Selfishness in Youth

Selfishness is one of the major causes of excessive anger, defiant and controlling behaviors and rage in children and in teenagers. In our practice it is the leading cause of the angry behaviors in youth.  This selfishness regularly creates serious stress in parents, siblings, peer relationships, schools and communities. 

The identification of this conflict is essential, but also challenging, in addressing the excessive anger in children.  Unfortunately, too often selfishness is not considered as one of the possible causes of intense anger and defiant behavior in youth.  Instead, these children can be misdiagnosed as ADHD because of their impulsivity at times, particularly when they do not get their own way or the attention they desire.  Also, the rage associated with selfishness can be so intense that these children can be misdiagnosed as indicating a bipolar disorder. Based on over 35 years of experience in treating excessive anger in children and in adults, selfishness should always be considered when trying to determine the cause of intense anger in youth, especially severe outbursts of anger and defiance.

Fortunately, steps can then be taken to resolve this personality weakness which will be presented in this chapter. The role of parents is crucial in protecting children, families and the culture from the damaging effects of selfishness.  In order to do so parents need to embrace a responsible parenting style, rather the highly prevalent and harmful permissive parenting style.

A five part EWTN DVD series, Narcissism: the Epidemic of Self-Infatuation with Dr. Fitzgibbons on this major source of family unhappiness, is available at www.lhla.org.

Uncovering selfishness

The evaluation of the behaviors that demonstrate serious conflicts with selfishness is essential in uncovering this conflict that man youth and adults attempt to mask or deny it.  To that end we have developed a selfishness checklist which is helpful in determining the extent of this conflict.  Please consider evaluating your child on this measure. 

Excessive anger develops when people of all ages with this character weakness do not have their needs or expectations meet quickly or in a specific manner. In many regards they respond in a emotionally immature and childlike way.

A Washington psychologist has written an important article in the Washington Post based on her professoinal work on the growing problem of excessive anger and disrespectful behaviors in children and the need for parents to respond to such intense selfishness in their children, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/10/AR2007091001174.html.

New Research on Selfishness

An important book on this matter is The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.  It can assist parents, educators, students and clergy in understanding the severe damage caused by narcissism.  Twenge and Campbell offer helpful suggestions for addressing this epidemic but fail to recommend strongly enough the importance of education in virtues in the home and school and of parental modeling of virtues of generosity, solidarity and self-denial.

A study in the spring of 2007 revealed the extent of the problem of narcissism in our culture. Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University reported in a study of almost 17,000 college students that two thirds of them scored high on a measure of selfishness.  The study reported an increase of narcissism of 30% over the past twenty years.  Dr. Twenge commented that narcissistic individuals are more likely to manifest over controlling and violent behaviors and exhibit dishonesty.

Selfishness and other Psychiatric Disorders

We view selfishness as a major precursor to angry, defiant behaviors in children which is often diagnosed as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).  If it can be properly uncovered and addressed in childhood, we believe that other childhood and adolescent disorders can be prevented.  Therefore, the evaluation of the degree of a child's selfishness is an important aspect of the treatment of the excessive anger in ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder and possible Bipolar Disorder.

Types of Selfishness

A 2008 study of 255 patients who met DSM-IV criteria for narcissistic personality disorder identified three subtypes of narcissistic personality disorder, which the authors labeled grandiose/malignant, fragile, and high-functioning/exhibitionistic (Russ E., 2008). The researchers described these 3 types as follows:

1. Grandiose/malignant type -  characterized by seething anger, manipulativeness, pursuit of interpersonal control and power, exaggerated self-importance, feelings of privilege, few underlying feelings of inadequacy, little psychological insight or remorse, and a tendency to blame others.

2. Fragile type -  characterized by defensive grandiosity to deflect painful feelings of smallness, anxiety, and loneliness; longings to feel important and privileged; and strong undercurrents of negative affect and feelings of inadequacy, often accompanied by rage, when narcissistic defenses fail.

3. High-functioning/exhibitionistic type - characterized by exaggerated self-importance; articulateness, energy, and sociability; good adaptive functioning; and use of narcissism to help him or her succeed.

Please try to use these new criteria to identify the type of selfishness exhibited by your child. The most common type we identify and try to address is the first one with the compulsive need to control others and seething anger when the child or teenager is unable to have it his/her way. 

Origins of Selfishness

The common origins of selfishness in children include:


What do you think is the major cause(s) of selfishness in your child?

        1.

        2.

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Growth in virtues

Growth in the virtues of respect, obedience, generosity and self-denial are essential if children are to learn to cope with and then overcome selfishness. The following additional virtues which can also be taught to children to help them with this serious character weakness:


An excellent resource for parents in regard to virtue development in children is the web site and the books of James Stenson, an educational consultant.

The Benefits of Self-Control

In a major study from Duke of 1,037 persons followed from childhood to age 32 showed that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance abuse, personal finances and criminal behaviors.  The researchers found that varying levels of executive function, that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses, have a profound impact on nearly every aspect of life.  Children followed from birth to age 32 who could better regulate their impulses and attention were four times less likely to have a criminal record, three times less likely to be addicted to drugs and half as likely to become single parents. (Moffitt, T.E., et al., 2011) Executive function is strengthened by growth in virtues.

Parental Coaching

Catholic parents can address and correct selfishness in their children by:


An effective punishment for selfish, disrespectful and defiant behaviors can be to require a Christian child to write 25 or 50 times, "Lord help me to become more respectful and less selfish and angry."

Negative consequences of selfishness

A discussion with a child of the long term negative consequences of selfishness in adult life can be beneficial in motivating a child to work on this personality conflict. These serious difficulties include:

Why some parents cannot respond properly to selfishness

The process of addressing selfishness in children can be challenging. The major reasons parents are unable to correct selfishness in their children they:

Permissive Parenting

A number of mental health professionals have commented on the serious problem of the present permissive parenting style in many, if not, most families.  Dr. Bill Dougherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, wrote in the magazine, Parents in March 2007, "Many parents act more like therapists than authority figures. Developmentally, preschoolers are ready to learn empathy and to take the perspective of someone else. When parents fail to show them how to do that, kids develop a very self-centered approach to the world.

Psychologist, Dan Kindlon, in his book, Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, wrote, Most kids who misbehave in public have never been given limits or told what is appropriate and what is not.  Another important book in this area is Diane West's, The Death of Grown-Up.

Fathers with this harmful parenting style can be helped by reading Father, The Family Protector by James Stenson, an educational consultant, by visiting his web site, www.parentleadership.com and by reviewing the selfish spouse chapter on this web site.

Damage from Sexual Utilitarian Philosophy

Catholic parents should be aware of the serious problems on campuses because of the support of the sexual utilitarian philosophy by educators - a philosophy which directly fosters growth in selfishness.   A psychiatrist in the student health office at UCLA, Dr. Miriam Grossman,has written an important book, Unprotected:A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student, in which she documents the serious medical and psychological damage done particularly to female college students by the sexual hookup culture which is supported by our universities. 

1. The damage from being treated as a sexual object include:

2. The damage to oneself from using others as a sexual object include:

An excellent book for college students on healthy self-giving in loving relationships is Edward Sri’s Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility, 2007.  Dr. Janet Smith believes Love and Responsibility should be recognized as one of the greatest works in Western civilization with Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Inferno and Augustine’s Confessions.

Work and selfishness

Ron Alsop's book, 'Trophy Kids' Go to Work' describes the serious problems in the workplace.  In an article on this topic in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote, "When Gretchen Neels, a Boston-based consultant, was coaching a group of college students for job interviews, she asked them how they believe employers view them. She gave them a clue, telling them that the word she was looking for begins with the letter "e." One young man shouted out, "excellent." Other students chimed in with "enthusiastic" and "energetic." Not even close. The correct answer, she said, is 'entitled.' 'Huh?' the students responded, surprised and even hurt to think that managers are offended by their highfalutin opinions of themselves."

The Correction of selfishness

Couples need to be united and strong in order to address this conflict in their children. In some families one parent refuses to allow correction of the selfish child and, in fact, may enable and subtly encourage selfish behaviors. Such a parent may have had a controlling and critical parent and rebel against this parent unconsciously by refusing to correct their own children.

Essentially, such a parent is misdirecting anger at his/her spouse by refusing to be a responsible parent. However, the most common reason for enabling selfishness in children is that this parent was spoiled in childhood and was never properly corrected.

Correction of selfishness in children should not be done in anger. This is because parents need to model emotionally mature behavior, particularly for a selfish child who often overreacts in anger. This response can be accomplished by the use of an immediate forgiveness exercise in which the parent inwardly thinks about understanding and forgiving the child. Then, when the anger subsides, the correction should be given.

The initial response to parental correction of selfishness is often one of intense anger. This narcissistic anger can be vented in an explosive manner in an attempt to try to intimidate and control others. In highly narcissistic children who fail to respond to a clear and gentle approach to their harmful selfish behaviors, consideration should be given to stronger forms of correction.

An effective correction of selfishness can be a time out in the child's room while expressing to the child that he or she will run the risk of having few friends in the future and of experiencing ongoing loneliness because of selfishness.

If parents are not united in the correction of a selfish child, then consideration should be given to seeking professional advice.

Parental virtues

The growth in the following virtues in parents can help them be strong in protecting their children from giving into selfishness and damaging behaviors toward others:


Resistance to Change

When child is unwilling to work on changing the selfish behaviors which harm others, Catholic parents may be forced to take some of the following steps:

Many mental health professionals who work in this challenging area with families have often expressed the wish that a 28 day rehabilitation program were available for toxic, compulsive selfishness in children and teenagers.  Again, caution needs to be taken in the choice of a counselor because in the young mental health field many therapists support the materialistic, narcissistic culture and, in fact, encourage and enable this serious personality weakness. 

Fortunately, responsible and loving parents can help their children grow to develop a healthy personality by courageously addressing the character weakness of selfishness on a regular basis and by avoiding the harmful permissive parenting style.  John Paul II's wisdom can also be helpful to parents, “Children must grow up with a correct attitude of freedom with regard to  material goods, by adopting a simple and austere life style and being fully convinced that ‘man is more precious for what he is than for what he has,’” The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, n.37.

For further information about selfishness we recommend our selfish chapter, www.maritalhealing.com/conflicts/selfishspouse.php and the selfish person webinar 

www.maritalhealing.com/selfishnesswebinar.php.

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