My son is selfish and he won’t change – what can I do?

I sometimes believe that my son is selfish, inconsiderate and inflexible. I think he should change – but he won’t – so I believe he’s stubborn too.

These judgements of my son have been coming up lately, so I’ve been motivated to investigate what’s going on. I’ve had some interesting realisations and a big shift in how I see him. What seemed to be a problem has now mostly dissolved.

If you find yourself struggling with your child or stressed out about an aspect of their personality and you’d like to find a peaceful solution, then maybe my story will help.

Many people believe that we shape our children through the way we bring them up. If your children are kind, considerate and easy-going it’s easy to take the credit when you believe it’s because of you and your great parenting. Of course, there’s another side of that coin. On the flip side, many people will point the finger and blame the parent if a child has less desirable qualities. For many parents, self-blame can be a crippling burden.

In the past I’ve certainly believed that I was somehow responsible for my child’s personality. I tried very hard to figure out how I could influence or “fix” what I saw as undesirable traits. It’s endless and exhausting and it didn’t work.

What if you’ve done your utmost to model the sort of qualities and ways of relating that you admire? You’ve asked repeatedly for what you want. You’ve told your child how you feel when they refuse your requests or simply won’t compromise. You’ve practiced nonviolent communication, assertiveness and creative problem solving and yet they won’t budge. What then?

As all my efforts to change and fix my child’s personality have failed, it seems likely that it’s out of my control. I can accept that. After all, what’s the alternative to acceptance? A lifetime of trying harder, disappointments and self-judgements? No thanks.

Once I accept that I can’t change my child’s personality, there’s still another question. How do I live peacefully and happily with them until they do change or they are old enough to care for themselves? I honestly don’t want to live with the frustration, anger and discomfort I feel when I think of him as selfish and stubborn.

One part of the solution is creative problem solving. I’ve been practicing creative problem solving with my children for the last 15 years or so. When we’ve got a problem in our family we look for a solution that everyone is happy with or can at least accept. Nobody gets priority and everyone has a part to play in finding the solution. It’s been a wonderful skill to learn and practice and we’ve always found solutions. I’ve written an article about it here. I highly recommend it, but I have to say, the personality of the participants does influence its effectiveness. The child I’m talking about here has become increasingly unwilling to sit down and talk things through. Hence my frustration.

To give you an example, the main living area of our home has often been dominated by the activities of this child. The activities have changed over the years; Lego building, watching movies, playing video games and playing the piano have all had their turn. What hasn’t changed has been his determination to do what he wants, when and where he wants and for as long and loudly as he wants. His determination is fierce. This has generated conflict with other members of the family, including myself, when I want to watch television, read or have a conversation in the living room.

Over the years we have found various solutions to these conflicts. There’s been some informal time-share arrangements and reorganising of space that have been accepted solutions but the current issue has been unresolved until very recently. At the time of writing his desire is to play the piano, loudly, for up to 2 or 3 hours every day in the middle of our modestly sized home.

Lately, there has been no willingness on his part to negotiate, discuss or listen to my requests. Instead, the solution that has appeared has been my acceptance; I have accepted that my child will not agree with what I want and will not give up what they want.

Acceptance is not the same as giving up. This is an important distinction. If I complain or feel upset or powerless then it isn’t acceptance – it’s giving up or giving in – and that generally feels awful and breeds resentment. Acceptance feels good or neutral. It comes from digging within myself to find my own deepest truth.

These conflicts with my son have brought me an unexpected gift: I’ve stopped relying so much on my children for my own happiness. I’ve asked myself “What do I REALLY want?” and through searching for my deepest answer I’ve shifted my perspective on my child’s “selfishness”.

I love this quote from mindfulness writer Oli Doyle:

“The power of being surrounded by rigid, seemingly difficult people is that it prevents you from finding comfort and satisfaction in the outside world. These people will not change to suit your preferences. They will not listen to what you have to say, and if they do catch a word or two, there is zero chance they will act on it. This is nothing personal. It’s just that they are captivated by the stories in their heads.

They won’t change, so where will you look to find happiness? If it can’t be found outside, then you must look in the one place the mind most wants to avoid: within. The sooner we stop looking to others to provide us with a comfortable, satisfying life, the sooner we can start looking for the truth that hides within.”

Part of looking for this truth has been using the process of self-inquiry to question my thinking about the problems that have come up and my thoughts about my son. I’ve used the questions of The Work to investigate my thoughts. (You can find more about this process at www.thework.com or in my book Joyful Parenting).

Here’s and example of how I’ve done The Work on one of my thoughts about my son:

“He should be more considerate of what I want.”

Here’s my self-inquiry on that thought: (My answers to the questions are in italics)

1. Is that true? Yes.

2. Can you absolutely know it’s true? No. He’s just holding on to what he believes he wants. I can’t know that he shouldn’t do that.

3. How do you react when you believe this thought? I feel annoyed, frustrated and angry at him. I basically tell him that he isn’t good enough, he’s not meeting my expectations and that he should change. When I am angry at him I push him away and blame him for how upset I feel. I blame him for how I feel when I don’t get what I want. I sometimes also blame myself and believe that it may be my fault that he is not considerate. This just makes me feel worse.

4. Who would you be without this thought? If I dropped this thought about my son I would be accepting of him wanting what he wants with such determination. I’d feel peaceful around him rather than angry. I’d feel more open and loving towards him and more open-minded about possible ways I can get what I want.

I can see from this inquiry that I have been inconsiderate of my son. I’ve had a tantrum when I didn’t get what I wanted – and blamed and judged him instead of taking responsibility for my own feelings. If I really want peace of mind it’s time to drop my judgments and my own selfish and inflexible attitude towards my son. I’ve seen how this thought (He should be more considerate of what I want.) creates my painful feelings and the struggle between us. I’ve also seen how much clearer and more peaceful I feel without it.

The effect of this self-inquiry is a shift in my perspective. I no longer think of my son as inconsiderate or selfish.

This doesn’t mean I should stop asking for what I want. But it means I dig deeper than my superficial desires to see what I really want. I’m reminded that my happiness is not dependent on being able to read or watch TV in the living room whenever I want. Those ego-desires actually shift quite quickly once they are interrupted and another idea presents itself: maybe when my son insists on playing piano it’s time for a bit of mediation, writing or reading in another room? Once I let this idea settle in, I realise that my son’s discipline in pursuing his piano practice can be an inspiration for me rather than an obstacle. I could focus my time and attention on my own creative projects. There’s easily enough space in this home for us all to get things done and to do it happily. My noise-cancelling headphones are getting a lot of use too.

The key to dealing with this child who apparently won’t change or compromise is to notice every time I cling to what I believe I want, am determined, selfish or inflexible. As I notice my thoughts I can ask “Is that really true”? or “What do I really want?” and see what emerges.

Peace of mind and happiness come with an open mind, not from getting what I want on the level of ego-mind. To have an open mind is to be radically flexible and to consider new perspectives. It’s not about making sacrifices or being a martyr. I expect change in my own desires and even in the personality and habits of my children, but I have no idea of what those changes will be like or when they might happen. Peace of mind is the natural state of Being that is experienced when judgements dissolve space appears for fresh solutions and ideas to emerge.

I’m a parenting, unschooling and spiritual mentor and writer. I help parents live with their children without stress or struggle.