Q: My 12-year-old grandson has become obsessed with things he wants, including a cell phone (the most expensive, mind you), an iPad, and expensive designer jeans. He begs, throws tantrums, pouts, refuses to speak to his parents, and the like. When told not to say another word, he leaves them notes, draws pictures or comes to us or the other grandparents. These obsessions and his very manipulative behavior are a mystery because he's never been given an excess of material things. My daughter and her husband have addressed this with common-sense talk about greed, excess, obsessions and self-control. What should we do to solve this problem?
A: First, I feel obsessively compelled to point out that talking to a 12-year-old about greed, excess, obsessions and self-control is not an example of “common-sense talk.” These are not concepts that the average 12-year-old understands. An example of “common-sense talk” would be as follows: “We are not going to buy that for you, ever, no matter what you say or do. When you are older and are earning your own money, you can buy it for yourself.”
You would probably tell me that his parents have told him words to that effect and he continues to obsess and pester and pout and throw tantrums. Pardon me for speculating, but I have to believe that his parents have been less than unequivocal. My guess is they've occasionally (perhaps rarely) told him “No” in no uncertain terms, but then at other times they go on and on about greed, excess, and so on, trying to persuade him to accept their decision. If that's the case, then allow me to point out that your grandson (like all children) perceives persuasion as a weakness. He can simply refuse to be persuaded and, even though he doesn't get what he wants, he's “won” that round.
Even though obsessive thinking is often indicative of a psychological problem, I think you're describing a power struggle. Your grandson's parents need to stop participating. They need to make themselves perfectly clear, and accomplishing that is going to require some “drastic” measures on their part.
Drastic measures: When he's at school, his parents remove anything and everything from his room that isn't completely necessary, including favorite but unnecessary clothing. When he comes home from school, they sit down with him and inform him that he's going to live that way until his inappropriate requests, tantrums, pouting and the like have completely stopped for a continuous period of two weeks and that until that happens, he is also going to bed at 7 p.m.
This “conversation” should last no more than two minutes, during which they should stick to the following facts: (1) Your requests are inappropriate (I recommend that they present him with a list of those requests). (2) We're not going to buy you those things. (3) Because you obviously don't appreciate the things you already have, you are going to live without them until your inappropriate requests have stopped.
If, during the next two weeks, a request occurs, or he displays any of the manipulative, self-dramatic behaviors you listed, the two weeks begins anew. He should have his stuff back within six weeks. Those six weeks will be some of the most memorable weeks of his life. That is, after all, the point.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.