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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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."
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
of Uncomfortable Feelings
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!"
Anger and Rage
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!"
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.
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.
and Devaluation of Teachers or Therapists
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."
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."
Dumping of the Symptoms on Teachers and Therapists
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
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.
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
or therapist untrained in narcissistic personality disorders may
unwittingly fall into these countertransference traps:
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.)
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.
angry and getting into power struggles with the child.
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.
into the child's despair as she projects the fear that she
cannot handle on you.
Therapeutic Practices to Help Reduce Distorted Thinking
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.
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.
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:
to follow directions and take in information instead of going
to instant debate
gratification and learning to inhibit impulsive actions
to separate the big deals from the little deals and let go
of the small injustices of life.
to state boundaries and allow others their boundaries
with frustrations in socially acceptable ways
his own self when behavior is appropriate
his own coach and cheerleader for making good choices
others with empathy and seeing things from their point of
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?
get angry to avoid feeling the bad feelings inside. You could
make a different choice.
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
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?
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."
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
learn to handle those bad feelings inside. I know they make
you nervous, but you can do it. I believe in you!
O. (l975). Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism,
New York: J. Aronson.
O. (l989). Narcissistic personality disorder in childhood. In
Otto Kernberg, (Ed.), The Psychiatric Clinics of North America,
Vol. l2, No. 3.
J.(1988) The search for the real self: Unmasking the personality
disorders of our age. Macmillan Free Press.
are taken from our curriculums in the Talk,
Trust & Feel Catalog to teach children positive ways to
deal with anger. See our catalog for kits that provide activities
in anger management, anger containment, safe anger release and
safe anger expression. The kit that addresses entitlement and
narcissistic behavior is I Stop My Bully Behavior.
FOR TEACHERS & THERAPISTS
To Angries Out