How to Handle a Selfish Teenage Daughter

Trimmed Extract from Skip the Drama – Practical, Get-Ahead Strategies to Survive Your Daughter’s Teenage Years, by Dr Sarah Hughes

When your daughter enters her teenage years there’s a definite shift. The easygoing pre-teen who once enjoyed your company and happily complied with your requests now has to be bribed to grace you with her presence, and can’t do anything you ask without questioning it first.

Household peace is broken over arguments about her excessive phone use, poor time management and lax approach to curfew, not to mention the debates that start over her selfish demands, routine thoughtlessness and general lack of respect for the people around her.

And if that’s not enough to push you to your limit, with current mental health statistics being what they are — some studies show that as many as one in five teens struggle with mental health issues — odds are that at some point in her teenage years you’ll be caught off-guard by an eating disorder, anxiety, or depression, with cutting thrown in for good measure, just to really keep things interesting. Parenting has always been a tough gig, but parenting a teenage daughter in today’s world is a uniquely stressful experience, and one which leaves most parents — even the most resilient ones — feeling beaten, frazzled, and confused.

The right strategies, executed correctly, are the key to your survival, and the good news is, no matter the issue, this book has you covered.

WHEN YOUR DAUGHTER’S SELFISH

Teens are, in general, inherently self-focused. They think about their own needs and wants first and rarely stop to consider how their actions affect the people around them. Understandably, it’s a trait that makes them wildly unpopular with parents and siblings alike.

It’s frustrating to live with someone who doesn’t think to clean up after themselves, who expects their needs for lifts and money to be met at the last minute and without warning, and who shows no appreciation or awareness for the sacrifices others make to meet their needs. I’ve lost count of the number of parents I’ve worked with, like Sam below, who are left floored by the level of their teenage daughter’s selfishness.

The Story of Lauren

I don’t know how we got here. Lauren used to be such a sweet and kind-hearted little girl. She had such beautiful manners and was always so thoughtful, picking me flowers from the garden and giving me hugs when I looked tired after a long day at work. Now she barely acknowledges me — unless of course she wants something — and thinks I’m subjecting her to forced labour when I ask her to put her dirty dishes in the dishwasher. They’re her dishes! I’m not asking her to pick up after anyone else!

Last week she called me from school, hysterical, because she’d forgotten an assignment. She was absolutely beside herself, so I rescheduled a work meeting, raced home to grab her assignment, then drove like a maniac to get it to her by her lunchtime deadline. She didn’t even say thank you. She barely grunted at me when I got to the school gates, and when she got home from school, there was no mention of the assignment at all. The only interaction we had that night was over a new pair of shoes I’d bought.

Can you believe she reprimanded me for spending money? She was annoyed that I’d bought myself a new pair of shoes when I’d refused to give her money to see a movie at the weekend. And the worst part is, she wasn’t kidding! She genuinely thought it was unfair that I’d used my money to buy myself something nice without offering her money for something as well. It’s like she thinks we’ve all been put on this earth to serve her. It’s so frustrating! I’ve tried again and again to talk to her about her attitude, but nothing I say seems to make an ounce of difference. It makes me cringe when I think about how selfish she’s become.

Just like Lauren, most teens take more than they give and tend not to appreciate the unreasonableness of their demands. But as infuriating as their selfishness is — and it is hugely infuriating — it’s not necessarily deliberate. In fact, a growing body of research supports the idea that your daughter’s self-centredness isn’t a personality flaw like you might at first think. According to science, your daughter’s selfishness is a symptom of her still-developing adolescent brain

Selfish Behaviour and the Teenage Brain

During the first few years of life, the brain grows rapidly and several hundred new neural connections are formed every second. After this period of rapid growth, the brain changes to become more efficient, via a process called synaptic pruning. Synaptic pruning finetunes our neural circuitry based on our experiences and our neural history: frequently used neural connections are preserved and strengthened, and connections that are rarely used are pruned away to make way for new growth. The strengthening of neural connections due to activity is what’s behind neural plasticity — the ability of our brain to adapt and change itself in response to our experiences.

In the book we go into detail on exactly how to teenage brain is different from yours – and why this matters. This section contains diagrams that we cannot reproduce here, so we’ve left it out of this extract.

Teach your Teen to be Less Selfish

How you respond to your daughter’s selfishness can either help or hinder her skill development. Take Lauren’s mother Sam, for example.

Sam is understandably frustrated. Lauren is behaving like an ungrateful, self-centred brat but, to be fair, Sam isn’t entirely blameless. Sam might think she’s teaching Lauren that her selfishness is unacceptable, but her actions are at odds with her lectures. Lauren’s given most things she wants without having to do much in return. If she wants new clothes, she only has to send Mum a link to the new dress she’s got her eye on. If she needs a lift, someone’s always free to take her. And if she forgets something she needs — a school assignment, lunch, her sports uniform — Sam puts her own life on hold and bends over backwards to lend a helping hand.

Sam wants to give Lauren all the things she didn’t have growing up — attention, respect, unconditional love and parental support — but she’s giving too much. She hardly ever says no, and she continues to give, even when Lauren’s giving her nothing back in return. Lauren doesn’t think about how her actions affect other people because she doesn’t have to.

Sam might reprimand her for her complete disregard for other people’s time and effort on a regular basis, but because Lauren continues to get what she wants regardless, Sam’s words don’t carry much weight. Fact is, Sam’s actions are reinforcing Lauren’s thoughtlessness and if things don’t change, there’s a fair chance Lauren’s selfishness will only get worse.

Build Thoughtfulness by Encouraging Self-reflection

Don’t fall into Sam’s trap. Encourage your daughter to be less selfish by helping her to practise taking other people’s thoughts and needs into consideration. Start by helping her to be more aware of how her actions affect the people around her. It will be easy to think of examples that relate to family life, but your daughter is more likely to be worried about the impact of her behaviour on her friendships, so for effectiveness’ sake, start here.

When you see your daughter forgetting to take the thoughts and feelings of her friends into account — for example, if you notice she isn’t pulling her weight in group assignment, or if she cancels plans with one friend because she’s had a better offer from someone else — encourage her to stop and think about how her actions might be affecting the people around her.

To be effective, you’ll need to be neutral in your approach. If she senses your judgment, her anger will inhibit self-reflection, so avoid accusatory statements like, ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit selfish to cancel your plans with Madeleine just so you can spend time with Amanda?’ and instead ask general, open-ended questions like, ‘How does Madeleine feel about that?’ If you’re met with a response like ‘she’s fine with it’, let it be.

The more you argue with your daughter the more indignant she’ll become, and this will affect her ability to step back and see the situation from a different point of view. Plant the seed by raising the question and leave your daughter to reflect more on this in her own time.

Summary – The Important Bits

  • The ability to take other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration is a skill still developing in adolescents.
  • The teenage brain is plastic, meaning it can change to support the learning of new skills, including social skills like perspective taking.
  • DO help your daughter to be more aware of how her actions affect the people around her by asking non-judgmental, open-ended questions.
  • DON’T accuse your teen of being selfish. Remember, self-centred thinking is a symptom of her neuroanatomy, not a trait of her personality.
  • DO help your teen to be more aware of how her requests impact the family by putting your needs on the table. + DON’T give in to selfish requests or you may inadvertently reinforce selfish behaviour.
  • DON’T rely on lectures to teach your teen to be less self-focused. + DO attach conditions when you say yes, to motivate your teen to consider the impact of her requests.

Get more practical strategies to arm you for any situation – claim your copy of Skip the Drama today.