Are Your Children Spoiled?

For all ages and a myriad of behavior problems, WebMD helps parents regain control.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 05, 2009
7 min read

If you are spoiling your children, you’ll know it. They’re rude to you and other adults. They won’t share with other children. They will act bossy and demand to be first in line. They don’t answer your questions and ignore your instructions. If you deny them a new toy or treat, you’ll face a tempest of crying, howling, and little fists pounding the floor.

Feeling defeated? Nowadays, many parents do. But it’s not too late to curb spoiled behavior, child psychologists tell WebMD. In fact, they say, your child’s ultimate happiness depends on it.

“I think most parents know when their kids are spoiled, but they feel kind of helpless to do anything about it,” says Richard Bromfield, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Unspoil Your Child Fast.

During more than 25 years in a private counseling practice in the Boston area, Bromfield has seen the gamut. A young boy who ordered his mother around and scolded her sharply for giving him yogurt when he wanted pretzels. An 8-year-old girl who cried and screamed when her mom and dad went to dinner or a movie without her, prompting frantic calls from the babysitter that sent her parents scurrying home. Or children who sass their parents for refusing them anything: “You stink.” “You’re a terrible mother.” “I hate you.”

When spoiled youngsters become teenagers, they’re more prone to excessive self-absorption, lack of self-control, anxiety, and depression, says Dan Kindlon, PhD, author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age.

“If you give kids so much early on, they get to a point where they can’t be satisfied with anything,” says Kindlon, who is also a clinical and research psychologist at Harvard University.

When mothers and fathers stop spoiling their children, Bromfield says, not only will they feel less frustrated as parents, they’ll also prepare their children to handle life’s curve balls -- a tough task for kids who have always gotten their way.

So where do you start? Here are steps you can take to regain control.

1. Commit yourself wholeheartedly to stop spoiling your children.

“You have to commit. If you do it halfway, it’s better than not at all, but it’s not going to work until you really do it,” Bromfield says. For example, a parent who wants a child to start cleaning his room has to make sure that the job gets done right. “If they pick up one crayon and a piece of clothing and that’s it, it isn’t going to work,” he says.

In Bromfield’s experience, parents who take their new mission seriously see fairly quick improvements in their child’s behavior, he says. “A 10-year-old spoiled child does not need 10 years of reversal. Kids are smart and resilient and they want to grow right, so it’s generally not too late.”

2. Replace empty threats with clear, calm, concise instructions.

“Kids hear their parents say, ‘stop, no, it’s the last time.’ All the screaming and the counting to three and the threats -- we have trained them to ignore us for 11 hours because they know that in the 12th hour, they’re going to get their way,” Bromfield says. “I tell parents to say what you mean. If you just say the words and say what’s going to happen and stick to it, that’s what has the power -- the consequence. You don’t even have to yell.”

Also, avoid the trap of over-explaining or haggling endlessly over routine matters, such as tooth-brushing, turning off the video game, or bedtime. Your child will only argue with you like a pint-sized lawyer, Bromfield says. Think about it, he says: Does your 11-year-old son really need hundreds of nightly reminders about the benefits of dental hygiene if he’s smart enough to memorize 493 species of Pokemon?

3. Provide consistent discipline and consequences.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Bromfield says. Cut the chatter and provide concrete consequences, he suggests. “Is tooth-brushing a problem for your child? Try no treats for the entire next day. No warnings, no threats, just a total prohibition of sugar and sweets for the next 24 hours. Does he refuse to [pick] up his toys? Put them all away for a few days, period.” At first, your child may whine and cry, but don’t give in to tantrums. “Children need to grow used to handling reasonable limits without feeling devastated, rejected, and unloved.”

4. Avoid rescuing or overprotecting your child.

Is your daughter always late for school? Stop nagging and let her suffer the consequences of constant tardiness, Bromfield says. It sounds simple, but most parents are quick to rush in and rescue. His advice: “Unless the children are in danger, let them stew in the messes they make.”

Parents who repeatedly shield their children from consequences thwart their growth in character, experts say.

5. Ask yourself if you’re overindulging your child materially.

Many parents shower their children with gifts and never require them to earn something on their own, experts say. But spoiling your children with all the toys, clothes, and electronic gadgets they want deprives them of important life lessons, such as saving up for a treasured possession, Bromfield says. “If you get everything, you don’t learn gratitude. If you never have to wait, you don’t learn patience.”

The psychologist says that he sees mothers who buy themselves $12 dresses at discount stores, but think nothing of spending $200 on their child’s shoes. Instead, try to cut back on excessive spending and shift some responsibility to your child to do chores or save allowance money for purchases.

In these hard economic times, more parents may simply be being forced to say no, Bromfield says. “The fact that people are struggling is not a good thing, but there might be a mixed blessing. Because of financial limits, people are probably giving their kids less. I see a lot of parents who are struggling with this because they’re feeling really badly. But I see this as an opportunity. In the way that the stock market and real estate prices are correcting, I think over-indulgent parenting is correcting, too.”

6. Stay on Track

Despite a parent’s best intentions to stop spoiling a child, lots of things can derail the effort, experts say, including fatigue or being overwhelmed by work responsibilities or marital troubles. “Parents will backslide and undermine their progress,” Bromfield says.

What’s the secret to getting back on track?

“Parents can remind themselves that the reason they’re going to give in is a selfish reason -- because it’s easier,” Kindlon says. “Remind yourself that you didn’t hesitate when the child, as a 2-year-old, wanted to drink the Chlorox. You had to take it away from them, right? Even if they said they hated you and they screamed, you didn’t feel bad about that. You have to develop the same mind-set and realize that this is best for them.”

Kindlon recently worked with a man who remembers how he chafed in his youth at his father’s steady discipline and refusal to spoil him. As the man recalls gratefully now, “My father told me, ‘I don’t care if you like me now. I want you to like me when you’re 40.’”

Children don’t become spoiled because they’re innately bad, Bromfield says. Instead, a “spoiling” parent who doesn’t provide limits and structure can foster self-centered behavior in kids.

In more than two decades of counseling families, Bromfield has seen spoiled children become more prevalent, he says. Today, parents spoil their children for myriad reasons. They’re unsure about how to discipline children, they’re too tired and overworked to make an effort, they’re afraid of damaging their youngster’s self-esteem, or they fear that their children will become angry and dislike them. And, here’s a biggie: some parents spoil their children intentionally because it feels good, Bromfield says. “They find it gives them true pleasure to see their child happy, and they just always want that to happen.”

No one is advocating a return to a strict and distant child-rearing style from the past. But today’s parent-child relationships, marked by more emotional closeness, spontaneity, and friendship, pose both advantages and pitfalls.

“Today’s parents tend to be less comfortable with their authority,” Bromfield says. “Instead of telling their child what to do, they ask. Demands become questions. Questions become special elections.”

For example, “Look at what ‘Please hand me that stick’ can morph into at the playground,” he says: "'Can you pretty please give Mommy the stick, and then we’ll go to the candy store?'"

But a child who controls parents is actually out of control, Bromfield says.

He recalls one couple who “walked on eggshells” around their preschooler to avoid triggering the boy’s rages. Why was he so angry? In part, Bromfield says, “he felt frightened of his own aggression because even his parents, rather than stand up to him, would give in to him.”

“Kids want their parents to be parents,” Bromfield adds. As he writes in his book, “A child needs boundaries and structure to grow and will seek them when they are absent. A child who perpetually pesters her parent may be searching for the limits she needs to grow straight. Her demanding and destructive behavior is meant, to a great degree, to test you, her parent, to find out what outrageous reaction will finally get you to react -- constructively.”

Unchecked, a child’s sense of entitlement and spoiled behavior can spill over into the classroom, sports team, and play dates, causing rejection from other children. “Even brats hate being brats,” Bromfield says. “They will be the first ones to know that their selfishness is getting in the way. They will show you, even as they’re defending themselves, that they’re envious of kids who aren’t selfish.”