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Adolescence and Entitlement

Because adolescence encourages entitlement, mutuality must be taught.

Because they can go hand in hand, the connection between adolescent willfulness and entitlement is important to understand.

Why more willful? The adolescent typically becomes more willful than the child because now the drive to grown up independence begins. In pursuit of this objective there is a need for more worldly freedom, increased latitude of choice, and older experience that is intensified with urgency to keep up with what peers are allowed to do.

In the process, parents encounter a young person more intent on pushing against and pulling away from them to claim more self-determination, to protest their rules and restraints, and to conduct life more on the adolescent's terms. If she or he was already a willful child, parents should expect the adolescent to become more willful still.

Why more entitled? When a child becomes more willful or strong-willed, as typically occurs in adolescence, a significant change in thinking can occur when something is desired—a change I call ‘the conditional shift.' The thinking seems proceeds like this.

"If I want something, I want it a lot." Now there is an increased importance attached to wants.

"If I want it a lot, I must have it." Now there is urgency to get one's way.

"If I must have it" (here is the conditional shift) "I SHOULD get it." Now there is a sense of entitlement to satisfaction.

"If I don't get what I should" (to which I believe I am entitled) "I will feel treated unfairly." Now refusal of a want feels like a deprivation of a fundamental right, hence the sense of feeling wronged.

Parents know they have a strong-willed adolescent when their refusal doesn't simply cause sadness and disappointment, but generates anger, even fury at entitlement denied. Now they have entered the period of thankless parenting, when they must sometimes take stands for the teenager's best interests against her wants and be resented for their loyal efforts on her behalf.

In addition, at this time their family work and support are also increasingly taken for granted as adolescent entitlement becomes the enemy of parent appreciation. "Why should I be grateful? My parents are supposed to give me what I need to grow. That's their job." This attitude of entitlement makes adolescence a more self-centering age.

Of course, parents can encourage sense of entitlement in their adolescent in many ways. Consider just a few. They can give and give into for indulgence sake, loving to please the one they love. They can avoid refusal and saying ‘no' for fear of displeasing the teenager and incurring his disappointment or anger. They can get exceptions made, give extra chances, make and get excuses for, bend the rules, and bail out of trouble. They can exempt from normal responsibilities, require no family contributions, and make few household demands. They can treat the child as exceptional, create unusual opportunities, make family sacrifices for, and justify special treatment given. Parental indulgence, avoidance, exceptions, rescues, excuses, exemptions, and special treatment can all teach entitlement.

Entitled adolescents come in many forms. There is indulged child to whom parents are forever giving and giving in. There is the star child who receives special privileges and exemptions for being a high performer. There is the adored only child who is used to being sole beneficiary of all that parents have to give. There is the assisted child who has grown so used to extra help that it has come to be expected. There is the manipulative child who keeps extorting compensation from guilty parents who can't get over the suffering they have caused. There is the rescued child who keeps getting bailed out of trouble by parents who can't stand the hurtful consequences if they don't intervene.

From what I've seen, the two antidotes to adolescent entitlement are parents who are willing to teach mutuality and moderation.

Mutuality is taught three ways. It is taught by insisting on reciprocity: "We do and sacrifice for you and expect that you will do and sacrifice for us." It is taught by consideration: "We expect you to be sensitive to our special needs just as we will be sensitive to yours." It is taught by compromise: "We are willing to meet you half-way when we disagree and expect you to be willing to do the same with us." By teaching mutuality they show the teenager that relationship with them (and by extension with others) must work two ways, not just one way (the adolescent's.) The lesson is: a healthy caring relationship is ruled mutual giving and respect .

Moderation is taught two ways, neither of which is usually welcome to the adolescent. It is taught by delay of gratification: "You cannot have everything you want right away." And it is taught by denial of gratification: "You cannot have everything you want at all." Parents have a role in providing sufficient experience with both kinds of instruction so that the young person accepts that not always getting one's way is okay, and that in most of life getting some, not all of what one wants, is going to have to be enough. The lesson is: when it comes to happiness, contentment is more important than gratification.

What makes the lessons of mutuality and moderation hard for parents to teach is the hard response they are likely to get from the teenager who will not be thankfull for the instruction since refusal is not appreciated. Those parents, however, who cannot discipline their love enough to help their son or daughter modify a belief in entitlement, only defer the learning to harder hands - roommates that leave, friends that stop calling, employers that fire, professors that accept no excuses, a legal system that prosecutes, and a loved one that has finally had enough.

All the forgoing said, entitlement is by no means all bad. True, on the down side it can cause a young person to become self-dedicated and self-serving to their social cost. However, on the up side it can also be empowering and important. It can be evidence of healthy self-esteem. For example, in middle school when social cruelty (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up) is more likely to occur, you want your child to feel entitled to safe social treatment by peers. And in high school when dating relationships begin, you want your teenager to feel entitled to be treate with respect.

Finally, there is this. In the last stage of adolescence, trial independence (ages 18-23), there is a very common sense of entitlement that these days is increasingly betrayed. Consider the young person who has been lead to believe that good grades in high school and doing well in college will earn you a good job when you graduate. Yet now this older adolescent, and many others of his or her kind who have faithfully studied hard, discover that no good job, or even any job, awaits them. Many feel very angry at a social system that did not produce the promised occupational outcome for their honest educational efforts.

Now a hard lesson is learned: no one is owed employment. The harsh reality is that it is an uncertain and competitive world out there. People are fortunate to find and keep a job.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, " SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE," (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: When Adolescents Steal from Family.

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