Dealing with teenagers can sometimes make you feel like you’re trapped in a perpetual re-run of the Me, Me, Me show. While going through the changes and challenges of puberty, sometimes teens get stuck on themselves and what’s important to them, to the exclusion of everyone else.
Henry Ford Health System child and adolescent psychologist Nikki Sulaica, LLP, says parents anxious about their teens’ self-centeredness come to her asking how to help them be more concerned for others. The root of teens’ self-centeredness, Sulaica says, may rest in the amount of responsibility they take for their actions.
“There’s a lot kids don’t have to be accountable for,” she says – particularly when parents rush in to rescue them every time they get stuck.
Walking a line
Parents should support their teens and be there for them when needed, she says, but when caregivers constantly give a “free pass” by not seeking accountability for problems at home or school, teens don’t learn the impact their actions have on others. Repeatedly footing the bill for speeding tickets, for example, doesn’t help teens learn why speeding is dangerous to themselves and others.
“(Parent interventions have) got to be balanced out with teens having the opportunity to be accountable for their own actions,” Sulaica says.
Tara Lindsay, a professional nanny who does volunteer work with teens, agrees.
“No parent wants to see their child struggle in life,” she says, but “sometimes when we think we’re helping, we have to look at what the long-term help will be.”
It’s a normal thing
When worried parents come to Sulaica for advice on their self-focused teenager, she assures them that their case is not unique.
“The first thing I do is try to normalize what they’re going through,” she says.
The inherent changes and developments that accompany adolescence are part of the problem. As teens try to find their places in the world, Sulaica says, friends, cellphones and social media emerge as the most important things in their lives.
“Development for kids … is a self-centered time without a doubt,” Sulaica says.
“The only difference between a toddler and a teen is the size of the vocabulary,” adds Lindsay. Both age groups, she says, experience sudden spurts of changes in development and perception that would challenge an adult going through the same thing. “To expect a toddler or teen to react to those changes with calm and peace is a little unfair.”
Tips for parents
For parents who want to help their teens be less self-centered, Sulaica has this advice: Give them as many opportunities as possible to be accountable for their actions.
“I feel like once we feel responsible for our own actions, we’re more likely to think about our actions and how they affect people in our world,” she says.
When teens have opportunities to take responsibilities for themselves, she says, “the world will open up” as teens realize the far-reaching consequences of their decisions.
Sulaica reassures parents that a bit of self-centered behavior doesn’t mean their teen is doomed to a life of selfishness. She says the majority of adolescents she sees are open to helping others through fundraisers and volunteer work.
“Now more than ever, I’m seeing kids open to being selfless,” she says.
Lindsay urges parents to set a good example for their teens through others-centered behavior and to find volunteer work for teens that relates to their interests and favorite activities.
“You can’t learn to read if you don’t practice. You can’t learn to be a compassionate person if you don’t go out and practice it,” she says.
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2016.