Dear Dr. Michelle:
My 12-year-old son is insatiable about wanting things. He has so many interests, he wants everything, and he asks for items nonstop. No matter how many times we talk about this, he continues to want, want, want. This level of want doesn’t seem normal. I worry about his ability to control himself and how it will affect him when he is older. What can I do to reign this in?
I commend you for evaluating the potential long-term effects of your son’s behavior and your desire to curb his appetite for material things. It is important to help children establish good decision-making abilities when they are young so that they can carry positive habits with them into adulthood.
Often, problems with insatiability can be associated with the experience and ease of having things in one’s life. When the ability to obtain material possessions is easier to achieve, it can potentially reinforce the desire to want more. A situation like this requires intentional parenting, meaning that you will need to take deliberate and active steps to teach your son how to manage his desires.
Insatiability is part personality, which you cannot control, and part environment, which you do have control over. To address this concern, exert control where it is possible.
Be A Good Role Model
Role modeling is extremely important when it comes to insatiability. Evaluate habits and the behavior your son may be observing in you or other adults. The more he notices others acquiring things they want, the harder it will be to teach him to control his own desires. Review your habits and your own level of insatiability. Are you practicing patience in the things you desire? What will you need to change to teach your son to think and behave differently? In other words, make sure you are practicing the good habits you are trying to teach.
To take direct control over the environment, you will want to make it harder for your son to acquire things. For example, if you are purchasing toys and items for him outside of holidays or birthday, begin to refrain from buying these items. Instead, start to teach him the value of money or rather, the work it requires to earn and save money and how quickly it gets depleted when you spend it.
Involve Your Child in Purchase Decisions
Involve your son in identifying how he can earn money, save money, and then use his own money to buy the things he wants. Not only will this expectation teach him how much things cost, it will put more space between his purchases, which will teach him patience. More importantly, it will teach him that life is still okay and enjoyable even when he does not get what he wants, when he wants it.
If your son struggles with waiting between purchases, empathize with his situation. You can say things like, “I understand how much you want that, and you only need X more dollars to buy it. Keep up the good work in saving your money and eventually you will be able to get it.”
You could further give him an example of something you really want, and reinforce the steps you are taking to wait by saying something like, “I also really want X right now but it is going to take me X more weeks to save the money. Even though I cannot afford it right now, that's okay because I have a lot of other things in my life that I can enjoy now.” This will help your son understand that he isn’t the only one that must wait to buy things. Commiserating with him will help him learn that even adults need to manage their desires.
Another important step is to teach your son the difference between wants and needs. When your son mentions something he desires to have, help him talk through which category it falls under – want or need. Avoid shaming your son for wanting things. Your goal is to have him understand the difference and to be comfortable being honest about his wants. Use empathy saying something like, “I can really understand why you want that game. It would be fun to play it and it would be a nice part of your collection. Let’s talk about how you could earn some money to save up so you can buy it if that is how you want to spend your money.”
To further help your son learn these concepts, when you are buying items for yourself, vocalize whether your purchases are wants or needs and talk about how you earned and saved your money to make the purchase.
These practices are about setting up new habits that become a permanent part of you and your son’s life. Practices such as these take shape and develop over several years. They are good habits for the entire family and being diligent will reinforce your son’s ability to carry them into adulthood.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
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