My child seems self-centered. What should I do?

By the time a child is in elementary school, her parents and teachers expect her to be considerate of others. Over the years they’ve spent a great deal of time (usually unsuccessfully) reinforcing the need to be thoughtful. During those early years, however, the child was developmentally egocentric and therefore incapable of considering other people’s points of view. Now, she’s old enough to understand, yet she may continue to seem self-centered and selfish, leaving her parents to feel they’ve failed: “How did we create a child who only cares about herself?”

A look at typical behavior may help parents see that it takes a long time for children to become consistently thoughtful. Many six- to nine-year-olds continue to act, at times, in self-centered ways. They can be uncaring to each other, particularly verbally: “You don’t know how to jump rope.” “You think you know everything.” “I don’t want to play with you!” They sometimes make themselves feel better by putting others down.

They may form groups that thoughtlessly exclude others. Sometimes a leader is chosen who assigns tasks and roles to a lucky few and tells everyone else they can’t play. Some groups pick on a particular child, seemingly oblivious to the misery they cause.

Children also continue to show self-centered behavior when they become overly competitive. As soon as one child finishes describing her plans or possessions, another may counter with something (real or made up) that is much bigger and better.

Kids don’t confine their selfishness to peers. At home, parents hear, “You’re the worst Mom in the world.” At times, their child may expect kindness but offers little back. She may also hurt her siblings’ feelings and exclude them: “You can’t play with us when my friends are over.”

Why do children act this way when their parents try so hard to teach them thoughtfulness? Development is gradual, but by the time they enter elementary school, most have come a long way from the self-centered behavior of preschoolers.

Parents often set high standards and demand that their child act in mature ways before she’s ready. It’s right and appropriate that parents expect her to be considerate, but it’s unrealistic to assume that an early elementary-aged child will be considerate all the time.

If parents are concerned about their child’s selfishness, they should look not just at isolated incidents, but at her overall pattern of behavior at home, school, and while visiting others. Does she generally think about other people’s feelings? When her parents remind her about being considerate, does she listen? Does she play what her friends want her to? Is she tolerant of her friends’ views? Is she interested in other children’s ideas? Does she share? Does she display appropriate manners with adults outside the family? If parents can answer, “Yes, most of the time,” for an eight- or nine-year-old, or, “Yes, often,” for a six- or seven-year-old, their child is on the right track.

When they’re worried, they can talk to their child’s teacher. A child, who seems self-centered at home, where she feels most comfortable, may be quite considerate with teachers and peers at school. If that’s the case, parents can relax. Their message is getting through and she’s learning to think of others.

Parents can learn more about her behavior by observing other kids of the same age. A particularly good way to do this is by accompanying a class field trip. When parents see how other children act, they gain insight and understanding and can better judge how self-centered their own child is compared with her peers.

When you observe her acting in self-centered ways, let her know what you expect. She learns by listening to you and watching you. Place firm limits on her selfish behavior: “I won’t allow you to talk to your friend that way.” “If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to change your tone.”

Have a calm discussion with her (this will be more successful with your seven- to nine- year- old then with a six-year-old). Explain how you’d like her to behave toward others and let her express her positive and negative feelings. When she believes you’re listening, she’ll be more likely to hear and absorb what you have to say. Role-playing can be effective. You should take her part and let her play the role of another child. When you say, “No, I won’t play with you,” ask how that makes her feel. Then, still role-playing, try to find solutions: “Is there something we can play together?” “Would you like to play ball with me?”

Remember to be thoughtful and considerate yourself. In interactions with your child, your spouse, and others, be respectful so she’ll have appropriate behavior to imitate. Encourage her to help others. She can occasionally contribute part of her allowance to charity, go with you to buy groceries for a bed-ridden neighbor, or help pick out toys and food for the needy.

Praise her when she thinks about other people and let her know how much you love her. A child who fails to live up to her parents expectations feels unsuccessful and may misbehave out of frustration. A child who feels good about herself is comfortable extending herself to others in a caring way.

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