Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Child Entitlement Abuse (Part 1 of 5)

Where does the "world-owes-me" syndrome come from?

Key points

  • Parents who make their lives revolve around their children may have neglected to teach their kids to value the needs and wants of others.
  • Child-rearing methods that teach a child to feel entitled can doom them to a lifetime of frustration and discontent.
  • Entitled children believe anything they desire, whether material or relational, should be theirs without having to earn it.
Source: creatista/123RF

Without a doubt, serious child abuse undermines a child's healthy development. And all too often the tragic result of parents' woeful deficiencies in caring for their child is dysfunction in the "adult child" never able to become fully integrated as a grown-up.

It's obvious that regularly beating children, molesting them, ignoring their essential needs (or even abandoning them) are all major forms of abuse. But only rarely are child-rearing methods that teach a child to feel entitled seen in this reproachful light. Yet such methods can breed adults whose false sense of identity and purpose can doom them to a lifetime of frustration and discontent.

So it's crucial that parents (especially those wanting only the best for their children) realize how careful they must be to avoid over-indulging, or "spoiling," their child.

It's only common sense that in the parents' wish to please their children and make them happy—as well as to spare them the frustrations and deprivations they themselves may have endured in growing up—risk imparting to the child a sense of entitlement. And unwittingly inculcating the child with a "privileged" sense of self can end up being quite as hurtful to the child's development as more blatant forms of abuse.

This five-part post, while acknowledging the benign motives of parents who unintentionally infuse their children with damaging narcissistic traits, will center on the various ways that over-attending to the child's wants can have decidedly (if not deplorably) negative outcomes, and how, conversely, parents can raise their kids to become responsible citizens (rather than "entitled" adults).

So What Constitutes a Sense of Entitlement?

Those "afflicted" with a sense of entitlement demonstrate the attitude that whatever they want, they deserve—and automatically at that, simply because they are who they are. So anything they desire, whether material or relational, should be theirs. It's inherently justified; there's no need actually to earn it.

Such a false, audacious, or grandiose sense of self is hardly genetic. It originates from their indulgent caretakers' repeatedly giving them the message that whatever they wished for was more or less "due" them.

And while I'd argue that it's fine to have a sense of deservingness—if that means you perceive your wants and needs as no less important than anybody else's—to believe that your desires are more important than those of others, or that you deserve more than they do, is arrogant, egotistic and ... well ... childish.

Moreover, such inflated self-regard inevitably prompts you to trample on the rights of others—to manipulate them and turn them into objects to exploit for personal gain. It sorely compromises any feelings of kindness, charity, or compassion. Ultimately, it can erode your very humanity.

How—and Why—Parents Raise "Entitled Kids"

When children are young, in many respects their parents are their world. So if, when fully grown, they "naturally" (or rather, through parental conditioning) assume that the world "owes" them, it's because that's the message they were raised with.

But exactly how do parents unwittingly contrive to impart such a damaging message to their offspring? How is it that, with the most benevolent of intentions, they can end up creating mean-spirited, self-centered brats? Well, in a variety of ways—most of which are as innocent as they are, frankly, naïve.

I've never been into "parent-bashing," for I think all of us—given our level of awareness, psychological defenses, and capability—are doing the best we can. But regardless of whether parents should know better, to me, there's little question that they bear more than a little responsibility for how their children turn out.

Anyhow, here are some of the ways that parents spoil or over-indulge their children: in short, bestow upon them a most unenviable sense of entitlement.

  • Revolving your life around your children. This is not to say that, under the right circumstances, making your children your top priority can't be both loving and appropriate. But when almost all your energy is indiscriminately devoted to fulfilling your child's desires, it's no wonder that they'll come to see the world as revolving around them. As such, they're unlikely to give much consideration to the wants and needs of others. After all, they've been allowed (unwittingly, maybe even encouraged) to be on the receiving end of the family's many offerings—without incurring the slightest obligation to reciprocate. You may have neglected to teach them anything about fair-mindedness. The ethical ideal of "give-and-take" may have been reduced (perverted?) simply to "take."
  • Not allowing your child to endure frustration. Since children, particularly young children, are not very adept at soothing or entertaining themselves, overly concerned parents may feel uncomfortable whenever they witness their child in a state of dissatisfaction, irritation, or boredom. As a result, such parents can experience powerful urges to indulge or cater to the child. Still, it's hardly a good idea to be regularly looking for ways to placate children, for it only hinders their learning, independently, how to cope with various frustrations. Parents over-involved with their children's feelings, however, may not be able to tolerate their child's temporary disappointment or distress. So at that moment, they may feel compelled to stop what they're doing to comfort or cheer up the child, rush out to buy the child some undeserved present, or do anything else they imagine will bring a smile to their child's face

Obviously, such deference to the child's disgruntled state, besides teaching them nothing about handling brief periods of disappointment, also stifles their creative ability to move beyond their dispirited emotions. Later, as adults easily irked, vexed, or bored, they tend to wear out the patience of others—who, unlike their parents, don't at all share the compulsion to subjugate themselves to such grumbling or testiness.

  • Rewarding behaviors that are best left ignored (or even punished). If your kids wind up getting negative behaviors positively reinforced, they're well on their way to learning that whenever they wish to speedily resolve some frustration, it "pays" to be obnoxious. Unquestionably, a child's whining or throwing a tantrum can make parents extremely uncomfortable

But deferring to the child under such circumstances is about the worst thing parents can do. Sure, giving in may immediately halt the child's bothersome behavior—as well as alleviate their own distress in reaction to it—but such surrender also teaches the child to become all the more adept at whimpering, or "staging" a hissy fit. Generally speaking, it's better to ignore a child's shenanigans than to focus on them. (Remember, kids can prefer negative attention to no attention at all.) But if parents can't tolerate, say, their children's emotionally acting out and so, to get it to stop, give them whatever they're demanding, they'll just be encouraging that much more of the troublesome behavior. And worse, when that whiny child becomes a whiny adult, he or she will be putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage in making (and sustaining) relationships. Few people choose to be around someone who, almost by design, is fretful, cranky, and complaining.

Note: Here are links to Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5.

More from Leon F Seltzer PhD
More from Psychology Today