Selfish, Narcissistic Teens

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Arrogant & aggressive teen son

Jan 2013

We are at a loss as to what to do about our son. It is not just normal teenage behavior. His behavior is arrogant and aggressive. His grades are terrible. His plans completely unrealistic. His work history almost nil, and we can't live with his constant demands, unreasonable expectations of us, and his extreme self centeredness. We have tried therapy for 2 years, with very minor improvements. He lies a lot and we never know if he is telling the truth. He has some good qualities, like occasionally he is kind to children or elderly people, and he can be very interesting to converse with, and he will occasionally reach out to someone in a non self centered way. Has anyone experienced this and what might be done to improve the situation? anon

While I am a therapist, and my child is younger than yours, I hope it is okay that I am responding to your query. I always read the Parents of Teens newsletter to see both what parents are up against and what other parents suggest.

My thoughts are this: Have you had any luck in channeling his self-absorbed behaviors? You say that he can be quite interesting to talk with. Do you think he might be interested in, say, joining Youth Radio where he would have a venue to talk about what he finds interesting? Or reversely, have you considered making it mandatory for him to volunteer somewhere where he would be working with children or with the elderly? Maybe tie your willingness to continue to pay for his cell phone (Or whatever) to his volunteering for a number of hours somewhere?

Also, you say his demands on you and your husband are unreasonable. Do you and your husband agree on what is reasonable/unreasonable and are you equally reinforcing these agreements? I have found that sometimes teenagers are picking up on the cracks between their parents agreements and working these-- which is good for no one. I wonder if you and your husband might benefit from talking with someone together a few times if you haven't already done so.

And finally, when you describe your son's behaviors, are you describing something that has been consistent or that has changed? If there was a time when he was more responsive to the needs of other people, I would think carefully about this previous time and see if you can come up with anything that supported him then? Sometimes instead of pointing out what isn't working, it can be very powerful to speak about what you miss in someone, remind them of ways they used to be and speak of missing this, wanting it back.

It sounds like you are near the end of rope. Remember that the teenage years are often the hardest ones. This is the bottom. If there are anyways for you to borrow from his self-centered ways and put yourself at the center of your life--take care of yourself now--I hope that you do so. I wish you all the best luck! anon

One of my sons is like yours and I worry about him ALL the time. Narcissism runs in the family - my mom and sister have been unsuccessful with relationships all their lives because of their extreme self-centeredness, and now as adults they do not have the support network of friends and family that they need and want.

My son is affable and he does make an effort to control his worst impulses, but his high opinion of himself is way out of proportion. He always assumed he'd go to one of the UCs even though he consistently maintained a very low GPA in high school. He barely scraped through the college that did accept him, and afterwards sought a high-prestige career that is known to be difficult to break in to. When that didn't work out, he lived at home and left a series of jobs that he considered not worthy of his perceived high level of skill and talent. Now at 30, he has a part-time ''real'' job and also co-owns a small business with a friend. He is doing OK, can support himself. He enjoys volunteering once a week at a middle school. It has been very important for him to be in a work environment where he has a lot of control. Teamwork is not his thing. He needs to be the coach. It took me a while to accept this, but he is actually very capable in a leadership role.

What helped us when he was living at home after college was 1) I required him to attend ''couples counseling'' with me in exchange for a place to stay and 2) I paid for him to go to a career counselor (who gave him the same advice I would have given but he wouldn't accept it from his mom.) Things improved gradually, not overnight, but they helped both of us and improved our relationship. I learned to bite my tongue, never criticize, never point out the obvious flaws in his plans. If he asks me for advice, I tread very carefully so as not to appear critical in any way. For someone who has such a high opinion of himself, he is unusually sensitive to criticism. He thrives on compliments so I go overboard with the ego stroking.

It goes against my nature to stay silent when he is spouting off about how great he is. I'm pretty opinionated myself, so it's hard for me to express sympathy about problems that he has brought on himself. But that's what I do now - I pretend I am the supportive, calm, understanding mom who is perfectly satisfied with her perfect child. He still makes mistakes and is often difficult to be around, even volatile at times. And I sometimes have to ask him to stop disparaging people, or stop cursing, or tell him I don't want to talk to him when he's angry. But overall we have a good relationship, spend a lot of time together, and we can (and do) count on each other for help and support.

All the best to you. It is not an easy road but there is hope. another mom

My daughter is only 11, but sounds a lot like your son. I also see really good qualities of the kind you mentioned, but I worry that she won't be successful in the world if she continues to be so self-entitled and not taking responsibility for her actions. And like you, I find myself insisting that her behavior goes beyond ''normal'' despite reassurance by other parents that all children are somewhat self-centered.

Recently I read a book that was tremendously helpful. It is called The Defiant Child by Douglas Riley. My daughter's behaviors and reactions were described to a t, and the moment I started putting some of the author's suggestions in practice, I felt immediately empowered. The book also made me very hopeful that I can actually help my child. Many of the examples used in the book are actually teens with behaviors that I bet are more extreme than any of your son's, but it does open your eyes to what may happen if you don't curb this now.

The good news is that in the end it mentions how some of these kids with these extreme behaviors who nonetheless exhibit the ability to relate to others well and functionally outside of the home (like your son and my daughter) tend to have the same rate of success as ''normal'' kids. But they are a real pain to raise, and it does not have to be so painful! There is hope