Category: For parents

Why Are Teenagers So Selfish?

Published : Jun 17, 2024
By Dr. Ana Aznar

You may have noticed that your once super-helpful little one has become a selfish teenager that fails to consider other people’s feelings and needs. If it is any consolation, you are not alone in having this feeling. Many parents feel the same. Concerned about teen selfishness? Keep reading!  

Are All Teenagers Selfish? 

Well…. yes. Research shows that teenagers are much more likely to behave in a selfish (1) way than adults. This is because the teenage years are all about individuation. Adolescence is a very self-absorbed period during which teenagers work on separating from their parents to become their own person. Because they are working on themselves so much, teenagers have little headspace to think about those around them. They spend a lot of thinking about themselves, talking about themselves, and probably taking many selfies! 

When they do notice those around them, teenagers tend to notice their peers (2) over their parents. The truth is that in this process of individuation friends tend to matter for teenagers more than parents. For teenagers, their peers matter above anything else. Consider that they are preparing to leave their birth family to find their tribe. This does not mean that they do not love you anymore. They need you and they love you, only in a different role.  

At What Age Do Kids Stop Being Selfish? 

Do not despair just yet because there is hope at the end of the tunnel. Research (3) shows that teenagers are likely to become less selfish by the time they become young adults. 

Why Are Teens Selfish? Let’s Consider How their Brain Works  

The brain continues to develop until we are about 25 years old. So, a lot of your teen’s behaviour has to do with their brain not being fully developed. The ability to take others’ perspective and the understanding of other people’s minds is amongst the parts of the brain (4) that undergo most change during adolescence.  

I Understand that it Is Normal for Teenagers to Be Selfish, But I Really Resent my Child. What Can I Do? 

It is very easy to become resentful towards a very self-centred teenager. “I do everything for him, and he does nothing for me or anyone else!” Sounds familiar? 

However, consider that when we say this, we are putting all the responsibility on the child, but the responsibility is on both the parent and the child. When a child is young, we do everything for them, and we do not ask for anything in return. We don’t, because usually younger children return the love we give them, and that is enough for us. Instead, when our child reaches adolescence, they push for independence and as parents, we may not feel their love so clearly. And we are more likely to resent them.  

At the same time, when the child reaches adolescence, we automatically expect them to behave in a more responsible way. We expect them to chip in and do things for us and for others. Our expectations (5) of help from our children when they become teenagers change because they are more able to do things. As such, we believe that older teens are more obligated to help than younger children, because they are more competent.  

The problem is that teenagers do not always agree with us. Whether adolescents believe that they are obligated to help depends on what we are asking them to do, how much effort it requires for them to help, and what other things need their attention in that particular moment. Because of the nature of being a teenager, they are usually more inclined to satisfy their own needs than their parents’. Particularly when they think that their parents’ needs are not that important.  

So, if it Is Normal for Teenagers to Behave Selfishly: Shall I Let Them Get Away With It? 

No, this does not mean that we should let them do whatever they want. We must encourage our teens to understand that it is important to help others and to participate in family life. We must make them understand that they need to think about others’ needs and wishes. It is impossible to have successful relationships if we only think about ourselves. Societies and families do not work when people only care about themselves. 

How to Deal with a Selfish Teenager Without the House Becoming a Battlefield 

  1. Have a talk with your teenager about expectations. Sometimes disagreements appear because we have not set up clear ground rules. Discuss what you expect of them and understand if they think it is fair. Teenagers are always more likely to get on board if they think that what they are being asked is fair and they understand why they are being expected to do certain things.   
  1. If you are resenting your selfish teen, explain to them that you feel that you are living in a one-way relationship with them and that you both need to make adjustments. Tell them that you expect them to do their chores, and to be nice and respectful to everyone in the family.  
  1. Talk to your teen about the importance of practicing mutuality. This means that relationships are not one sided. They are about giving and taking. This will help your relationship with them but also it will serve as a model for future relationships. It will not do them any good in their future relationships if they think that they are all about them.  
  1. Do not label your teen. Saying things like” You are so selfish!” or “You never think of anyone but yourself” will not help your relationship. Do not tease them or shame them for being self-absorbed. It is just a phase in their development.  
  1. Model empathy and prosocial behaviour: show that you care for others outside your immediate family. Donate to the food bank, help at the kids’ school, help fundraise for a charity, or keep an eye on your elderly neighbour. When you do this, you show your kids that it is important to care about others. 
  1. Create natural consequences rather than punishments. If for example, your rule is that your teenager must put their laundry in the hamper, and they always leave it on the bedroom’s floor. Explain them that only clothes in the hamper will be washed. The next time they have nothing to wear, they will remember the rule! 
  1. Remind your teenager to stop and think before they make a decision, especially if it will affect others. Teenagers tend to rush when making decisions, failing to take others’ perspectives into account.  
  1. Consider how much you are doing for your teen. If you feel that you are doing too much, you may end up resenting them. Sometimes it’s ok to say ‘no’ to your child. 
  1. Whenever possible, use humour to lighten things up. 
  1. Keep on repeating the message. Eventually, they will internalize it. Consistency is key. 

And Finally, Here Are the Answers to a few Questions Asked by Parents of Teenagers. 

Why Is my 15-Year-Old So Difficult? 

It is normal to have moments when you find your teenager difficult. Consider that your child is separating from you, they are figuring out who they are, and where they fit in the world. It is a lot for them to take in! They are changing and therefore we must change with them and adapt to this new phase of parenting. When our children reach adolescence, our role needs to change from being a manager to being a consultant. Consider that both you and your child are going through a period of change, and change = stress.  

If you feel that your child is being difficult have a chat with them. Ask them if they are happy with the relationship they have with you. Be honest with them about how you are feeling. Honesty goes a long way with teenagers. Together you can set the ground rules to this new stage of your relationship. And finally, remember that you are the parent, and you must be the bigger person.  

What Is Normal 16-Year-Old Behavior? 

It is difficult to define what ‘normal’ behaviour is. Some 16-year-olds are really outgoing, loud, and confident whereas others are quiet, do not like going out and are insecure. Both behaviours are normal.  

What may be more useful is to consider that if the behaviour of our teen changes, it may mean that there is something going on. If you notice changes in their eating or sleeping habits, if you notice changes in their grades, routines, in how often they see their friends, or in how they interact in social media, have a chat with them. Ask them if everything is ok or if something is worrying them. I find that a lot about raising a teenager comes down to observing them and being there. More often than not, they do not want to talk, but when they want to talk, it is important to be there otherwise we miss that window of opportunity.  

How To Deal With a Teenager That Doesn’t Care? 

This can be incredibly frustrating for parents! The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open. Be there for them when they are ready to talk. If and when they want to talk, let them talk. Our main role is to listen. We may be tempted to jump in with solutions to their problems but very often, they don’ want solutions, they just want us to listen. To feel heard and seen. Not to be judged. Consider that the most powerful force to protect your teenager’s mental health is the relationship with you and other important adults in their life. Whatever your teen does or does not do, do not take it personally and try not to have extreme reactions.  

If your teen does not care and does not talk to you and you are coming to your wit’s end, talk to their teachers. See how their behaviour is at school and with their friends. If teachers say that everything is going well, in all likelihood, things are going as they should. If the school shows concerns, perhaps is time to talk to a psychologist or your doctor to get some input.  

To learn more about how to raise a teenager, have a look at Dr Bettina Hohnen’s masterclass on “Understanding the Teenage Brain” and Dr Tara Porter’s “How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Teenager”.   

If you would like a 1-2-1 session to discuss specific difficulties you are experiencing with your child, do get in touch here. We are here for you.  

I hope you found this article helpful! Please feel free to share with anyone you think may find it helpful. 

Love,  

Ana 

Dr Ana Aznar 

References  

  1. Carlson, R. W., Adkins, C., Crockett, M. J., & Clark, M. S. (2022). Psychological selfishness. Perspectives on Psychological Science17(5), 1359-1380. https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211045692 
  1. Lam, C. B., McHale, S. M., & Crouter, A. C. (2014). Time with peers from middle childhood to late adolescence: developmental course and adjustment correlates. Child Development, 85, 1677–1693. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12235
  1. Sullivan, N. J., Li, R., & Huettel, S. A. (2022). Peer presence increases the prosocial behavior of adolescents by speeding the evaluation of outcomes for others. Scientific Reports12(1), 6477. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-10115-0 
  1. Blakemore, S. J. (2012). Development of the social brain in adolescence. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine105(3), 111-116. 
  1. Smetana, J. G., Tasopoulos‐Chan, M., Gettman, D. C., Villalobos, M., Campione‐Barr, N., & Metzger, A. (2009). Adolescents’ and parents’ evaluations of helping versus fulfilling personal desires in family situations. Child Development80(1), 280-294.  

Photo credits:

Zachary Nelson via Unsplash

Elliot Reyna via Unsplash

Rich Smith via Unsplash

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