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Selfishness in Youth

Selfishness is one of the major causes of excessive anger, defiant and controlling behaviors and rage in youth. In our practice it is one of the leading cause of the angry behaviors in youth.  This selfishness regularly creates serious stress in parents, siblings, peer relationships, schools and communities. 

The identification of this conflict is essential, but also challenging, in addressing the excessive anger in youth.  Unfortunately, too often selfishness is not considered as one of the possible causes of intense anger and defiant behavior in this age group.  Instead, these children can be misdiagnosed as ADHD because of their impulsivity at times, which often occurs when they do not get their own way or the attention they desire.  Also, the rage associated with selfishness can be so intense that these children can be misdiagnosed as having a bipolar disorder. Based on over 40 years of experience in treating excessive anger in youth and adults, selfishness should always be considered when attempting to determine the cause of intense anger in youth, especially in those with severe outbursts of anger and defiance.

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

The evaluation of the behaviors that demonstrate conflicts with selfishness is essential in uncovering this conflict that many youth and adults attempt to mask or deny it.  To that end we have developed a selfishness checklist which is helpful in determining the extent of this conflict. This checklist is based on forty years of clinical experience with youth, as well as knowledge of the literature. 

Please review the items below and identify ones that apply to your child.  You may also consider asking your child to complete this checklist.

Growth in self-knowledge in regard to this common character weakness is not easy and the initial response to uncovering selfishness again is often one of denial.  This checklist can help many youth in breaking through such denial, particularly when discussed with parents.

Selfishness Checklist 

__ Lack of respect for parents
__ Lack of gratitude
__ Strong sense of entitlement
__ Acts in a controlling manner
__ Bad temper

__ Intense passive-aggressive anger with refusal to communicate, do academic work, engage with family

__ Compulsive use of pornography
__ Insensitive to family members and peers
__ Refuses to help in the home
__ Excessively angry when everything doesn't go as one wants
__ Very sloppy, lack of care of room

__ Refuses to make reasonable plans for the future and to discuss the future with parents

__ Never apologizes or asks for forgiveness
__ Curses excessively
__ Resents giving to others/lack of generosity
__ Unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment
__ Expects automatic compliance with his or her expectations
__ Manipulative
__ Uses others to obtain one's ends
__ Resents sacrificial giving
__ Refuses to engage in age appropriate work
__ Unwilling to identify with the feelings and needs of others
__ Arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
__ Acts like a spoiled child
__ Always demands to have one's own way
__ Fails to attend to the needs of others
__ Refuses to do chores
__ Acts helpless to get one's way including using the sick role
__ Tries to turn all conversations upon oneself
__ Avoids responsibility
__ Refuses to clean up after oneself
__ Portrays self as the victim
__ Demonstrates explosive anger
__ Refuses to study
__ When something goes wrong, it's always someone else's fault
__ Requires excessive admiration
__ Lacks genuine interest in others
__ Doesn't pay attention to the person he or she is talking to

__ Uses others as sexual objects
__ Verbally or Physically abusive of parents or siblings

__ Compulsive use of marijuana
__ Substance abuse.

Copyright © 2005 - 2020 Richard P. Fitzgibbons

Another measure that can be used to identify selfishness in youth is the Narcissism Personality Inventory which is not available online and needs to be ordered by a mental health professional.


A Growing Problem

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 to such stress in a emotionally immature and childlike manner.

A Washington psychologist has written an important article in the Washington Post based on her professional work on the growing problem of excessive anger and disrespectful behaviors in children and the need for parents to respond to such intense selfishness in their children,

Research on Selfishness

An important book on this matter is The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.  It can assist parents, educators, students and clergy in understanding the severe damage caused by narcissism.  Twenge and Campbell offer helpful suggestions for addressing 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 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 over controlling and violent behaviors and exhibit dishonesty.

Selfishness and other Psychiatric Disorders

We view selfishness as a major precursor to angry, defiant behaviors in children which is often diagnosed as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).  If it can be properly uncovered and addressed in childhood, we believe that other childhood and adolescent disorders 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, Conduct Disorder, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder and possible Bipolar Disorder.

Origins of Selfishness

The common origins of selfishness in children include:

  • deliberately embracing this character weakness because of the fleeting pleasure associated with it

  • friendships with those who are very selfish

  • an intense desire to have one's own way

  • a strong desire to control others

  • the excessive use of face book and texting

  • an obsession with pleasing one's peers

  • the failure of parents to correct 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.


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


Growth in virtues

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

  • generosity

  • responsibility for chores in the home and for school work

  • orderliness

  • self-control

  • courtesy

  • self-denial

  • giving to the sick or the poor

  • loyalty

  • sacrificial giving

  • solidarity

  • modesty

  • chastity

  • faith.


An excellent resource for parents in regard to virtue development in children is the web site and the books of James Stenson, an educational consultant.

The Benefits of Self-Control

In a major study from Duke of 1,037 persons followed from childhood to age 32 showed that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance abuse, personal finances and criminal behaviors.  The researchers found that varying levels of executive function, that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses, have a profound impact on nearly every aspect of life.  Children followed from birth to age 32 who could better regulate their impulses and attention were four times less likely to have a criminal record, three times less likely to be addicted to drugs and half as likely to become single parents. (Moffitt, T.E., et al., 2011) Executive function is strengthened by growth in virtues.

Parental Coaching

Catholic parents can address and correct selfishness in their children by:

  • modeling healthy self-giving and generosity

  • correcting children daily when they act in a selfish manner

  • relating that self-giving to the family is very important through doing chores

  • 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

  • preventing excessive texting, use of face book, etc.

  • presenting models of courageous self-giving, including Pope John Paul II and saints

  • giving chores and charitable 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 friends who act selfishly

  • encouraging an expression of gratitude at the end of the day

  • presenting the truth about the beauty of the plan of God for human sexuality within the sacrament of marriage.


An effective punishment for selfish, disrespectful and defiant behaviors can be to require a Christian child to write 25 or 50 times, "Lord help me to become more respectful and less selfish and angry."

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 with severe sadness

  • a life of loneliness and unhappiness

  • excessive anger which harms relationships

  • lack of trust from others

  • treatment of others as objects to be used 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 Fail to Correct Selfishness in their Children

Correcting selfishness, as well as other character weaknesses,in children can be challenging because no one likes to be corrected. Also, some parents have a false belief/cognitive distortion that correction can harm a child which is not correct provided that it is done in a loving manner. Gentle correction is often dependent upon first forgiving the child before initiating the correction. 

In fact, the failure to correct selfishness, a leading character weakness that all of us give into at times, harms children because it deprives them of the self-knowledge that is essential to the development of a healthy personality.

The major reasons parents are unable or unwilling to correct selfishness in their children include the following:

  • personal self-indulgence and an unwillingness to address this weakness in their own personalities

  • lack of knowledge of what virtues to recommend to diminish it

  • desire to have their children as a friend, associated with a fear of loneliness

  • the lack of support by one's spouse

  • the faillure to teach virtues to children so that they can develop healthy personalities

  • the lack of a parental role model for correction

  • a lack of confidence

  • excessive correction in childhood by a parent

  • a fear of conflicts as a result of childhood stresses caused by an angry parent or sibling

  • a lack of courage

  • a fear of an angry response from a child

  • a struggle with excessive anxiety

  • a lack of understanding of the importance of teaching virtues to children

  • the failure to entrust children to the Lord

  • weak faith.

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 fail to 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 is appropriate and what is not.  Another important book in this area is Diane West's, The Death of Grown-Up.

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

Damage from Sexual Utilitarian Philosophy

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 particularly 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 precancerous

  • 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

  • post abortion trauma

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.  In an article on this topic in the 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."


The 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 unconsciously 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 failed to strengthen them.


Resistance to Change

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

  • ask teachers to communicate the dangers of selfishness and the virtues which can help in its reduction

  • end as much as possible all internet use and texting

  • limit contact with narcissistic friends

  • refuse use of a car

  • withdraw financial support of nonessential activities

  • ground the child

  • require a change in schools

  • move the child from the home as a last resort

  • pursue a legal emancipation order for severely aggressive behaviors.

Many mental health professionals who work in this challenging area with families have often expressed the wish that a 28 day rehabilitation program were available for toxic, compulsive selfishness in children and teenagers.  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).

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