You Owe Me – Children of Entitlement
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
“I want ___, Give it to me ___, Buy me ___” seem to be the constant demand of some children. Some children feel owed or entitled to get their way. While it is normal for a child to ask for what he wants, some children are overly demanding and needy. They have not learned to balance taking from others with giving; they view other people as existing merely to give to them.
For some children, this behavior may be a stage that they go through and grow out of. For example, two year olds constantly seek and explore the environment. Demanding that their needs be met is one of the ways that two year olds develop independence. Another phase comes up during adolescence. Teenagers are notoriously known for requiring the best of everything. Rampant materialism appears to be the middle name for some young people during the teen years–it is a stage that some young people go though.
Another event that may cause a child to engage in more entitlement behavior is divorce. The child may react to family stress and loss by becoming more demanding. He may feel pulled between the two parents and play one against the other to gain presents and special privileges. The parent who feels guilty may unwitting play into the child’s materialism by “buying” the child’s favor through giving gifts or exciting outings. So selfish behavior can be a stage or set up by events in the child’s life. However if it is not checked or outgrown, it can become a lifelong pattern of getting everything for himself.
Some children have a personality trait of selfishness and feeling owed. The demanding child often focuses on issues of “It’s not fair.” He feels on an unconscious level that what happened to him was not fair. And, in a sense, he is “owed” because he missed out on basic nurturing, love, limits and structure. When early dependency needs were not provided, the child feels a sense of loss and shame that manifests itself in being angry. This child may go through life angrily trying to get others to make up for what his parents did not provide.
The type of child may react continuously to perceived small injustices in daily life. In effect, he is saying to other people, “You owe me. Pay up!” He can’t get what he wants from his parents so he tries to get it from other people. Symbolically, continual anger can be a covert statement to his parents, “It is not fair. Give me my basic needs. Pay attention to me or I will blow up.” Yet the sad part is that no matter how much is given to him it is as if he has a hole inside that can never be filled.
The child who feels owed often has limited skills and tools to interact with people and sets up demands that cause others to distance themselves from him. His defenses prevent him from gaining acceptance and friendships from others in acceptable ways. He learns to substitute anger, cruelty to others, addictive substances, workaholic behavior or material objects to fill his neediness. Behavior that focuses primarily negative ways of getting the needs of the self met without regard to others is called narcissistic.
Causes of Selfish Behavior
The roots of preoccupation with self involvement may be due to a combination of stresses of nature and nurture. There may be neurological involvement due to genetics or an injury to the brain. And we live in a culture that encourages young people to get all that they can. As the disparity between the “haves and have nots” increases, some young people turn their entitlement to anger and violence.
How the child is raised makes a difference in how he views himself and others. The child with narcissistic behavior may not have had his basic needs met when he was young. The mother may not have had the capacity to support the ego-emerging aspects of the child. She may not have been available either emotionally or physically during this important developmental period of his life. Around the age of two, children learn to separate from their mother and develop an independent sense of self. Deprivation of the child’s needs during the period of his life can result in ego fixation and developmental arrest. Selfish behavior can be learned. The child may have witnessed one of his parents displaying a pattern of domination and selfishness while the other parent gave in much of the time. The child learns to expect others to meet his needs as modeled by the dominant parent whom he perceives as powerful. Children who have experienced early physical and sexual trauma including neglect and rejection may develop narcissistic defenses to deal with their early pain. Spoiled and overindulged children sometimes are at risk for the narcissistic behavior pattern of wanting to control others. Children who are required to live up to high parental expectation of being charming, talented, intelligent, beautiful so that the parent’s self esteem can be enhanced, are also at risk. This is particularly true when the parent is disappointed and rejecting when the child does not live up to their expectations.
Defenses Against Shame
Narcissistic behavior is a defense against internal negative feelings. The original self has become fractured. The results of the fractured self is a way of interacting to keep himself from feeling. The real self of the child was shut down in early life due to trauma or parent’s over involvement with their own needs. The child forms a false sense of self to help avoid depression, abandonment and the all-encompassing shame. His defenses of neediness and selfishness keep the child from feeling vulnerable and unworthy. The entitlement defense helps keep the child from his internal global belief of “I am bad” that may have developed when he felt parental rejection and feared abandonment early in life. His secret belief is that I must be really bad or my parents would have loved me. He avoids remembering early painful experiences of hurt and shame.
Masterson describes the narcissistic wound as being so great that the individual cannot even consider the balm to provide the healing. This form of denial and rigid thinking is one of the hardest defenses to break into. The child continually seeks self gratification to pursue relief from shame. These unquenchable demands are the result of arrested growth. The depth of these defenses is the depth of the trauma. When the child is stressed or threatened, he engages in more self-serving behaviors.
Common Errors in Thinking
Certain errors of thinking keep the child caught in this form of interacting with others. This faulty thinking which set him up for a lifetime of hurt and disappointment is called cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortion is a faulty way of seeing the world due to severe hurt inside. Some or all of these errors in thinking may be present to some degree in the child who feels needy because of an inner sense of shame:
Reality distortion and Inability to See and Hear – The child sees situations through his own sense of woundedness and neediness. John Masterson, an expert in the field of personality disorders, calls this distortion having a Swiss Cheese brain with holes where the ego strengths (common sense) should be. The child cannot always hear what you say because he is constantly in a state of neediness and fear of being vulnerable. He cannot risk trying new situations that might offer the opportunities to learn new skills. His internal shame and fears of being found cause a selective lens of which to look through.
Mood Switching – The child’s fractured self is caught in mood swings. She may go back and forth between “I’ll be good” and pouting or outrage because she isn’t getting what she wants. She becomes angry when threatened with not getting her own way. There is a paramount fear of being hurt and rejected coupled with denial of need and clinging to the adult. Anger becomes a way of trying to avoid abandonment and depression.
Poor Impulse Control and Frustration Tolerance – The child is highly reactive to outside stimuli that seem to threaten his sense of self and cannot delay gratification. He wants things NOW! He can be highly irritable and becomes upset over numerous small things with the attitude of “I want what I want when I want it!” He can become stuck in repeating his defensive demands that turn others away: “Take care of me. I’m needy. I’m special. Do for me what others have not done for me. What have you done for me lately? Give me everything I ask for or you don’t love me.”
Poor Ego Boundaries and Need for Control – The child cannot view things from any other perspective other than his own. He is so caught in his own neediness that he cannot feel empathy for others. He does not have the ability to put himself in someone else’s shoes. He views others as objects to be used for his personal gratification.
Denial of Uncomfortable Feelings – The child keeps the focus on what he wants not how he feels. His constant demanding keeps him from feeling the pain inside. Denial of feelings is a major defense against keeping the hurt and shame away. He turns the tables around by trying to make others wrong for not giving him what he feels entitled to. You may hear him say, “I don’t have to talk about feelings. I don’t have bad feelings. I don’t want to do any psychological work. I will make up schemes and only do what it takes to make me to feel good. I have to feel good at all costs!”
Frequent Anger and Rage – The child substitutes anger and tantrums as a way of keeping her uncomfortable feelings from being experienced. She becomes a master of rationalization and justification of her explosive actions: “If I don’t get my way, then I have the right to get angry.” Suicidal threats can be an extension of the distorted thinking– “Stick em up and give me what I want or I will kill myself!”
Need for Admiration – The child erroneously believes that he is special and should be given special privileges. In effect he says, “Give me perfect empathy. I deserve the biggest piece, the whole pie. Tell me how wonderful I am, so I can ignore the pain inside. Don’t poke my self-protective bubble.” This need to be seen as special is so great that he cannot take in other information.
Grandiosity and Fantasy – The child spins grandiose fantasies to cover up the internal wounds of his fractured self. He sets up elaborate fantasy schemes of winning, becoming powerful or gaining revenge for injustice. Daydreams of becoming rich and famous without talent or hard work are common.
Idealization and Devaluation of Teachers or Therapists – The child will make you feel that you are wonderful and special as long as you humor her. “As long as you give me what I want, you are the ideal person for me. If I bask in the wonderfulness of you, I don’t have to look at my own pain.” There is generally a honeymoon period until you ask her to be responsible for her own actions. Then you, like everyone else, will fall from grace. “You are bad if you don’t let me win.”
Externalization of Blame – The child cannot allow the bad feelings of being at fault for anything. He/she/they/YOU are the problem! He avoids feeling vulnerable by blaming others. The fragile self esteem cannot be punctured by taking responsibility for behavior. His script is “Do not expose me to those intolerable feelings inside. I can’t handle it.”
Countertransference Issues: Dumping of the Symptoms on Teachers and Therapists
Teachers and therapists who work with self-involved children need a different set of cues and techniques to break into the distorted thinking. Masterson says that this type of individual is not in therapy to get better; he is there to get you to participate in his symptoms! Without special understanding of the core of shame that underlies narcissistic behavior, the unwitting adult can do more harm than good.
Narcissistic children engage in repetitive compulsive behaviors which are a defense of repeating the past symbolically in the present without awareness of what they are doing. They repeat their symptom over and over without insight or any release from their pain. Focusing on themselves and getting their way is all they know. They need to be taught social skills of empathy, seeing things from other’s perspective, getting in touch with painful feelings and curtailing the “You owe me” beliefs.
A strong alliance with a caring adult allows the child to addresses the core issue of running away from uncomfortable feelings. The first step is getting the child to the point of looking at how his symptoms do not help her but make things worse. Making the child feel good, developing rapport or bonding with the adult are not goals of therapy! Rapport develops naturally when you teach new ways of thinking and acting and express excitement about his ability to make positive changes in himself. Children really want to learn skills that are in their best interests.
Traps for Those Who Try to Help
The teacher or therapist untrained in narcissistic personality disorders may unwittingly fall into these countertransference traps:
- Giving the child perfect empathy, or favors that encourage her entitlement thinking and behavior (You are special. You don’t have to follow the rules. Just this once you can …. Well, I’ll let you get by this time.)
- Feeling the child’s fear and avoiding the issues–letting the child have her way. Protecting her so she does not have to examine her own pain and the motives of her actions.
- Becoming angry and getting into power struggles with the child.
- Tying to reason with the child on the rational understanding of the issue when he cannot hear you due to his insistence on his own agenda of not feeling any more pain.
- Falling into the child’s despair as she projects the fear that she cannot handle on you.
Therapeutic Practices to Help Reduce Distorted Thinking
The therapist must be emotionally neutral when correcting the child’s faulty thinking. If you become upset or distance yourself from the child, you may be caught in anger counter transference issues of your own. In confrontation, the child’s narcissistic injury is exposed and he escapes into his own defensiveness to reduce his feelings of shame. He will try to engage you in power struggles; this is merely his running his symptom of trying to win at all costs. Ignore all entitlement statements of “I need to win” basis. Focus on identifying the child’s vulnerability and gently link it back to his defenses. If you are successful he will be able to take what you say in rather than going into the narcissistic posturing.
Bring the child’s attention to his denied feelings and self destructive behavior. Break into and challenge his thinking by asking him questions that interrupt winning the power struggle. Give him choices whenever possible. Bring him back to the feeling level repeatedly. Interrupt his defenses and ask him to feel. When that makes him angry, ask him to look at his defenses.
Help the child to see that his anger does not get him what he wants. Challenge him to find the hurt underneath the anger, going back to his vulnerability. Help him develop his ego strength by taking control of his own emotions and actions. Help the child find his Observer Part so that he can step back and watch himself. He can learn to see how his angry thoughts and behaviors take him away from the things he longs for the most–love and acceptance. Becoming a detective on his own behavior can give him distance from the painful internal feelings.
Social Skills Training to Correct Distorted Thinking
The hope for the self-involved child is to provide him with training to remediate the faulty ways of perceiving the world. The child will benefit from social skill training in these areas to make up for his deficits in thinking and behavior:
- Learning to follow directions and take in information instead of going to instant debate
- Delaying gratification and learning to inhibit impulsive actions
- Learning to separate the big deals from the little deals and let go of the small injustices of life.
- Learning to state boundaries and allow others their boundaries
- Dealing with frustrations in socially acceptable ways
- Reinforcing his own self when behavior is appropriate
- Becoming his own coach and cheerleader for making good choices
- Viewing others with empathy and seeing things from their point of view
- Develop a healthy type of narcissism based on the balance between giving and receiving
Cues to Break Into Statements of “You Owe Me!”
You feel that your needs aren’t being met. I wonder why you need to get angry when that doesn’t get you what you want? Does going to time out make you happy? What is another choice you could make instead of insisting that you get your way?
Maybe you get angry to avoid feeling the bad feelings inside. You could make a different choice.
What is our rule about buying you things every time? You can learn to feel good inside without having to have new toys all the time. Really feeling good is about learning to talk about your scary feelings.
This is not a big deal. Big deals are parents screaming at you or hitting you, leaving you or you’re becoming anxious when parents fight. Little deals are not getting your own way. You don’t have to get angry over little deals. What could you tell yourself to let this go so you could feel happy?
It is sad to see a smart person like you making yourself so angry all the time. Some people talk about feelings so they don t have to get angry so much. Hmmm. I wonder if you could do that?
You get angry when I don’t give you what you want. How does not getting your way hurt you? That s life. Tell yourself, “I don’t always get my way. That’s how it is. I don’t have to get mad.”
When someone doesn’t respond to you the way that you want, you become angry. You are smart enough to stop doing this. Tell yourself, I can feel good even though I don’t get my way.
It is so painful for you to look at yourself. You keep insisting that I buy you things. I wonder why you want to argue instead of doing things that would make you happy?
Yes, it is hard to talk about feelings at first. It does feel uncomfortable inside at first. Then you get used to it just like riding a bicycle is hard at first. The uncomfortable feelings go away and you feel good. When you learn to talk your feelings, you won’t have to get angry all the time.
You used to take care of the bad feelings inside by insisting that you get your own way. That doesn’t work anymore. What can you do now instead of blowing up?
I’m curious why you think it must go your way. Let’s find the hurt underneath the anger. Look for the hurt feelings. Tell me about a time when someone hurt you.
Maybe someone hurt you a long time ago when you were little. Maybe you could start to talk about the old hurts. Then you could feel good inside again. I really want you to feel good inside. The only way to feel good inside is to talk about the hurt and go through it.
You can learn to handle those bad feelings inside. I know they make you nervous, but you can do it. I believe in you!
References On Narcissism
Kernberg, O. (l975). Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism, New York: J. Aronson.
Kernberg, O. (l989). Narcissistic personality disorder in childhood. In Otto Kernberg, (Ed.), The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Vol. l2, No. 3.
Masterson, J.(1988) The search for the real self: Unmasking the personality disorders of our age. Macmillan Free Press.