3rd Jan 2016
‘She terrorises us’: How entitled children are making their parents’ lives hell
Sons are smashing windows, furious they’re asked to stop playing computer games; teenagers are threatening to kill themselves. Photo: iStock
“She terrorises us.” That’s how bad it is for Steve Richardson* and his wife when their 17-year-old daughter is at home.
Olivia has dropped out of school and goes missing for days at a time. She’s smoking pot and has been arrested for shoplifting. Tensions quickly escalate when she does return to the family home in Sydney’s north west.
Like when she lost her iPhone recently. “She was screaming at me to buy her a new one,” Richardson says. “It couldn’t just be any phone. It had to be the newest, most expensive iPhone.
“When I said ‘the phone is your responsibility’, she started abusing me, screaming at me and smashing her bedroom. She said, ‘I’m going to destroy the house, I’m going to kill myself’.”
Her father called the police.
Richardson is one of a growing number of parents under siege from their children.
The pointy end of entitlement
Sons are smashing windows, furious they’re asked to stop playing computer games. Doors are hanging off hinges having been slammed so hard in a fit of pique. Teenagers are holding knives to their mother’s throat, or threatening to kill themselves.
This is the pointy end of entitlement, the defining characteristic of this generation of children.
“It’s the end result of giving kids everything they want,” psychologist Judith Locke explains. “Tough love is really being called for, but we’ve got a generation of parents who are much less inclined to do this.”
Eager to deliver the perfect childhood, parents are emotionally and materially indulging their children. Boundaries are rarely enforced and consequences aren’t imposed by parents who want to be their child’s friend. Kids who grow up expecting attention and success are so accustomed to getting what they want that they don’t know how to cope when they don’t.
Richardson blames himself for spoiling his daughter. “She has always been given everything she wanted.”
Unable to tell anyone what’s going on at home, he and his wife have travelled to the eastern suburbs to attend a meeting of Toughlove, a confidential parent support group.
His story resonates with other parents there. “I would always buy my daughter whatever she wanted because I thought that would make her happy,” says Janet Burchfield*, a blonde woman in her 40s. “Now she hits me if she doesn’t get what she wants. Today she told me she was never going to speak to me again because I never get her what she wants. I can’t win.”
Path of less resistance
Parenting experts say the trend towards smaller families has upped the ante on parenting with the goal of maximising the outcomes for each child. But often working parents are so time poor that they will take the path of less resistance.
“Sometimes parents haven’t got the time to have that fight with the kids so we just give in,” parent educator Michael Grose says. “Often we don’t delegate to the child, or allow them to do it themselves, because it’s easier and quicker to do it ourselves.”
No parent likes seeing their child upset but psychologists believe we’re going overboard in our quest to please our kids. “It’s well-intentioned but extreme responsiveness to the child, which can actually stop their resilience,” Locke says.
Schools report that kids are now so conditioned to receiving a ribbon just for showing up at the sports carnival that they overreact when things don’t go their way.
“We are very quick to gratify our students,” admits Australian Primary Principals Association president Dennis Yarrington. “This notion of putting in effort, working hard, having delayed gratification, is something I see young people today struggle with.”
Growing up with the Internet and social media hasn’t helped. Anything kids want, from pizza to porn, can be satisfied 24/7 via the Internet. Social media breeds narcissism by making kids the stars of their own lives on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Having a newsfeed full of what their peers are getting and doing dials up the desire to have the same.
Saying no a matter of choice
Yet kids rarely have to go without. With most families now dual income, saying no to a child’s latest whim is a matter of choice, not because parents actually don’t have the money to buy the new iPhone 6 or PS4.
“Because we can give them so much, kids now see it as their right rather than a privilege,” Grose says. “We forget that with rights come responsibilities.”
The never-ending requirement for more peaks at this time of year. “Kids tend to focus more on the number of presents and their expectations on the present being exactly what they have asked for, they don’t experience the joy and gratefulness of receiving one item,” psychologist Michelle Pritchard observes.
Pritchard stresses that entitlement is a normal part of kids’ development, which strikes with the egocentrism of the toddler, and then the boundary-pushing of the 15 – 18-year-old teenager. “But when that entitled expectation is reinforced with no boundaries, it can become really unhealthy and negative,” she says.
Some parents are compensating for their own childhood, indulging their children the way they feel they weren’t.
Others are making enormous sacrifices for their kids. They might be working long hours or piling up the debt. They’re turning themselves inside out to organise their schedules around dance, swimming, piano and Mandarin lessons, or funding overseas trips for their kids which they themselves won’t be able to afford in retirement.
“Often children remain on the parents’ payroll a lot longer when they’re brought up like that,” Locke says. She wonders what this will mean for parents in their old age. Will children who are so used to being lovingly tended to – and funded – well into their 30s be able to adjust to the role-reversal and take care of their parents when the time comes?
Mental health issues predicted
Kids who grow up insulated from difficulty and disappointment are also likely to struggle in adulthood if they don’t get into their first preference for uni, miss out on a job, or are dumped by the love of their life.
“Because they haven’t really developed resilience, they emerge a lot weaker from tough experiences,” Locke warns. She predicts mental health issues will emerge in this generation as they mature.
In a bid to clamp down on entitlement, principals are encouraging parents and teachers to emphasise the concept of personal best.
“It’s learning that if you have done your best, if you have done whatever you can to achieve the best result, that’s what’s important. Not whether you came first or last,” Yarrington explains.
Schools are adopting the KidsGive program, where children use crowdfunding to raise money for the cause of their choice. “You counteract the age of entitlement with the age of giving,” Yarrington says. “Kids learn that sometimes it is more about others than myself.”
*Names have been changed