Why an Anxious Child May be a Selfish Child

selfishWhile you may have already discovered your child’s anxiety can lead to stomach aches, sleepless nights or frequent crying bouts, you may not be aware that it can also lead to selfishness. Anxiety is not the only potential cause of selfishness, of course, and you can look at several factors to help figure out where the trait comes from. Then you can take action to help correct it.

The Role of Anxiety in Selfishness

Anxiety can lead to selfishness not necessarily because children necessarily only want to think of or do things for themselves but because they are simply so worried, afraid or otherwise anguished that it’s tough for them to even think about others, author Michele Borba writes in Parenting magazine. The same holds true for anger, depression or any other strong emotion that tends to weigh heavy and take over a child’s mind.

Other Causes of Selfishness

Borba points out a slew of other causes, or combination of causes, that can also contribute to an anxious child’s selfishness, such as:

  • Being spoiled or coddled
  • Having little or no discipline or limits
  • Mimicking model behavior they see in adults or even other children
  • Feeling neglected or jealous of a brother or sister
  • Lack of education in the selfishness arena, meaning they were never taught that selflessness has a higher value than being on the “me” wagon
  • Lack of understanding of other people’s emotions or how your child’s behaviors affects others

Indirect Causes of Selfishness

Then there are a couple of causes that can ultimately lead to selfishness, such as:

Your guilt: Being riddled with guilt, remorse or other such feelings can lead you to overcompensate or try to “buy” your child’s love and affection with material goods, all of which can lead back to spoiling your child which, in turn, can lead right on over to selfishness

Your indulgence in yourself: This can particularly apply if you indulge yourself with luxuries and goodies while offering none to your children or anyone else, for that matter. Your child can start building and harboring resentment about you getting all the goodies and privileges and try to grab a few goodies for his or herself.

Another Lesser-Known Reason

One more possible cause? Blame your child’s brain.

A study published in the journal Neuron noted that it’s not necessarily a child’s environmental influences that lead to selfishness but rather the maturity level of a certain brain area. As the brain matures and children get older, selfish tendencies are thought to decrease while a child becomes more aware of how his or her behavior affects others.

That’s the theory, at least, and the theory also says children will start to engage in what experts call “strategic social behavior.” Why this change happens is unclear, but it seemed to be the pattern based on a series of brain scans and games.

Researchers paired up 146 children and set them to play two games: the Dictator Game and the Ultimatum Game. The Dictator Game involved one child sharing a reward while another child could only accept whatever reward was being shared. The Ultimatum Game also involved one child sharing a reward but the other child had the choice of accepting or rejecting the reward being offered. If the reward were rejected, neither child got a reward.

The study showed older children were much more apt and willing to negotiate and share than younger children were, traits that came about as children were better able to control their impulses. The brain area linked to impulse control is a region on the left side near the front called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and theory says that region is more developed in adults, older children and children who are more willing to share. 

How to Help Your Child Curb Selfishness

Call it out and set limits

The next time your anxious child does something selfish, point it out and talk about it. To lessen the embarrassment, you probably don’t want to do this in front of a room full of others, but you can pull your child aside and point out that his or her behavior was selfish and, therefore, won’t be tolerated.

Setting limits is another way to curb selfishness and, as difficult as it may be, you may sometimes simply have to say no. Giving in to your child every time he or she asks for something can serve to reinforce that evil sense of entitlement that is currently corroding the world. 

Heed how others feel 

“How would you feel if (insert selfish behavior here)?” is a great question for getting anxious children to start thinking about the feelings of others. Once they learn to recognize other people’s feelings and even start to develop empathy for others, it may automatically be tougher to act in a selfish manner. We hope.

Empathy can be a fabulous on-the-spot lesson when you catch your anxious child doing something selfish that is clearly hurting someone else’s feelings. Turn the tables by pointing out how your child would feel if the situation were reversed. When he or she responds that it wouldn’t feel so good, quickly ask what could be done instead to help the person feel better.

Be the selfless role model 

Since one of the causes of selfishness is mimicking the behaviors of selfish friends, family members or other adults, the opposite can indeed be true if you act as a selfless role model. You don’t have to get ridiculous about it and give away everything you own, but you can open the door for other people, volunteer your time at a cat shelter or otherwise exhibit behaviors that make it clear you think of others. Make sure you point how good all this selflessness is making you feel and that your anxious child, too, would feel good if he or she followed suit. When your child does engage in a selfless act, make sure to bring attention to it with praise.


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