Dealing with a spoilt child

Changing spoilt behaviour: Reward your child with shared activities rather than material gifts.
Changing spoilt behaviour: Reward your child with shared activities rather than material gifts. Photo: Getty Images

The word ‘spoilt’ is often used to describe children who exhibit demanding and ungrateful behaviour. This may include crying or tantrums when their demands are not met; a disregard for the cost or frequency of their demands; and a lack of appreciation when their demands are met.

The dynamic between parent and child when these behaviours are present are often inconsistent. At times, the child may wield power over their parent/s, as promises are made to appease the distressed child. On other occasions, the parent/s may attempt to regain control with disproportionate consequences which are often difficult to enforce. As a result, the child learns consequences for their behaviour are unlikely and the cycle of permissive parenting begins - yet many great parents are fully aware of the situation and are very open to suggestions on how to better manage ‘demanding and ungrateful’ behaviour.

Rebuilding rapport between parent and child is essential before long-term behavioural change is likely to emerge. Making the move from material rewards to shared experiences is also an important part of relationship building. It is also necessary to consider other factors contributing which may be contributing to children's behaviour before using unhelpful and negative labels, such as ‘spoilt child’ which suggest the child is at fault.

Firstly, rule out the top 3 tantrum-triggers, in my opinion:

  1. Sugar intake
  2. Screen time
  3. Learnt behaviour

We all know the power of these triggers, yet they can be easily overlooked when children display disrespectful behaviour. Making a concerted effort to target one aspect of behaviour is best achieved when these triggers are well within the parents' control. For example, avoid addressing ‘demanding or ungrateful’ behaviour after your child has attended a birthday party or when they are asked to put the iPad away. A planned approach with your child onboard will be more effective.

The commitment to managing demanding or ungrateful behaviour needs to come from both the parent and child. Set up a time and comfortable place to talk to your child about addressing the issue together. Consider having a picnic or going for a walk together. This will provide a good opportunity to raise the idea of a combined project - a chance to work together to fix things between you and your child.

For a child under the age of 8 years, one parent would do well to approach the issue rather than two. This will give the child greater ownership of the project. Two parents are best to consistently tackle a behavioural issue involving a child or adolescent over the age of 8 years. Remember to take ownership, as a parent, of your part in the dynamic which you would most like to change. For example, parents may wish to yell less or be better at following up with consequences. It may be helpful to start the conversation with a description of how good you imagine your parent-child relationship could be, before leading into how you could change to improve the situation. Next, ask the child to imagine the best possible parent-child relationship and how the child could take steps towards making this a reality.

Make a list of at least three fun and free activities you and your child would like to do together on a weekly basis. This is an exercise to encourage both you and your child to reconnect in the absence of material rewards. Entertaining children should be simple and accessible - think about making damper, wrapping it in foil and roasting it. The smell of the damper will make you want to be home, rather than rushing around in the car seeking out some action. Lie on the floor with your child and draw some funny pictures together. Getting back to basics is likely to be a welcome relief after a period of parent-child conflict. When you’re having a good moment together, be sure to let your child know about it. A brief observation will suffice - “Check us out! How happy are we?”

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Although the school holiday period can be restful and positive for families, the absence of a school routine for some children may equate to behavioural issues or attention-seeking if days can roll by unplanned. Similarly, an increase in social activity especially involving large groups can unhinge the behaviour of children with a preference for solo activities. Before blaming the child for their behaviour, consider any recent environmental changes and set aside some time to reconnect with your child as an individual before school recommences. If the undesired behaviour continues, consider making an appointment with a child psychologist to allow an independent party to hear both sides of the story and to share some new strategies in neutral territory.

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Kimberley is one of Australia's most trusted and recognized Child Psychologists with a knack for solving issues from the child's perspective. She is currently Principal Psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic in NSW.

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