Selfish kids: How healthy is your child’s elbow mentality?

What distinguishes selfish children? And how can parents strengthen a shy child so that he does not spoil? A conversation with psychologist Stephanie Ritzler.

If you divide the children into two drawers, it seems that there are selfish children who think only of themselves – and on the other hand considerate children who often hold back and do not always care about their own interests (and unfortunately often because of this also draw the short straw).

When we think of Pippi Longstocking, we imagine the strongest girl in the world who can do anything and always believes in herself. But if we’re being honest, Pippi is social, but also a bit selfish and loves being a leader. Yet she is still a role model for many children today. On the other hand, her best friend Annika is more of a reserved, well-behaved girl who follows the rules and puts her own needs second – unlike the opinionated Pippilotta.

But how much selfishness is actually healthy? And when does it become too much? We have this with you Psychologist and author Stephanie Ritzler to speak. Among other things, she has written two books on self-esteem and self-confidence (for parents: “Safe, Brave, Free – How Children Find Inner Strength”; for children: “Garoon on the Path of Happiness”) and runs an academy for learning coaching in Zurich.

Parents: From an early age, many children are categorized as either selfish or social. Should we be more careful in such assessments?

Stephanie Ritzler: Especially with children we must be careful with such qualities. Because young children are unable to empathize with their fellow human beings, put their needs aside and understand how their behavior affects others.

When will children be able to empathize with their fellow human beings?

Most children are unable to empathize with others and take their point of view until they are four to six years old – and only to a certain extent.

Many parents probably don’t know that…

No, and they are in turn frustrated when the toddler behaves in a supposedly inconsiderate way: “He wants to bang his head against the wall!” , “You can’t just rip your brother’s game apart, you should be able to share it too!” When we label such natural behaviors of children as selfish, we inflict injustice upon them. Children can act really selfishly only from school age if they consciously gain advantages at the expense of others.

But not all kids do that, right?

Like all of us, children have a critical need to belong. They want to be accepted by others and rely on their appreciation as part of a family, class, clique, or friendship in order to thrive. It is associated with this fear of being rejected by others. In some children, this fear is so great that they adapt to their environment and constantly leave their wants and needs aside. Here there is a danger that they will fall short, be taken advantage of by friends and classmates and not achieve their goals.

What advice would you give to children who are often neglected?

When accompanied, these children must be allowed to discover: are they still giving and taking, or are I being exploited? Where do I make myself small? Where do others get an advantage over my tunnel? They have to learn to resist.

And how healthy is an elbow mentality?

It doesn’t have to be about determining the right level of jerk mentality or the optimal dose of selfishness. It is best for children to develop and listen to their inner voice. To be able to realize what they need and what is important to them; that they express and advocate for their needs; That they can distance themselves from the demands and expectations of others if they are not in their favour.

In short: it is important to develop healthy self-confidence and self-confidence rather than a brute and selfish mindset.

Isn’t there an advantage in being selfish too?

Dominant children often have a strong position in the class or clique when they are in elementary school. Everyone wants to have a good relationship with them. For these little leaders, it’s good to be relatively untouched. They enjoy being courted by others and being able to set the tone in the group. They decide what gets played, who is allowed to exist and rarely have to put their desires aside. While some parents watch this with a worried look, others take pride that their child appears to be very independent and does not allow others to interfere.


Of course, selfishness also has its price: children who seem too dominant hardly learn to show interest in others and are therefore unable to deal with frustration if, contrary to expectations, they cannot assert themselves. Once cooperation is needed, conflicts become inevitable. Other group members feel controlled and upset that their opinions are not sufficiently heard. Selfishness can make you lonely.

How can parents prevent their child from becoming too selfish?

We can pass on to children in everyday life and be an example: “You have needs and desires that you can express and take into account. All other people also have needs and desires and want to take them into account. We as a family look for solutions so that it is true for everyone.”

It also affects children in how caregivers interact with third parties.

“Do my mom and dad also take care of others? Can my parents treat others and celebrate success with them? Or does he quickly get jealous and think they’re missing out on something?”

What else can parents do?

With children, we must focus on where people act in solidarity, support each other and give hope.

Studies also show that loneliness promotes selfishness.

It is therefore helpful for parents to make sure that their children have adequate opportunities to develop friendships.

How can parents strengthen their children when they often lose out because they are more conservative than other children?

When a child finds it difficult to stand up for himself, caregivers often ask the child to “finally assert himself” or “not to listen to what others think of him.” As a result, especially reticent children experience additional stress. They can now only decide what pressure they are under – parental pressure or group pressure. They can no longer listen to themselves and hear their inner voice.

How do parents improve it?

Instead, let’s see how hard it can be to distinguish our reserved child from himself. Now we can discuss with him how he noticed that he was no longer doing well in the group and in what situations he would like to dare to act differently.

For example: “Luca seems to think it’s very important that you come with me. How’s that for you?” We can help the child see his inner conflict by saying, “You don’t really want to go – but you feel you have to win the friendship somehow? And Luca gets angry when you say no?” Now you can think about the reaction of the child.

Maybe you’ll make sentences together, maybe you’ll practice them in RPGs. It is also important that there is a climate in the family in which the “no” of the child is respected.

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