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The “Selfish” Child: Teaching Kids to Think about Others

December 12, 2021 | by Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP

Understanding why kids behave the way they do and how to teach them the skills they need.

We've all experienced these behaviors in our children:

  • The child who tantrums when they don’t get the toy they wanted.

  • The child who doesn’t run to help you when you are carrying in your groceries.

  • The child who is always complaining that they don’t have anything to wear.

Labeling this kind of behavior as selfish isn't very helpful. We can look at this behavior in a more positive way and teach children to turn their behavior around.

Here are a few essential pointers to dealing with "selfish" kids:

Understand what is really going on with your child.

Selfish behavior is often developmentally appropriate. They haven't yet learned to see the world through someone else’s eyes. They are truly egocentric. It is a stretch for them to imagine how another person may feel or think. They have just begun to make sense of their own thoughts and feelings. And teens haven’t matured enough to “put themselves in the shoes” of another person.

Quite often it's a developmental problem, not a behavioral one.

Furthermore, there might be other sound reasons for their “bad” behavior. For example, a child who throws a tantrum because she didn’t get the gift she wanted might be tired or hungry and can’t handle disappointment on top of that. A child who complains that she “has nothing to wear” can be feeling a bit insecure and is struggling to fit in with her friends. A child who doesn’t offer to help his mother carry in the groceries might be involved in a game and afraid of losing out.

Don't be so quick to label their behavior in the most negative light.

Teach, don't accuse:

Kids need to learn how to see another person’s point of view and be able to put themselves in another’s shoes. They have to learn to act with compassion and empathy.

These lessons can be taught. Most importantly, we do not need to be punitive when doing so.

Start by empathizing:

Empathizing with kids and respecting their negative feelings is the best way to teach our kids to see another’s perspective. When we empathize and reflect their feelings, they learn to name their own emotions. Ironically, this is the first step in helping them understand and sense the feelings of others.

“You are disappointed with your gift. You wish you had gotten something else…”

“You are having a hard time sharing your toy…It’s not easy to share…”

“You are really frustrated and not sure what to wear today…”

Naming their feelings helps kids to become emotionally literate and comfortable with their wide range of emotions. This will give them the language they need to be supportive and compassionate to others.

Prepare beforehand:

Let your children know beforehand what is expected of them:

“When you get a gift, you need to say ‘thank you’, even if you are disappointed with it. If your feelings of disappointment are too much, you can whisper in my ear how sad you are. You just can’t say it out loud.”

“When you see me carrying groceries, make sure you come over and ask to help.”

If you know your child really has a hard time noticing that you need help, you can say, “Eli, I am going to the supermarket. I will be home in about a half-hour. I will need some help unloading packages from the car. I would appreciate it if you would come right when I call…”

Teach them to see:

Similarly, we want children to take notice of us and our needs. When I'm in the middle of a serious bout of multitasking, cooking dinner, making arrangements for a play date on the phone, 5 minutes before I have to rush out to do carpool, the last thing I want to hear from my child is, “Mom, I like this sweater in this catalogue, can you order it for me?”

It's at that time that we can gently say: “Honey, take a look at me for a second. What do you see? I am cooking dinner, straightening up, and I have to leave in 5 minutes to do carpool. I can't help you right now. Actually, I can use some help from you. Here's a carrot that needs to be peeled. I would love to look at the catalogue, later on tonight

Role model:

Another way we can teach our kids to put themselves in another’s shoes is to role model compassion for others.

We can say: “Looks like Daddy had a rough day. He looks like he can use a hug and a kiss. We need to let him relax tonight…”

“Grandma is feeling a little sad tonight. Her friend is not well. Let’s see if we can cheer her up…

Praise children when they act in compassionate ways:

What we mention we strengthen. So praise children when they do act with compassion and empathy. We want to say:

“You shared your toy!”

“Thanks so much for your help with the groceries! I really appreciate it!”

“You waited until I was off the phone to ask me a question!”

These may seem like small and insignificant acts that don’t require praise, but this helps reinforce those small positive acts and can ensure repeat performances.

We can teach our children to behave appropriately. We need to understand why they behave the way they do, teach them the skills they need and finally praise them for their more appropriate actions.

Photo credit: Annie Spratt,

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