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Dealing with Spoiled Teens

“My son is a hoarder,” the distraught mother told my friend. “I don’t know what to do about it. He just has so much stuff in his room. I try and throw things away, but he pitches a full-on fit! And his grandfather doesn’t help the situation by constantly buying him things.”

Brat to Brat-worst

Mikey is all of four years old. The writing is clearly on the wall (which Mikey apparently also does—literally and with impunity). This child could be described as a brat on his way to becoming a brat-worst. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

Everyone suffers from the consequences of our entitlement culture—not just parents and children, but society as a whole. Unfortunately, in our materialistic culture where “stuff” equates to love, indulgent parenting is all too typical.

We can make several observations about the parenting style of Mikey’s mom:

  1. She takes no responsibility for her son’s hoarding problem—worse, by employing the term “hoarder” she implies that her four year old suffers from an uncontrollable addiction;
  2. She lets her terrorist tyke call the shots—with mom acting like a helpless victim of her child’s whims and wants;
  3. She doesn’t deal with her child’s temper tantrums as she tries to exert control over “his” problem; and
  4. She allows Mikey’s grandfather to indulge him—rather than establishing appropriate boundaries.

You can already picture Mikey as a teen. Even as an adolescent, his room will still be full of toys. They’ll just be more sophisticated—and expensive. For guys that usually means a “gaggle” of gadgets—much of it given to them by their parents. For girls, it may be less about video games and more about clothes. Lots and lots and lots of clothes.

And maybe you’ve noticed that kids who are given everything are rarely grateful for anything.


There’s a word for this rampant social disease: It’s called “affluenza.” A more publicized example of this ailment is the case of Rachel Canning. After they kicked her out of the house, this “emancipated” New Jersey high school senior sued her parents for weekly support, private high school and even future college tuition. Their reason for giving their daughter the boot? She refused to comply with their reasonable household rules, such as being respectful, keeping a curfew, doing a few chores and ending a relationship with a boyfriend who was a bad influence. Shockingly, the judge ruled in the teen’s favor. This bizarre ruling gave carte blanche (at least in New Jersey) for any entitled teen to say to their parents, “I don’t want your rules, but I want everything under the sun and I want you to pay for it!”

Now, this may seem like an extreme example of entitlement gone wild, but the very fact this case even made it to court is indicative of a disturbing mindset in our culture. So where do we ascribe blame? Squarely on the parents. In response to the Rachael Canning case, one blogger wrote: “She’s 18. Their legal responsibility has ended. Their moral responsibility… not so much. Talk about setting a kid up to fail… after the way they raised her, well, they have reaped what they sowed. She’s going to learn some hard lessons. She will either sink or swim.”

From the Palace to the Pig Sty… and Back Again

Consider the classic “sink or swim” Bible story in Luke 15. Most of you are familiar with the story of the prodigal son who demanded his inheritance early so that he could spend it on “riotous living.” In Luke 15:12, the rebellious son says, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” For whatever reason, this young man had a pretty demanding “gimme-gimme” sense of entitlement. More than likely it was because he never had a need for anything since the family was obviously wealthy.

So, as was the custom in those days, the father went ahead and gave him his portion of the estate. The son gleefully took it all and moved away. But he had soon blown through his entire inheritance. Half starved, he then banked on his buddies to help him out in his time of need. Only then did he learn the meaning of “fair-weathered” friends. In Luke 15:16 we read, “… but no one gave him anything.”  Whether they were acting as selfish as he was, or were just fed up with him, their response told him that he needed to do something different from now on or else he wouldn’t survive. The very next verse brings it all home.

In Luke 15:17 it says, “…he came to his senses…” He saw the light. When the money ran out and everyone stopped feeding this young man’s foolishness, he finally hit rock bottom. It took a very traumatic experience for him to have his day of reckoning. Only then did he finally begin thinking more clearly about life, liberty and what that all actually costs. This parable wonderfully illustrates a radical turnabout for a pampered, selfish child who was forced to face the realities of life. (Although that “turnaround” may have never happened had Jewish law back then allowed rebellious children to sue their parents!)

Lavish Now… Live with it Later

So why do parents lavishly and foolishly give material things to their children? Some say it is their “right” to spoil their kids — and there is truth to that. The truth is not as much regarding the parent’s rights, but that, yes, it will spoil their kids. Such children are in for a rude awakening when real life “comes a callin’.” Interestingly, in follow-up news stories about Rachel, when she was finally forced to go to work, she apparently was not able to hold a job. She also filed a restraining order against her boyfriend because of physical violence—the same boyfriend her parents had forbidden her to see. By that point, she may have been wishing she still had parents who she could turn to for comfort.

Sometimes a parent is being extra generous out of an “I’m-giving-my-child-what-I-lacked-as-a-child” attitude. Or, perhaps the gifts are being used as leverage to improve the attitudes and cooperation of the teenager. In either case, the kids on the receiving end can become pretty comfortable with such generosity. As we’ve seen, it can lead to immaturity, irresponsibility, selfishness and a hard time understanding finances and the obligations of real life when they become adults.

I know it’s tough for loving parents to limit their giving of material things to their children, especially when they have it to give. But it’s important to keep that impulse in check. If you can’t help yourself, and want to give your teen everything, at least call me first so that I can tell you the kind of damage that causes. I’ll tell you the stories of some of the teens who are sent to our Heartlight residential program. For them it can take months of therapy and doing without material things to bring them back down to earth.

Take this Shovel and…

Take a cue from this parent who writes, “When my son wanted a pair of ice skates I handed him a shovel and told him to go knock on doors and offer to shovel snow. When he wanted a new bike I gave him a lawn mower and a gallon of gas. He is now 34, owns a multimillion dollar business and he never went to college (too busy working).”

Another good way to counteract selfishness and financial foolishness in a teen is to teach them to give of themselves and a portion of their finances to others who are in need. Bring them down to the local mission to volunteer in the food line. Require that they help an elderly friend or a shut-in neighbor once a week. Take them on a short-term mission trip to a place in the world where kids have nothing. When they interact with others who are helpless and in desperate need, they soon realize (without having to hit rock bottom themselves) how important it is to manage their own life and their money.

If you’re an adult prodigal, resist the temptation to lavish upon your teen everything their little heart desires. That doesn’t mean you withhold every good thing—just that you use wisdom. Two “good things” your teen desperately needs are the ability to value hard work and to handle money. Admittedly, it’s much tougher to padlock the barn door after your untamed teen has been free to run around with an “my-parents-owe-me” attitude. But trust me; if you rein them in now, they’ll thank you later. You’ll also greatly reduce the risk of your teen taking you to court!


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.