Got Selfish Kids? Tips to Break the Habit

Image via Katie Hurley

Sometimes kids go through selfish cycles, and sometimes those cycles seem to last a bit too long. It's perfectly normal for kids to establish boundaries for their toys and coveted “special items,” but it's also important to help kids understand how their behavior and choices impact their friends and siblings.

The truth is that many kids don't understand what it means to be selfish. They don't always realize that their words and actions affect other people on an emotional level. Kids go head to head on what to play or what to do, and their voices get louder and angrier as they dig in their heels in attempt to get their own way. But they don't realize that this particular behavior is selfish and can take an emotional toll on the other person.

Learning to balance our own needs with the needs of others is a long process, and there is generally a learning curve. Children need help learning to strike a balance.

Get to the source

Kids go through selfish phases for a variety of reasons. Understanding the reasons behind the behaviors is helpful.

Is this a new behavior? Is your child at odds with siblings? Are limits not often enforced in your house? Is something happening at school?

Before you start handing out consequences for selfish behaviors at home, try to keep a list of anything that has changed recently, caused increased stress, or might be related to the behavior in some other way.

Label it

If your child doesn't know what it means to be selfish, saying, “I don't like that selfish behavior” won't have any meaning. Kids need to understand exactly what their parents mean when it comes to behavioral correction.

To be selfish is to put yourself before others, even if that means hurting someone else in the process. That's a nice explanation, but a hard one for little ones to process. They need concrete examples. Talk about selfishness during calm moments, not just when you see it happening. Kids are better able to process and internalize new information when they are calm and stable.

When you do see selfish behaviors in the home, remain calm and label the behavior. Keeping an even and matter-of-fact voice tone while sharing the facts helps remove emotional reactions from the event so that kids can learn. 

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Set limits

You can't expect kids to adhere to a certain set of expectations if they don't know what those expectations are. You also can't expect them to follow rules and behavioral standards if the rules are constantly changing and the limits are rarely enforced.

Set specific and age appropriate limits in your home. Limits and goals will change as kids grow. That is to be expected. But you also have to revisit your limits and expectations regularly and explain any changes along the way.

It can be hard to enforce limits. Sometimes it feels like there is always some reason to bend the rules or it’s just easier to walk away from a power struggle. Consistency is essential. Without it, kids are overwhelmed and confused. Enforce your limits in a calm and consistent manner to help your kids internalize positive behaviors.

Reinforce acts of selflessness

Positive reinforcement comes up regularly in discussions about parenting because it works. When you point out and discuss positive choices and behaviors, kids develop positive core beliefs and learn to rely on those positive choices in the future.

Point out, talk about, and cheer for acts of selflessness. Tell others while your child is potentially listening in. Help your child understand how her selfless act helped another person feel positive so that she can draw connections between behaviors and feelings. 

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Got Selfish Kids? Tips to Break the Habit

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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