Unspoiling Your Child: Why Some Kids are Brats
Monday, 01 February 2010 00:43

By Jay Pope, Ph.D.

The spoiled child. We're not exactly sure what it means, but we sure know it when we see it. And we don't like it. In fact, one might be hard pressed to find another problem of childhood that could evoke such unsympathetic responses from outside observers:
"What that child needs is a good kick in the pants."
"No, his mother does."

What are we to do about spoiled children? Can we really get them to change? Do we send them off to boot camp? Force them to go to therapy? What do therapists have to say about this issue?

Mental health professionals face a tug-of-war when it comes to helping people in need. With each new treatment breakthrough (e.g., medication, therapy), researchers are discovering newer, more complex ways of understanding the causes of psychological illness. Take anxiety, for example. If someone asks a psychologist, "What is causing me to worry so much?", there are dozens of possible answers. Sociocultural theorists point to dangerous, poor, and marginalized communities or the effects of recession, war, or natural disasters. Psychoanalysts point to repressed id impulses and unresolved childhood trauma. Physicians are quick to note that hyperthyroidism, mitral valve prolapse, or an overactive HPA pathway could be the cause. You might be going through withdrawal from amphetamines and cocaine, or just drink too many espressos. Cognitive theorists reason that you might have a faulty thinking pattern that focuses too much on previous failures and predisposes you to worry. Heck, your worrying might actually motivate you to get more done, and thus anxiety is reinforced! And so on.

But with spoiled children, there seems to be little mystery. Aside from unusual psychiatric cases, such as childhood bipolar disorder, therapists generally agree on the primary cause of bratty behavior: mom and dad.

This is not just another"blame the parents"stereotype coming from therapists. There are actually good reasons to not attribute bratty behavior to the child alone. For one, "spoiled child syndrome" (as one book title frighteningly terms it), is not a diagnosable disorder. It appears nowhere in the DSM-IV-TR (the official diagnostic guide of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association), perhaps because professionals think that, in contrast to other childhood disorders such as Autism, Enuresis, or ADHD, "brattiness" is not (or at least should not be) a serious problem. For another, it doesn't seem likely that a "real" disorder would be subject to such dramatic changes in a child's behavior across so many different situations—as it is with the hypothetical brat who performs an about-face when ultimately exposed to good old-fashioned discipline ("Funny, he behaves so well when he comes to our house"). True psychological disorders seem to distinguish themselves by their very resistance to such simple day-to-day fluctuations—they are significant, often biologically based, and can be difficult to treat. Finally, because problems in childhood are generally understood from a developmental perspective, it could be that a spoiled child's behavior actually reflects the failure of parents to adequately prepare the child for the realities of life through age-appropriate discipline. Regardless, the general consensus is that eye-rolls in supermarkets should be directed at mom and dad, not the child.

Well then, what are parents doing that causes their children to act "spoiled"? Does it not seem unfair to blame parents without explaining what is happening? Just how do well-meaning parents end up spoiling their kids?

For one, many loving and sensitive parents make the understandable mistake of effectively saying, “I do not want my children to go through what I went through when I was younger,” and in so doing, rob their children of the invaluable character building opportunities that have shaped their own lives. It is one thing to want your children to have the best education possible; to live in a safe, friendly neighborhood; to not be physically and/or sexually abused; to be adored, loved, and treated with tons of affection; and to have opportunities to travel and be exposed to other peoples and cultures. But it is a ghastly error of neglect to prepare them for a world that does not exist—one that is free of struggle, challenge, work, and frustration. One in which people can do whatever they want with no consequences. It is as if the parents have forgotten that many of their difficult life experiences were instrumental in making them the people of character they are today. Some parents defend: “They’re only young once.” My response: “Exactly.”

Many parents also erroneously believe that depriving a child of instant gratification, to cause discomfort, or to inconvenience, is to traumatize. Indeed, studies show that people regularly underestimate their resiliency in the face of potential trauma. Perhaps we are doing the same to our children, perceiving them as being too fragile to handle disappointment. In this economy, a child’s comfort trumps the parent’s agenda in the home. Parents spend a substantial portion of their child-rearing time protecting their children from the perceived terror that they might not be a “winner” at everything they try. They engage in endless “esteem guarding,” incorrectly assuming that a healthy self-image is to be equated with being indulged at every opportunity. In time, the child becomes sensitive to even the most trivial discomforts because this is his or her means of being able to control the parent. At least four problems result:

First, the child exhibits excessive whininess and appears to lack basic toughness. Second, the child learns that he or she is in charge, not the parent. Third, the parent communicates that his or her own needs are unimportant, which is the opposite of what a parent is trying to teach the child in the first place (no parent wants their children to grow up to be the kind of adults who put their own dreams on hold, live life vicariously through their children, and do nothing for themselves—but this is exactly what they are modeling!). Fourth, and most importantly, the child is deprived of what he or she really needs: the feeling of security that comes from knowing the parent is undeniably and non-anxiously in control.

Few things are as frightening to a child as a parent's insecurity and instability. Thus, a child may unconsciously test the parents' fortitude through excessive emotional displays and tantrums, in effect daring the parent to pass the test. Thus, one way of looking at spoiled children is to see them as having parents who have not yet passed this "test." Each subsequent display of bratty behavior is another challenge to the parents: Are you strong enough to be my parent? Do you believe in yourself enough to stand up to me? A parent that succeeds has children who although don't always get what they want, go to sleep at night with no doubt as to who is running the family. This feeling of security is of inestimable value.

To illustrate, my father, a pastor, once told me that in his 40 years of ministry some of the angriest people he ever knew were people who were abused or neglected by their parents. The only people who were angrier were people whose parents gave them whatever they wanted.

Here are some recommendations for parenting your children with love, without spoiling them:

•  If you plan on buying them something, tell them that they can have one item and so should therefore choose carefully. Kids will surprise you at how well they can do simple research! This applies even if you can afford to give them more than they need. Principle: life is about the wisdom of our choices.

•  Watch how your children treat their toys. While it is expected that children will break, tire of, or outgrow some of their toys, make sure they are taking care of them, putting them away, and not abusing them. They are fortunate to have them. Tell your children the difference between style and substance when it comes to possessions. Which of your toys lasted longest and provided the most enjoyment? Encourage your children to donate their toys to another family or a charity of their choice when they no longer need them. Principle: Stewardship.

•  Teach your growing children that gifts are costly, no matter how much money the gift giver has. Don't give your child as many gifts if they do not appreciate the thoughtfulness and the work that went into giving them. This will be a tougher sell during the holiday season, when lavishing gifts can be great fun. This rule also clearly does not apply to very young children, who can be forgiven if they just tear right on in. But don't overdo it. Principle: Gift-giving is about relationships, not material possessions.

•  Normalize and validate your children's feelings when they express disappointment over not getting what they want. Say, "I know you really wanted that and I know that it stinks that you can't have it." Perhaps share a story about how you once didn't get what you wanted, even when you really, really wanted it. Remind them that things still turned out okay in the end and you still turned out to be a good person. In so doing, you are staying emotionally connected to your children rather than making it about rejection. Principle: Not getting what you want is painful, but not a disaster. You will live.

•  If you find your child in the midst of an all-out public tantrum (kicking and screaming in a store, etc.), stop what you are doing and gently but firmly remove the child from the store until they are ready to go back in. Yes, this means losing your place in line and yes, this means that they might not be ready to re-enter the store that day. But it is crucial that you remember what is happening here. Your child is choosing a most inconvenient time to test limits and see how in control of yourself you really are. If you show too much anger, you communicate how easy it is for you to lose your composure. If you do nothing, your child will only scream louder. Show the child that they made a very poor choice and that their choice to act out has major consequences: "Now, you get no toys because we're leaving the store—you could have had one but you lost that chance." Principle: A child desperately wants and needs you to be composed, non-anxious, controlled in the face of their anxiety. They want you to tell them of their inappropriate behavior.

•  Follow through on your consequences. Many parents make the mistake of enforcing a disciplinary tactic most of the way through only to back out in the end. The problem is that this reinforces the notion that there are no real consequences for poor choices. It also probably reflects the parent's insecurity ("Will my children hate me?") more than the child's actual sadness, which probably ended before the parent realized. Principle: Consequences are an essential part of maturation and character building; don't cheat your children out of these opportunities for growth.

•  Stay involved and emotionally engaged! Studies show that children who have the healthiest self-concepts as adults, had parents who were high on discipline and control, but equally high on emotional involvement, love, and affection. If you do not make it clear to your children that you love them, your disciplined and controlled approach will be perceived as authoritarian, cold, and rejecting. Principle: If you forget love, the other parenting skills don't matter.

•  Don't treat all kids the same. Recognize that some children are better equipped to handle disappointment than others. Some children can bounce back from the trauma of the death of a parent, while others cannot tolerate it when the maple syrup touches the scrambled eggs. Principle: The goal is to emotionally connect with each child on an individual basis, not run them through a uniform child-rearing mill.

•  Every so often (but not so frequently that they expect or demand it), do nice things for your children or give them gifts "just because." Principle: relationships are not about rewards and punishments; children need to know they are unconditionally loved.

•  Teach your school age children about the value of money by providing them with an allowance. A good rule of thumb for money management is, "Give some (tithe or charity), save some (savings account), invest some (have them buy a single share of stock or a bond and track its growth), spend some." Thus, the next time a child asks if he can have a toy, you can respond with "How do we plan on paying for that?" Financially intelligent children are not offended by this question because they know that toys are (sometimes very) costly. Principle: Financial intelligence.

One final reminder. Next time you are in a store and see a child acting like a spoiled brat, remember that you are probably seeing the end result of a long, frustrating, and exasperating day for parent and child. There are lots of spoiled children out there, but don't use these snapshot experiences and conclude that they represent the sum total of the child's or parent's character. Rather than a kick in the pants, the parent probably just needs a little help. Offer to help carry the groceries instead of passing judgment.
Recommended Reading: Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility, by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. Cline and Fay combine sound research, religious wisdom, and common sense in this practical guide for parenting. They correctly emphasize the reality that life is largely about the wisdom of our choices and the necessity of parental love, discipline, and consequences.

About the Author: Jay Pope (Ph.D., Clinical Psychology) is a licensed psychologist in California. He works as a psychology professor and a staff therapist in Fresno.


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