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Question: I have a 14-year-old daughter who is behaving like an entitled brat lately. I’d thought we had instilled more gratefulness. But she is dismissive of any gift that isn’t perfect or exactly what she wanted, expects expensive clothing and doesn’t seem to want to work for her spending money. I really need some ideas of what to do.

Answer: I hear your disappointment and worry over how your daughter has been acting. I’m sure you did teach her the importance of gratitude and that is why this is so distressing. This behaviour, while undesirable, is not uncommon. It will pass. It doesn’t mean you have failed to teach her values. Let’s look at why this is happening and what you can do.

In our early teen years, our brains undergo a renovation process. The big feelings of these years, which in our generation were explained by “hormones,” are now understood by brain scientists to be caused by normal brain development. Your daughter’s amygdala, the emotional centre of her brain, is now better developed than her lagging-behind-prefrontal cortex, her thinking brain. This causes intense feelings and reactions in teens. What this means for you is that those big feelings are real. She’s not being a drama queen.

Combine these big feelings with the pressure to fit in and the impossibly high standards of social media, where everyone has to look a certain way, and of course she will be pretty difficult to be around right now.

What can you do?

First of all, it sounds like you need to rebuild some connection with your daughter. As the mom of two teens and a tween, I can tell you that the most important thing you can have with your teenager is a strong and connected relationship. If your daughter doesn’t care what you think, you are sunk. The fact that you described her as acting like an “entitled brat” tells me that things are pretty strained between you right now.

Look at some baby pictures of her. Make a list of all the great things about her. Remember how hard it was to be a teenager. With the way she’s been acting, you might feel she doesn’t deserve compassion right now, but she certainly needs it. Recognize that this is a hard time and she is doing the best she can.

Next, let her know that even though you won’t be changing your tune, you understand how hard this feels. Empathize with her about how disappointing it is that you won’t buy her the expensive items she desires. Tell her you understand it doesn’t feel fair that she has to work for spending money when it seems like everyone else’s parents just give it to them.

If she is dismissive of gifts that aren’t exactly what she wanted, I would let her know that she still needs to be polite to whoever gave them to her. She doesn’t have to like them (and maybe she can even return or exchange them), but she does need to be polite to the gift-giver. Having a family motto to refer to, such as "be kind,” can be helpful at times such as these.

Your daughter may genuinely not be thinking about anyone but herself. This selfishness will also pass. Teen narcissism is actually a normal phase and thought to contribute to the development of healthy self-esteem.

In the meantime, you can help her broaden her perspective. I would ask her gently, not in a blaming way, how she would feel if she spent time and money picking something out for someone and they didn’t appreciate it? You could also ask her some food-for-thought questions to encourage her to think about others in the world who are less fortunate. Make this a real conversation, not a lecture, or she will just tune you out. Perhaps your family could volunteer at a community organization or help a neighbour.

Tell her that if she wants extra spending money, she will have to get a job. She can babysit or do odd jobs for neighbours or do extra chores around the house. Offer to help her brainstorm ideas for what she could do and support her however you can.

If she is angry, try not to take it personally. Remember the big feelings I mentioned before? If she’s rude, you can say: “I want to hear about your feelings. You can tell me how you feel without attacking me. Would you like to try that again or shall we take a break until we are more calm?” If you can stay calm, loving and reasonable, you will be modelling wonderful emotional self-regulation.

Try not to worry. Trust that you have raised her well and that she will come back to your family’s values. Keep modelling what’s important to you as a family, including gratitude and appreciation.

Some readers, and maybe your friends or family, might think she needs consequences. Any punishment you might dole out will damage your relationship and weaken your ability to influence her. You really don’t want a teenager who doesn’t care what you think. Even if you were willing to sacrifice your relationship, punishment won’t work. No matter how miserable you make her life, you can’t force true gratitude or appreciation.

Guidance, empathy and kind, firm limits are required. In the long run, anything she buys with her own money will have more meaning and value. She will learn from this. It’s hard when our children are upset with us, but you cannot take it personally. If you have spent her childhood modelling gratitude and generosity, she will come back to those values. If you keep your relationship strong while holding your limits with kindness and empathy, she will thank you later.

Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three kids, ages 12, 15 and 18.

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