. Parental behaviors that can instill a sense of entitlement in children include:
Being a peer, not a parent. “What I have found both clinically as well as anecdotally is that parents who treat their children like mini adults or peers are more likely than not to produce entitled children,” said Wetter. Rather than ask a 4-year-old, “Do you want to take a bath now?” say, “In five minutes it’s going to be bath time.” That gives the child some time to transition while still maintaining your authority as the parent.
Giving children equal say in decisions. “Families are really about hierarchy. Parents are making decisions based on their life experience and their parental wisdom,” he said. Kids should have a sense of engagement and input, but parents should have the final say.
Bribing kids with treats to behave. A bribe is not the same as a reward. According to an article in Psychology Today, “A bribe is an incentive you offer someone in exchange for bad behavior. A reward is an incentive you offer someone in exchange for good behavior.”
Rewarding kids for showing up. Participation trophies in youth sports have been widely debated. “There’s nothing wrong with recognizing participation, it’s when participation is celebrated as enough to merit a reward” that it becomes a problem, said Wetter.
Never saying no. “Teaching compassion to your children requires you to start saying no sometimes,” according to Traci Baxley, EdD, parenting coach and author of Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate Anti-Racist Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World. This could mean a parent saying no, they won’t be spoken to that way, or no, they will not clean up after their child.
Modeling entitled behavior themselves. Do parents expect special treatment in restaurants or stores? Do they coerce the coach into letting their child play rather than sit on the bench? Kids are watching what their parents do, so parents should take a good, honest look at their own behavior.
While most parents likely don’t intend to raise children who expect rewards to be given to them without work, unchecked entitlement can have more serious consequences than temper tantrums or stubbornness.
“The attitude of entitlement is in many ways an effort to avoid adversity, difficulty, and challenge,” Wetter said.
And an inability to build resilience can leave children vulnerable.
“When somebody doesn’t have the capacity to deal with things that are challenging, they look for methods of escape to make things feel better, such as drugs or alcohol,” Wetter said.
Entitlement an effort to avoid adversity, difficulty, and challenge.
Resilience the capacity to deal with adversity.
Substance abuse the use of drugs or alcohol to feel better or escape from difficulties.
Strategies to Address and Avoid Entitled Behavior
It’s never too late to address entitled behavior, Wetter says. But primary caregivers should take ownership of handling the problem as they are in the best position to effect change. Teachers or other adults are less likely to change a child’s entitled behavior and may have better success trying to appeal to the parents. Wetter encourages caregivers to start addressing entitled behavior as early as possible and recommends the following strategies:
Instill a sense of responsibility and accountability. Research suggests there are benefits to giving kids chores as early as age 3. “Children who do chores may exhibit higher self-esteem, be more responsible, and be better equipped to deal with frustration, adversity, and delayed gratification,” according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Build resiliency. Whether it’s making a child do their homework or not allowing them to quit soccer because they’re not the star of the team, it’s important to teach kids that sometimes doing things they don’t want to do is part of life. As Wetter explained, “We all have certain responsibilities in life that aren’t always necessarily our choice, but if we fail to meet those responsibilities we’re met with a larger consequence.”
Encourage an attitude of gratitude. “Children learn to be grateful when they don’t get everything that they ask for. Allow them to want those extra things,” wrote Baxley. In addition, “Teach them to say ‘thank you’ [even when it’s for Aunt Ethel’s bland fruitcake].” Make it a habit by keeping a family gratitude journal, or start a tradition of each person sharing one thing they’re grateful for at dinner each night.
Volunteer or do charitable acts as a family. Volunteering can foster connection and compassion within a community, according to Baxley. It helps people see and try to understand others’ lived experiences “in ways that open your heart to showing up for them.”
Own up to your parenting mistakes. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge to children that they bear some responsibility for the way their children are acting and therefore need to change their own actions. “You’re modeling a very important concept, which is to acknowledge when you’re wrong,” Wetter said. As you set new rules and limits for your children, aim for consistency but don’t expect perfection, he advised.
Keep the dialogue going. Teaching kids not to be entitled is not just about avoiding certain mistakes and encouraging specific behaviors. It requires having ongoing conversations—without bragging, guilt-tripping, or shaming—about privilege, hard work, achievement, wants vs. needs, and other concepts that shape our views. It can be as simple as saying, “Aren’t we lucky to be able to go on this nice vacation? I worked hard so we could do this, and I’m happy I get to enjoy it with you.”