Ep 3: Handling Self-Centered Teenagers

Episode Summary

Wendy Behary, author of “Disarming the Narcissist” talks about how to deal with a self absorbed teenager. What is the best way for parents to handle self centered teenage problems? One of the big topics covered in this episode is how to tell a self absorbed teenager that something he or she is doing is not OK.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

It’s no secret that teens can get wrapped up in their own world, but what happens when they start treating others disrespectfully? Hogging the conversation out of a need for admiration. Raising their voice. Thinking it’s okay to slam the door shut in your face. These are the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder that a selfish teenager will exhibit. Luckily, there are ways to deal with a selfish teenager that can actually strengthen your relationship. 

However, if your selfish teenager’s behavior goes unchecked, they can develop bad habits that will leave them socially isolated in the long run. You don’t want your child to react with rage or contempt when they come across the slightest inconvenience as an adult. Further, narcissism can cause your teen to experience major problems dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression.

So, what can we do as parents to eliminate narcissism in selfish teenagers?

That’s exactly what I talk about in this week’s podcast episode with Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist…Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. Wendy has been treating patients, training professionals, and supervising psychotherapists for more than 20 years! She’s also worked as a member of the Cognitive Therapy Center faculty and Schema Therapy Institute of New York.

Her research has led to many in-depth publications about schema therapy and cognitive therapy such as

  • “The Art of Empathic Confrontation: Working with the Narcissistic Client”
  • The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Schema Therapy

Wendy’s private practice is primarily focused on treating narcissists, partners/people engaged with narcissists, and couples experiencing relationship problems. She also coaches clients on interpersonal problem-solving, anxiety, and communication. If anyone knows about handling selfish teenagers, it’s Wendy.

During the podcast, we talk about how schema therapy can help parents deal with selfish teenagers. In addition to discussing how schema therapy can be applied with helpful scripts and examples, Wendy walks me through three primary concepts of the approach:

  • What is a schema
  • How to use schemas in therapy
  • Empathetic confrontation

Knowing how schemas play into cognitive development and communication can help you curb narcissistic behavior in your selfish teenager. Here’s a peek into the process:

Understanding Schemas

In essence, schemas are a category of thought that we hold in our brain. Think of them as quick connections or triggers that your brain uses to associate between different things.

For example, when a child learns about horses for the first time, they might understand that it is covered in hair, has four legs, and a tail. This group of information is the child’s schema for a horse. Though, when they encounter a dog, they might think it’s a horse as well because they share the same characteristics that are associated with their “horse schema.” So, what do schemas have to do with narcissism?

When children grow up, they develop a schema for their emotional needs; the characteristics associated with appearance, attention, give-and-take, competition, and personal performance. Narcissistic teens have a social and emotional schema that needs attention. They aren’t content with being on equal ground with others. Instead, selfish teenagers need to outperform others in a social context, maximize their personal ease, and seek out validation from friends and family. Sound familiar?

According to Wendy, a narcissist’s emotional schema can be inherited through several means. Sometimes it’s genetic, but selfish teenagers can also learn narcissistic behavior from the environment they grow up in.

Let’s say, a young child is faced with a problem like cleaning up a mess. The child’s parent might work too quickly to help them if they struggle. This overparenting can cause teens to later feel entitled, demand things, or even break the rules depending on how privileged they feel.

Schemas and Triggers

Wendy says that selfish behaviors are often set off by triggers, or when a child remembers the negative rewards they felt when they behaved badly in the past and got a reaction from their parents. Selfish teenagers that elicit negative reactions from their parents, do so to garner attention.

To respond to selfish teenagers, Wendy suggests resisting the temptation to react impulsively. Whether your child is struggling with a task or exhibiting rude behavior, it’s important to give your kids some space to work out their problems. She says they need a chance to struggle independently, learn from failures, and understand that some of their strategies––like selfish behavior––won’t elicit the kinds of responses they want.

If you find yourself in a position where your teen’s narcissistic behavior strikes a chord, Wendy advises parents to take a moment to reflect on why this is happening. First, you recognize what kinds of attention they are after and then you teach them to target empathetic social skills. Parents can adjust their child’s schema to respond to considerate communication. This is called schema therapy.

Schema Therapy

If schemas are compartments of knowledge and behavior, then schema therapy is all about compartmentalization. It’s about feeding the good behaviors with positive social responses in your teen and holding your child accountable for when they act out. So, when a selfish teenager’s social and self-schemas are associated with neediness and attention, rather than virtues like respectful communication and mindfulness, parents can help them adjust.

Wendy advises parents to address deeper levels of their child’s needs when it comes to narcissistic behavior. This means recognizing that when your child acts out, there are different parts of them that are competing for the controls. You know they have the potential to be kind and patient, but right now, the impatient and selfish side is winning.

Think of it like waiting in line for some ice cream. Your teen usually tips the salesperson when they visit, but today, there are a lot of kids in line in front of them. They might not be in the “tipping schema” when they leave. Instead, they’re in the “I want to leave schema,” so they don’t take the generous route and tip the merchant. When this happens, Wendy says you can address this behavior directly and be tough on the “I want to leave schema” by itself.

None of us are just a monolithic, one-dimensional personality. We have many sides to our personality. Recognizing this helps us understand that a selfish teenager isn’t just a selfish teenager. Observing the complexity of your child’s personality, you can address the harmful aspects directly in a conversation. Next time your child exhibits selfish behavior, you can say something like:

When you investigate the harmful aspects of your teenager’s personality, they can better understand how their behavior negatively impacts others. It also lets them reflect on how they deal with stressful situations.

“When you raise your voice, it doesn’t actually reflect your thoughts. I’d love to hear what you have to say, but right now you’re using a side of you that isn’t open to conversation. Is there anyone else who can take the wheel on this one?”

What I also like about the compartmentalization approach is how it eliminates blaming your teen or using shame to define them. When you say, “It’s not your fault that you learned to act this way, but it is your responsibility to manage your behavior,” you’re inviting them to make more mindful decisions when they communicate. While the selfish teenager is a part of your child, they don’t have to feed into it. They can nourish the part of them that is generous and thoughtful instead.

To hear about how Empathetic Confrontation works to mitigate the behavior of selfish teenagers, be sure to tune for the whole episode!

There’s so much more!

There are so many more techniques that Wendy shares with me about dealing with selfish teenagers and disarming the narcissist in us all. We expand on Wendy’s robust approach to talk about things like:

  • Recognizing triggering behavior
  • Connecting on an intimate level with a selfish teenager
  • Correlating selfish teenagers and parental disappointment

I’m thankful that Wendy shared her insight with me this week about the psychology behind narcissism and selfish teenagers. She has so much wisdom for parents to learn from, and easy-to-use tools to help parents deal with self-centered behavior. I found Wendy’s advice to be comprehensible and enlightening, and I know you will, too!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teenager is starting to get hard to deal with during an argument

“We have many dimensions to our personalities. There are sometimes parts that are unruly or nasty. There are parts that can be angry. And I’m not talking about having a multiple personality. I’m talking about just being human. We have many dimensions. You know, I think you have something really important to tell me. And I’d love to hear it. But when that other part of you becomes the spokesperson it’s really hard to hear what the hell you’re trying to say. It just gets all messed up. So maybe you could ask that part of you to just step outside and get out of the way and we could just have a conversation about what it is that’s upsetting you.”

-Wendy Behary

2.  When your teenager starts to piss you off:

(Members Only)

3.  How to hold your teen responsible without blaming them:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Use Empathic Confrontation with Your Teenager:

Next time you want to confront your teenager about something, try using Empathic Confrontation. It’s a technique Wendy taught me from Schema Therapy for telling someone they need to change in a loving way. Step 1) Empathize with your teen. Say you get that things are really hard for them right now and you understand they are struggling. Below, write a few sentences in which you empathize with your teenager. Wendy recommends including the phrase “it’s not your fault” during this phase. Step 2) Next, confront your teen about their behavior. Write a few sentences that clearly but empathically tell your teenager they need to make a change. Something like, “But it’s not OK. This is why you’re having problems. It’s your responsibility to make a change.” Try to come up with a version that feels authentic to you. Wendy says the confrontation might be setting a limit, telling the teen their behavior is hurtful, or that they aren’t achieving their own goals. Show them why they need to change. But do it with understanding and love.

2.  Plan Responses for Things that Might “Trigger” You:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So your book, Disarming The Narcissist. I loved it. It got me thinking about narcissism in a different way. Maybe the place to start is, how did you get interested in narcissism as a focus and a topic? And where did that interest come from?

Wendy: Yeah, that’s a good place to start. It’s a way for me to sort of clear the air. I actually didn’t choose it as my area of expertise. Some people think would a masochist, why would you choose narcissism as your area of specialty? I think a lot of therapists, or I should say most therapists, I found myself, thinking myself to be a fairly sturdy, pretty reasonably well put together normal, neurotic, human being, like most people but sturdy in the treatment room as a therapist, until I met my first patient, who was probably narcissistic at the time, although I didn’t know what to call it then and found myself getting triggered.

Wendy: I think it was through the discovery of my own reactions. I wanted to explore it. And that meant kind of looking inside me, as well as understanding the makeup of this individual. And that’s how it started. We talk about, the activation of Schemas or these life themes or life traps, if you will, these buttons, sometimes we just call it our buttons getting pushed, but Schemas are really deeply core entrenched themes that everyone has. And there’s a certain number of emotional needs that go into healthy, well adjusted development of an individual. And when those needs aren’t adequately met, combined with the temperament of those child, Schemas can form.

Wendy: Narcissists typically grow up with the experience of feeling that there’s nothing about just being that’s really valuable. It’s what they do. It’s about performance, about competition. It’s about achievement. It’s about being beautiful, handsome, special, wonderful, the best, extraordinary. So there’s a lot of emphasis placed on performance. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on ease of life, low frustration tolerance, being spoiled in some cases, a kind of learned dependency.

Wendy: And so, they feel entitled to demand things, to feel superior to other people, to break the rules, to have privileges. So Schema therapy tries to identify what the triggers are. What are the conditions in your life now, that activate those old life themes that live in your memory because it’s natural and normal and part of being human? And also activate reactions that you might have had when you were very little, when there was little survival power, so you did the best you could, but you’re doing them still as an adult as if you don’t have any other choices.

Wendy: So a parent of a teen, who gets triggered when the teenager is acting unruly or is whining and doing all the things teenagers might do. The parent of the teen who gets triggered back to a time and place in their life without even realizing it, may react in ways that their parents did, that they did as a child. They may actually work too quick, too fast, to take the teen out of distress, so much so, that the child doesn’t learn how to tolerate frustration. And it’s one of the hallmark features in narcissism. They can’t tolerate not getting their own way.

Wendy: I’m constantly urging parents, although it may be hard to resist the temptation to swoop in and make it all better. Give your kids a chance to muscle through, let them be a little uncomfortable because that’s good preparation for how the world works. It’s preparation for life. But if you’re triggered, it’s tough to do that, if your Schemas get activated.

Andy: In terms of trying to recognize when you’re reacting in a certain way, I feel like this is something that I’ve seen from cognitive behavioral therapy to Buddhism, right? Being able to detach ourselves from those habitual reactions. Are you talking about doing that in the moment? Or are you talking about looking back at the end of a day or a week and trying to think about the times that that’s happened?

Wendy: Yeah. That’s a really good question. And either one is great. So if you miss it in the moment, you can reflect on it later and that might help spare you the next time you get triggered or prepares you to be a little bit more mindful of those signs and signals when it happens again. If you catch it in the moment, then you have the opportunity to be a very good model for the person in front of you. I will find myself with my narcissistic clients often, when I feel triggered a look at them and just say, “Wait, give me a minute. I think I’m getting triggered, hang on.” And then they wait, they look at me, they’re puzzled. What I’m doing is really just going inside and protecting myself, reminding myself that I can take care of this because I’m the adult and I’m trained and just sort of putting little Wendy in a safe place.

Wendy: And then I look at them and say, “Okay, I’m back.” I don’t have to tell them my life story at that point. I can just look at them and say, “I got a little triggered there and I was aware that this is probably what happens to a lot of people in your life. And what I was ready to do, was just go ahead and change the subject because it felt uncomfortable, but I’m not going to do that because that’s not what you need.” So now I’m back in and you can do that with a teenager. It’s really good modeling for self regulation. “Ooh, I was just ready to kind of get angry about this and I thought, I don’t want to fight with you. I don’t want to get angry with you. I don’t want to get into another big tangle tonight and turns into a messy night. You and I can talk about this. We can figure this out. I have confidence that we can.” Once you’re in that sturdy skin again, then the chances for a more effective dialogue can follow.

Andy: It’s the type of metacognitive ability that you’re passing on to them.

Wendy: Yeah. Exactly.

Andy: There is a disappointment that parents have to feel when their kid doesn’t perform the way that they were hoping they might.

Wendy: Yeah, there is. Especially, if the parent happens to have narcissistic qualities in their personality as well. If you have a parent who’s trying to live vicariously through that child, who needs that child to be something, to be the Ivy League performer, to be the achiever, to be the top gun, to become the lawyer, the doctor, the accountant, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But if it’s more of the parent’s need than the child’s need, wish, desire or longing to go in that direction, it’s often problematic. And the child doesn’t feel like they have a truly authentic identity.

Wendy: They may be passionless when it comes to their work, they may feel the pressure, the burden to perform even harder because they don’t know how to connect with their own intimate, vulnerable self. They don’t know how to connect with other people because their whole life has been based upon trying to be what was expected of them. It’s very, very hard work for them to do. Hard for them to really drop their guard, hard for them to become ordinary citizens when they’ve learned that they’re supposed to be extraordinary.

Wendy: And it’s a lot of just learning how, when they’re having trouble saying no to something. For example, what is it that’s getting triggered inside of you that’s making it so hard to say no? What are you afraid of? What are you feeling? What is it about you being able to step away? Let your child write their own essay. You don’t have to write it for them. Let them do that for themselves. This is really important. It’s really a victory for them of sorts. It’s a life lesson. But we explore what makes it so tough. What is it about you that, when your daughter just wants a little affection and the little embrace and little time to spend with you, that you don’t have to immediately come up with 5,000 amazing, wonderful, amusement park features and just sit on the couch and cuddle with her. What makes that so hard for you? We look at what makes it so difficult to connect at a level that’s intimate, to set limits, to keep a more balanced approach

Wendy: When people say, well, Wendy’s such a softy. I get accused of being too soft on narcissists. And the truth is, I’m not at all soft on the narcissistic heart of my client. The part of them that can be mean and critical and demeaning and little to show offish and in my face or questioning me or cynical, I’m not soft on that. I confront that. I confront that very boldly with empathy because empathy is not sympathy.

Wendy: Empathy, it means I get why you feel the need to that, but you can’t do that in here or with me. I set limits and I confront, but I am very, very soft on the part of him that suffers. If they’re willing to let me peek inside that world and see the part that is hurting, that’s vulnerable, then yeah, of course I am. I think anybody would be, if we could see the childlike sides of all of us. We could feel some sense of compassion for those parts of the individual. And that’s what Schema therapy is about. It’s about digging underneath to get to the deeper layers of experience and try to meet those needs.

Andy: I love what you just said. And you were talking about the way that you are not soft on narcissists. You can compartmentalize and be tough on one part of a person, but in an empathetic way. I think sometimes this thing happens in adolescents where teenagers start to rebel and they start to treat their parents with less respect. I wonder if you can do something similar to that, right? I love you. What you just said to me is not okay, right? How can we use a similar thing like that to come out with empathy when a teen is acting disrespectful to us?

Wendy: Yeah. Well, again, if you look at the personality of any human, including your own child, your own teenager as having many dimensions. None of us are just one monolithic, one dimensional personality. We have many dimensions to our personalities. And if you see that there are dimensions that are sometimes unruly and nasty, there are parts that can be angry and I’m not talking about a multiple personality. I’m talking about just being human.

Wendy: We have many dimensions, so I can take the narcissistic part of someone and look at square in the eye and say, “That part of you was just so annoying and frustrating. Why do you do that? It’s such a bad representation of what I think you’re trying to say.” And I’ve said this to teens, I’ll say, “I think you have something really important to tell me and I’d love to hear it. But when that other part of you becomes the spokesperson, it’s really hard to hear what the hell you’re trying to say. It just gets all messed up. So maybe you could ask that part of you to just step outside, get out of the way we could just have a conversation about what it is that’s upsetting you.”

Wendy: When you talk in parts, because different parts of our personality emerge for different reasons, because experience and memory drives the bus. And so, adolescents get triggered. First of all, they hear everything louder because of what’s happening in the brain. And things become more intensified and dramatic, the way they process information because of what’s happening in the brain. And so, I’m not saying they shouldn’t be held responsible for the behaviors because we have to teach them, but we also can be sympathetic to some degree, to the struggle that’s taking place with all that chaos inside.

Wendy: And if you can hold that in front of you, then it allows you to not A, feel like the bad guy, if you have to insert a consequence. And you don’t have to look at it as all bad or all good. So we can get away from these very dichotomous ways of looking at our kids. And instead see that there’s a struggle going on inside. But at the same time, make sure that we’re holding them accountable for words and actions and behaviors that are not acceptable. Just put it in the form of a part. That part of you, not all of you, but that part of you.

Andy: And that answers a question that I was, in my mind earlier. And we touched on it briefly, which is, how we can maintain that unconditional love for our teen, but still tell them, “Hey, that’s not okay.” Right? Or you need to step it up in this area or whatever. Right? So unconditional love doesn’t necessarily mean everything you do is completely okay with me.

Wendy: Oh God, no, no, no. Because then you’re going to create the other type of narcissist, which is the very spoiled, dependent kind of classic type, peer entitlement we call it. No, no, no. It’s really the messages, it’s not your fault. Right? But it is your responsibility. So it’s not your fault that you have this part of you, but it’s your responsibility to figure out how to manage it. And I’ll help you if you’ll let me, but it’s your job to be accountable for that part. So there’s no blame, there’s no shame, but there is responsibility. And that’s the same message I say to my adult, narcissistic clients. I say, “Look, I’m not blaming you. This isn’t your fault. You learned this. This is a part of your personality. It’s been constructed for a reason. Part of it might be biologic. Part of it is because of your reactions to early experiences and it’s become a habit, but it’s your job to figure out with my help, how to manage this.” Right? “How to reduce the intensity of this, how to reduce the frequency of this because it’s hurting your relationships.”

Andy: And I like that you’re removing the blame. This is so huge with teenagers, especially, I feel like we tend to take things personally in adolescence, right? And there has to be a way to be able to say, and I love you keep using this phrase, “It’s not your fault.” They still need to be able to take responsibility for it, as you say, but removing the blame or the fault I think is so powerful. It lets us maintain that unconditional love, but still tell them, “Hey, you need to step it up in this area, that wasn’t okay.”

Wendy: Yeah. It’s a very complicated irony because on the one hand, adolescents and narcissists, and they become almost interchangeable terms at times, because when I’m working with narcissistic adults, I see those parts of them that are narcissistic as a throwback to times in their lives when they were teens, where there was a lot of pressure and maybe it wasn’t handled as well as it could have been. And even earlier in their lives before the teen years. But being able to say, it’s not your fault. There’s no bad guy. The weird irony is narcissists, like teens, want to be off the hook. Just let me off the hook. I don’t want to be the bad guy. It’s not my fault. I didn’t do it, defensiveness, justification.

Wendy: And when we can help them to see that, look, I’m not blaming you, but I am saying that it’s your responsibility to manage that part of yourself. It’s a part of you, just like there’s other parts. There’s a part of you that’s very musical. There’s a part of you. This very playful. There’s a part of you that can be intellectual at times and, and thoughtful or poetic. And then there’s a part of you that is just sometimes looking for the fight, feeling like you have to defend at every corner. And that’s another part of you and it’s not wrong to stand up for yourself. It’s the way you do it when you’re in that mode, it’s untenable and it hurts people. I don’t think that’s your intention.

Wendy: So I’ll also say, I don’t think it was your intention, which is the benefit of the doubt when we’re doing empathic confrontation. I say, “I don’t think it was your intention to be hurtful, but the bottom line is still hurts. As my colleague always says, “Whether you get hit in the head with the bat, because somebody went to strike you or they did it by accident, it still hurts.”

Andy: Right. So you just used the phrase, empathic confrontation.

Wendy: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a strategy in Schema therapy. It means, I understand, but, right? I get that you were raised with the idea that you’re allowed to do whatever you want, whenever you want as long as you met certain demanding high standards and you did that. You were smart, you achieved and so, therefore you’re allowed to break the rules, make the rules and you don’t have to think about other people’s feelings. I get it. You were taught that, those were the messages you carry forward. So it’s not your fault, that things just come flying out of your mouth the way they do, but it’s not okay. This is why you’re having problems. This is why your relationships aren’t working. This is why you’re lonely.

Wendy: So it’s your job to figure out or let me help you figure out how to fix that, how to change that because it can be changed. That’s empathic confrontation. It’s, I get it. I can help you. We can make sense out of why you do this. And that’s empathy, making sense out of something, trying to feel it resonate in our bones. So it makes sense. But, and then we confront it and the confrontation may be a setting limit. The confrontation may be just pointing out that it’s hurtful or that maybe the goal that’s intended is completely not achieved.

Wendy: You get narcissists go into a room and they feel immediately like they have to turn the switch on to be the performers. They have to be funny. They have to tell stories. They have to enlighten, they have to entertain. And so, they go into this entertaining mode, which is kind of funny for a little while because they can be very clever. But then after 10 minutes where it’s all about them and they don’t even ask a single question about you, you can’t wait to get rid of them.

Wendy: So the self perpetuating issue there that we talk about in Schema therapy, is you went into that room so you could feel accepted and you actually perpetuated the very thing you were trying to avoid. You turned people off because you went into that mode again, where you’re performing instead of just being …

About Wendy Behary

Wendy Behary is the founder and director of The Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and she is also the co-director (with Dr. Jeffrey Young) of The New Jersey-New York City Schema Therapy Institutes. She has been treating clients, training professionals and supervising psychotherapists for more than 20 years.

Wendy is a Founding Fellow and consulting supervisor for The Academy of Cognitive Therapy and she served as President of the Executive Board of the International Society of Schema Therapy (ISST) from 2010-2014, where she currently chairs the Brainstorming Sub-Committee.

Disarming the Narcissist, widely considered to be one of the foremost texts on narcissism, has been translated into 10 languages and has received significant praise from the academic community.

As an author and an expert on the subject of narcissism, Wendy lectures both nationally and internationally to professional and general audiences on schema therapy, narcissism, relationships, anger, and dealing with difficult people.

Her private practice is primarily devoted to narcissism, parenting issues, and relationship problems. She is also an expert at coaching individuals in interviewing, public speaking, and other interpersonal skills. Visit Wendy’s website here.