Selfishness in Children

"Selfishness is all its forms is directly and radically opposed to the civilization of love ," John Paul II, Letter to Families, n. 14.

"The educational task of the family is made difficult by a deceptive concept of liberty, in which whims and the subjective impulses of the individual are exalted to the point of leaving each one locked within the prison of his own "I ", Pope Benedict XVI. World Meeting with Families, January 2009.

Selfishness and anger

Selfishness is one of the major causes of excessive anger and defiant behaviors in children and in teenagers. In our practice it is the leading cause of the angry behaviors in children.  Selfishness in children regularly creates serious stress in parents, in siblings, in peer relationships and in educators.  The identification of this conflict is essential in addressing the excessive anger in children.  These children can be misdiagnosed as ADHD because of their hyperactivity at times, particularly when they do not get their own way or the attention they desire. 

The recent book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2009) by psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, can assist parents, educators, students and clergy in understanding the severe damage caused by narcissism in western culture.  Twenge and Campbell offer helpful suggestions for addresssing this epidemic but fail to recommend strongly enough the importance of education in virtues in the home and school and of parental modeling of virtues of generosity, solidarity and self-denial.

A Washington psychologist has written an important article in the Washington Post on the problem of excessive anger and disrepectful behaviors in children and the need for parents to respond to intense selfishness in their children,

A study in the spring of 2007 revealed the extent of the problem of narcissism in our culture. Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University reported in a study of almost 17,000 college students that two thirds of them scored high on a measure of selfishness.  The study reported an increase of narcissism of 30% over the past twenty years.  Dr. Twenge commented that narcissistic individuals are more likely to manifest overcontrolling and violent behaviors and exhibit dishonesty.

We view selfishness as a major precursor to oppositionally defiant behaviors in children.  If it can be properly uncovered and addressed in childhood, we believe that other childhood disorders, such as ODD (oppositional defiant behavior) can be prevented.  Therefore, the evaluation of the degree of a child's selfishness is an important aspect of the treatment of the excessive anger in ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder.

Fortunately, steps can then be taken to resolve this personality weakness which will be presented in this chapter. The role of parents is crucial in protecting children, families and the culture from the damaging effects of selfishness.  In order to do so parents need to embrace a responsible parenting style, rather the highly prevalent and harmful permissive parenting style.

Uncovering selfishness

You can now evaluate your child on the selfishness checklist below.  We use this checklist in the evaluation of excessive anger and defiant behaviors in children and in the evaluation for ADHD.

0 - Never | 1 - Very Little | 2 - Moderately Often | 3 - Very Often

Refuses to help in the home
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Lacks of respect for parents
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Lack of gratitude
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Bad temper
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Insensitive to loved ones
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Excessively angry when everything doesn't go as one wants
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Very sloppy
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Curses excessively
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Resents giving to others/lack of generosity
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Expects automatic compliance with his or her expectations
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Uses others to obtain one's ends
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Lacks empathy
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Unwilling to identify with the feelings and needs of others
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Acts like a spoiled child
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Always demands to have one's own way
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Talks about oneself excessively
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Fails to attend to the needs of others
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Is often envious of others
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Refuses to do chores
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Tries to control others
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Fails to care about important matters
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Acts helpless to get one'S way
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Doesn't enjoy giving
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Tries to turn all conversations upon oneself
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Avoids responsibility
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Refuses to clean up after oneself
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Portrays self as the victim
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Demonstrates explosive anger
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Refuses to study
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Won't do chores in the home
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
When something goes wrong, it's always someone else's fault
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Requires excessive admiration
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Exaggerates physical and emotional symptoms as a way to control
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Lacks of genuine interest in others
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Doesn't pay attention to the person he or she is talking to
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Refuses to clean up after oneself
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
False accusations against a parent
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Physically abusive of parents
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Substance abuse
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Taking others possessions
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often
Never Very Little Moderately Very Often

Selfishness Total:

A score below 30 indicates a low level selfishness, a score of 30 to 60 a moderate level of selfishness and above 60 a high level of selfishness.

Excessive anger develops when people of all ages with this character weakness do not have their needs or expectations meet quickly or in a specific manner. In many regards they respond in a emotionally immature and childlike way.

Types of Selfishness

A 2008 study of 255 patients who met DSM-IV criteria for narcissistic personality disorder identified three subtypes of narcissistic personality disorder, which the authors labeled grandiose/malignant, fragile, and high-functioning/exhibitionistic (Russ E., 2008). The researchers described these 3 types as follows:

1. Grandiose/malignant type -  characterized by seething anger, manipulativeness, pursuit of interpersonal control and power, exaggerated self-importance, feelings of privilege, few underlying feelings of inadequacy, little psychological insight or remorse, and a tendency to blame others.

2. Fragile type -  characterized by defensive grandiosity to deflect painful feelings of smallness, anxiety, and loneliness; longings to feel important and privileged; and strong undercurrents of negative affect and feelings of inadequacy, often accompanied by rage, when narcissistic defenses fail.

3. High-functioning/exhibitionistic type - characterized by exaggerated self-importance; articulateness, energy, and sociability; good adaptive functioning; and use of narcissism to help him or her succeed.

Please try to use these new criteria to identify the type of selfishness exhibited by your child. The most common selfishness we identify and try to address is the first one with the compulsive need to control others and seething anger when the child is unable to have it his/her way. 


Origins of selfishness

The most common origins of selfishness in children are:

  • deliberately embracing this character weakness
  • friendships with those who are very selfish
  • the failure of parents to address this character conflict
  • permissive parenting
  • modeling after a selfish parent(s)
  • excessive indulgence by parents
  • failure of parents to teach a moral code
  • educational experiences which support selfishness
  • modeling after selfish peers
  • unwillingness to sacrifice for others
  • compulsive comfort seeking activities
  • the rejection of a moral code or religious faith.

This character weakness is supported and enabled by educational experiences in high school and college, including Catholic ones, which support and advocate the sexual utilitarian philsophy, which encourages the use of another person as an object.  The most flagrant example of this educational support of narcissism is the establishment of the coed dorm.

What do you think is the major cause(s) of selfishness in your child?


Growth in virtues

Growth in the virtues of obedience, generosity and self-denial are essential if children are to learn to cope with and then overcome selfishness. The following addtional virtues which can also be taught to children to help them with this serious character weakness:

  • responsibility for chores in the home and for school work
  • orderliness
  • humility
  • courtesy
  • almsgiving
  • loyalty
  • solidarity
  • modesty
  • chastity
  • faith

An excellent resource for parents in regard to virtue development in children is the website and the books of James Stenson.

Parental guidance

Catholic parents can address selfishness in their children by:

  • modeling healthy self-giving and generosity
  • correcting children daily when they act in a selfish manner
  • communicating that happiness is found in self-giving and not in using others
  • presenting the damage caused by selfishness to oneself and to others, especially the lack of success in loving relationships
  • encouraging children to treat others with respect
  • criticizing the utilitarian philosophy which supports selfishness
  • encouraging growth in the virtues
  • presenting models of courageous self-giving, including Pope John Paul II and saints
  • giving chores and service projects
  • insisting on sharing with others
  • recommending Catholic children take this conflict to the sacrament of reconciliation
  • suggesting prayer to overcome this weakness
  • protecting children from selfish peers
  • correcting in the home children’s friends who act selfishly
  • encouraging an expression of gratitude at the end of the day
  • presenting the truth about the beauty of God’s plan for human sexuality within the sacrament of marriage.

Negative consequences of selfishness

A discussion with a child of the long term negative consequences of selfishness in adult life can be beneficial in motivating a child to work on this personality conflict. These serious difficulties include:

  • inability to give to maintain a successful loving relationship
  • divorce
  • a life of loneliness and unhappiness
  • excessive anger which ruins relationships
  • lack of trust from others
  • treatment of spouse as sexual object and not a person
  • depressive illness
  • failure to care for children or spouse
  • substance abuse
  • a life of irresponsibility
  • controlling behaviors which harm relationships
  • financial irresponsibility
  • inability to experience the happiness which comes from self-giving
  • lack of faith.

Why some parents cannot respond properly to selfishness

The process of addressing selfishness in children can be challenging. The major reasons parents are unable to correct selfishness in their children are:

  • they are self-indulgent themselves and are unwilling to address this weakness in their own personalities
  • they want their children to be their friend
  • lack of a role model for correction
  • lack of confidence
  • fear of arguments as a result of childhood stresses caused by an angry parent
  • parental obsession with sports
  • a lack of courage
  • fear of a child’s anger
  • difficulties with trusting
  • pride
  • a weak interior/spiritual life.

Permissive parenting

A number of mental health professionals have commented on the serious problem of the present permissive parenting style in many, if not, most families.  Dr. Bill Dougherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, wrote in the magazine, Parents in March 2007, "Many parents act more like therapists than authority figures. Developmentally, preschoolers are ready to learn empathy and to take the perspective of someone else. When parents donft show them how to do that, kids develop a very self-centered approach to the world.

Psychologist, Dan Kindlon, in his book, Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, wrote, Most kids who misbehave in public have never been given limits or told whatfs appropriate and whatfs not.  Another important book in this area is Diane West's, The Death of Grown-Up.

Fathers with this harmful parenting syle can be helped by reading Father, The Family Protector by James Stenson, an educational consultant, by visting his website, and by reviewing the selfish spouse chapter on this website.

Damage from sexual utilitarian philosophy on college students

Catholic parents should be aware of the serious problems on campuses because of the support of the sexual utilitarian philosophy by educators - a philosophy which directly fosters growth in selfishness.   A psychiatrist in the student health office at UCLA, Dr. Miriam Grossman,has written an important book, Unprotected:A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student, in which she documents the serious medical and psychological damage done paricularly to female college students by the sexual hookup culture which is supported by our universities. 

1. The damage from being treated as a sexual object include:

  • loss of trust with the later development of numerous anxiety disorders
  • sadness, depressive disorders, hopelessness about loving relationships
  • the development of chronic and serious sexually transmitted diseases, some of which are precanerous
  • deep resentment
  • impaired academic performance
  • low confidence
  • substance abuse
  • guilt
  • weakening of one's ability to make a commitment
  • weakening of the moral life and faith.

2. The damage to oneself from using others as a sexual object include:

  • lack of an understanding of true love
  • an inability to develop a true self-giving loving friendships
  • growth in narcissism/selfishness
  • an inability to ever make a healthy commitment in adult life
  • excessive anger
  • unconscious guilt
  • weakened ability to commit fully to another person
  • sexually transmitted diseases
  • impaired character development
  • weakened moral life and faith.

An excellent book for college students on healthy self-giving in loving relationships is Edward Sri’s Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility, 2007.  Dr. Janet Smith believes Love and Responsibility should be recognized as one of the greatest works in Western civilization with Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Inferno and Augustine’s Confessions.

Work and selfishness

Ron Alsop's book, 'Trophy Kids' Go to Work' describes the serious problems in the workplace.  He wrote an aritcle about this Wall Street Journal,

He wrote, "When Gretchen Neels, a Boston-based consultant, was coaching a group of college students for job interviews, she asked them how they believe employers view them. She gave them a clue, telling them that the word she was looking for begins with the letter "e." One young man shouted out, "excellent." Other students chimed in with "enthusiastic" and "energetic." Not even close. The correct answer, she said, is 'entitled.' 'Huh?' the students responded, surprised and even hurt to think that managers are offended by their highfalutin opinions of themselves."

Correction of selfishness

Couples need to be united and strong in order to address this conflict in their children. In some families one parent refuses to allow correction of the selfish child and, in fact, may enable and subtly encourage selfish behaviors. Such a parent may have had a controlling and critical parent and rebel against this parent unconsicously by refusing to correct their own children.

Essentially, such a parent is misdirecting anger at his/her spouse by refusing to be a responsible parent. However, the most common reason for enabling selfishness in children is that this parent was spoiled in childhood and was never properly corrected.

Correction of selfishness in children should not be done in anger. This is because parents need to model emotionally mature behavior, particularly for a selfish child who often overreacts in anger. This response can be accomplished by the use of an immediate forgiveness exercise in which the parent inwardly thinks about understanding and forgiving the child. Then, when the anger subsides, the correction should be given.

The initial response to parental correction of selfishness is often one of intense anger. This narcissistic anger can be vented in an explosive manner in an attempt to try to intimidate and control others. In highly narcissistic children who fail to respond to a clear and gentle approach to their harmful selfish behaviors, consideration should be given to stronger forms of correction.

An effective correction of selfishness can be a time out in the child's room while expressing to the child that he or she will run the risk of having few friends in the future and of experiencing ongoing loneliness because of selfishness.

If parents are not united in the correction of a selfish child, then consideration should be given to seeking professional advice.

Parental virtues

The growth in the following virtues in parents can help them be strong in protecting their children from giving into selfishness and damaging behaviors toward others:

  • courage
  • temperance
  • gentleness
  • generosity
  • patience
  • faith
  • humility
  • forgiveness of those who led them to fear conflict or who spoiled/failed to correct them.

Parental actions

When child is unwilling to work on changing the selfish behaviors which harm others, Catholic parents may be forced to take some of the following steps:

  • family therapy with a mental health professional who can identify and develop a treatment program for selfishness rather than enable this character weakness
  • warn that all clothes left on the floor any where in the home will be thrown away and that the child will have to pay for replacement
  • encourage going to the sacrament of reconciliation with this conflict
  • ask teachers to communicate the dangers of selfishness and the virtues which can help in its reduction
  • limit contact with narcissistic friends
  • refuse use of a car
  • withdrawn financial support of nonessential activities
  • ground the child
  • require a change in schools
  • as a last resort remove the child from the home
  • pursue a legal emancipation order
  • withhold financial support from an older child/young adult who is overly dependent and irrresponsible unless he or she is willing to address this character weakness.

Again, caution needs to be taken in the choice of a counselor because in the young mental health field many therapists support the materialistic, narcissistic culture and, in fact, encourage and enable this serious personality weakness.

Fortunately, responsible and loving parents can help their children grow to develop a healthy personality by courageously addressing the character weakness of selfishness on a regular basis and by avoiding the harmful permissive parenting style.  John Paul II's wisdom can also be helpful to parents - - “Children must grow up with a correct attitude of freedom with regard to  material goods, by adopting a simple and austere life style and being fully convinced that ‘man is more precious for what he is than for what he has,’” The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, n.37.