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Ungrateful teen at home? That can change

NEW YORK — Is there an ungrateful teenager living in your house?

Lisa Butler feels your pain. She started a Facebook group called UTIMH (Ungrateful Teenager In My House).

"Here's my Christmas list," is how Butler describes the typical teenager's response to the approach of the holidays.

"They have such a sense of entitlement," said Butler, a social worker who lives in Hartford, Conn., with her 16-year-old son. "They look at you as if you owe them."

Her group doesn't have a lot of members yet, but the few dozen who have joined make heartfelt comments about kids who won't help around the house, daughters who demand designer boots and sons who turn up their noses at delicious homemade meals.

"How do we change that, now that they are teenagers?" one mom wrote.

Michael Ungar, a family therapist from Nova Scotia, and author of The We Generation, says you can. Parents should require teens to make genuine, meaningful contributions to the family, and set consequences if they don't.

Put that teen in charge of making dinner one night a week, and don't bail him out if he doesn't do it. Or tell him if he wants a ride to his game, he has to walk the dog.

"You make my life a little easier, I'll make your life a little easier," Ungar said. "It's not about punishment. It's about honestly showing your child what it takes to make a household work or a society work."

Ungar says today's parents, from the "me" generation, "figure it's easier to go and do everything for the kids than to make them do it." He says we should be aiming to raise the "we" generation: kids who are thinking about others.

"All too often as parents, we don't ask enough of our kids," he said. "We don't hold the bar high enough. We infantilize our children."

Ungar said that when kids come home from school, "it's so easy to badger them with questions, lectures. Did you do your homework? Are you going to soccer?"

He says that sends a message that "you're just a dependent in this family. There's no real role for you other than someone who makes work for others."

Instead, he says, "Turn it around. Tell them about your day. Ask for advice. Ask them to fix the computer or to make you a cup of tea. Get them involved in making decisions about the next family vacation."

All that sounds more constructive than the notes left by desperate parents on Butler's Facebook page. "Yell real loud like you have lost your mind" was one mom's advice for dealing with rotten kids. Sit in the car for a "time-out for mommies" was another.

In addition to empowering our kids to make genuine contributions, we should help them experience and express gratitude. Jeffrey Froh, a professor of psychology at Hofstra University in New York, said studies show that adolescents who report feeling gratitude "are happier with their lives. They're more likely to help other people, to give emotional and social support, they report fewer physical symptoms, and they're more satisfied with their lives overall. They're more optimistic, less materialistic, less envious and less depressed."

In one study, middle-school students were asked to count their blessings for two weeks by listing as many as five things for which they were grateful.

"The kids who did that, as opposed to kids who focused on hassles, felt more gratitude, more life satisfaction, more optimism and were less negative. It's about making yourself aware that there's abundance out there," Froh said.

In another study, kids were asked to "think of someone who has done something really kind for you, but you never gave them the thanks they deserve." Kids were asked to write a thank-you letter and deliver it in person.

Children who were low in positive emotions reported feeling more gratitude and more positive emotions immediately after the experience, and they experience more positive emotions two months later, he said.

"It's not just something you do on Thanksgiving," Froh said. "Gratitude has got to be a daily thing. It's a mindset."