When parents raise children and provide for so much along the way, many implicit expectations are embedded within our collective minds. Perhaps one of the most universal parental beliefs is that as we offer our love, sacrifice and compassion to them they will become loving, sacrificing, and compassionate human beings. It doesn’t always turn out that way. Despite our best intentions, some children develop such self-centered perspectives of life that parents can be heard exclaiming, “The world does not revolve around you!” Even more puzzling for parents is that typically such children are keenly sensitive to their own feelings being hurt but display a remarkable insensitivity to the feelings of others.
Owing to their skewed views, kids may overlook obvious opportunities to express concern to others, misunderstand a harried parent’s anger at another one of their requests, or fail to grasp why others may not be interested in listening to their endless tales of accomplishment. It’s as if “narcissistic blinders” block out the feelings and needs of others, leaving them with what appears to be a cold indifference. Rather than simply getting angry and repelled, parents can consider the following coaching tips:
Emphasize and educate them about the importance of empathy
Explain how empathy is the ability to sense the feelings and perspectives of others, and to use that sense as a guide in relationships. “Your ability to show awareness of others’ feelings and warmth with your words will have a direct effect on your success in life,” is one way to get the message across. Follow that up with regular discussions about how to display empathy, such as asking questions about matters of importance to others, offering words of encouragement or reassurance, expressing compliments, doing favors without being asked, acting thankful rather than simply saying “thank you,” and reciprocating when people do nice things for them.
Gently peel back their selfish attitude to reveal a self in need of frequent validation
Behind the child’s mistimed words, dismissive behaviors, and “empathic obliviousness,” lies self-esteem that is shaky at best. Use this knowledge wisely to bring a child’s narcissistic approach to life up for discussion: “Have you ever noticed how easily your feelings are hurt but you so easily hurt the feelings of others? Maybe this is something we need to better understand.” Once they are willing to admit to this tendency the door opens for parents to guide them toward valuing empathy and authenticity in relationships: “Wouldn’t it feel so much better to know you have made someone other than yourself feel better?”
“Do not let your wounds select your words”
Even more damaging to relationships than indifference is when a child expresses a cruel and/or arrogant statement. These thoughtless comments are often triggered by a variety of ego wounds. Among them include “exposure incidents,” when a weakness is revealed, “revenge opportunities,” when a wound caused by another has a chance to be returned, “self elevations,” in response to the achievements of others, and “direct confrontations,” when someone verbally challenges or disagrees with them. Each of these circumstances pit’s the fragile feeble ego of the child against hurt feelings. Parents are urged to respond with gentle rebukes to insensitivity, such as the above quote, and follow up with lengthier explanations of what an empathic or appropriate response would be.
When discussing self-centered or selfish behavior label it without shaming the child
Coaching empathy to self-centered children can be likened to walking a tightrope; parents offer pointed words of advice without leaning too far and threatening their feelings. Shame and sorrow can set in, making it easy for them to dismiss parents as too critical. Offer reassurance such as, “We all make mistakes and may be too quick to think of ourselves when we need to think of others.” Provide examples of when adults commit the same error and elaborate upon the social consequences.
DR. STEVEN RICHFIELD is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards now in use in thousands of homes and schools around the world. He is the author of The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today’s Society. To learn more about his Parent Coaching Cards visit www.parentcoachcards.com