The Pull to Overindulge Traumatized Children

Unhappy little african american kid  showing negative emotion. Child trouble concept.

Sometimes when a caregiver is raising a child they know has been traumatized, those parents can feel a strong pull to try to compensate for the stress and pain the child has experienced, sometimes resulting in overindulging that child.

The reasons for such overindulgence make sense: those raising a traumatized child may feel a strong sense of guilt if they had any part in what caused the trauma to occur. Sometimes grandparents raise children because the parents are unable to. Or for grandparents taking custody, and aware that the children are abused and/or neglected at the hands of their own parents, may make them feel they somehow have to make up for the pain their own children have caused their grandchildren. Those who adopt or foster know that a child may have some kind of trauma history.

Witnessing Trauma word cloud on a white background.

Realizing the pain the children have experienced may overshadow the judgment of setting good limits and boundaries. Sometimes these parents want the children to feel loved by giving them material things or allowing them to break roles with little or no consequences or by doing things for these children they could do for themselves.

In general, “Overindulging children is giving them too much of what looks good, too soon, too long. It is giving them things or experiences that are not appropriate for their age or their interests and talents. It is the process of giving things to children to meet the adult’s needs, not the child’s…Overindulgence is doing or having so much of something that it does active harm, or at least prevents a person from developing and deprives that person of achieving his or her full potential.” [Clarke, Dawson & Bredehoft, 2014, How Much is Too Much? p. 5].

Most children seem programmed to ask for more than they have received, even though what they have may be adequate. When children have been traumatized, once they realize their caregivers have a soft spot for overindulging them, they can become quite artful in begging, pleading and negotiating for things.

“Overindulgence is a form of child neglect. It hinders children from performing their needed developmental tasks, and from learning necessary life lessons” (Clarke, Dawson & Bredehoft, 2014, How Much is Too Much? p. 5).

According to the blog entitled What is Childhood Overindulgence, “Overindulgence comes from a good heart. Deep down, these parents want the best for their children. They want them to grow up to be happy, healthy, competent adults.”

When caregivers are primed to overindulge because they are compensating for the losses the traumatized child has experienced, their overindulgence is from an even bigger heart and is often an attempt to create a family life where there is happiness and joy abounding. That usually is the initial motivation for overindulging.

The problem is that when given too much, children can quickly lose their abilities to value what has been given to them. They haven’t experienced the idea of receiving enough and having their wishes appropriately limited so that after a while it is harder and harder for them to feel satisfied with what they have been receiving.

In their research, Clarke, Dawson & Bredehoft found three types of overindulgence. They state that overindulgence can occur in one, two, or all three of these ways simultaneously:

▪ Too Much (toys, clothes, privileges, entertainment, sports, camps, etc.)

• Over-nurture (over-loving, giving too much attention, doing things for children that they should be doing for themselves, etc.), and

▪ Soft Structure (not requiring chores, not having rules, not enforcing rules you do have, or not expecting children to learn skills, etc.).

There are many risks involved with overindulging children. The website shares 12 risks that children, whether traumatized or not, can experience as a result of being overindulged. For the traumatized child, who has deeper emotional wounding that is often around betrayed trust, abuse or neglect, deficits in healthy attachment and an environment lacking safety, any of these can be experienced at an even deeper level.

12 Risks of Overindulging h

1. Center of the universe syndrome: A child should understand early on that the world will not solely focus on them.

2. Disrespectful attitude: Having disrespect for one’s own things easily leads to disrespect for other people’s things.

3. Helplessness: Doing for children what they should be learning to do themselves takes away the opportunity for them to learn how to be competent.

4. Confusing wants and needs: Young children can’t tell the difference between wants and needs and have to be carefully taught.

5. Overblown sense of entitlement: Adults who were overindulged as children often feel that they are entitled to more of everything and that they deserve more than others.

6. Irresponsibility: Constantly protecting children from experiencing the consequences of their actions and not holding them accountable for completing tasks leads to irresponsibility.

7. Ungratefulness: Soft structure in the home can lead to individuals being less likely to be grateful for things and to others.

8. Poor self-control: Parents need to insist that the child learn self-management skills.

9. Relationship problems: Issues that result from overindulgence—such as poor conflict-resolution skills and expectation of immediate gratification—spill over into all other relationship forms, from friends, to family, to workplace.

10. Materialistic values and unhappiness: Children who were overindulged as children are more likely to develop materialistic values in adulthood (selfish and greedy) and grow up to be more unhappy.

11. Personal goals distortion: Studies show that the more an individual was overindulged as a child, the more likely it is that their personal life goals are externally motivated—fame, fortune, vanity—as opposed to internal aspirations such as developing character and cultivating meaningful relationships.

12. Spiritual involvement: Overindulged children are more likely to become adults who are not interested in spiritual growth, have difficulties finding meaning in times of hardship, and are less apt to develop a personal relationship with a power greater than themselves.”

Wooden Blocks with the text: Trauma

No parent or caregiver would ever want a child to experience any of these potential outcomes of being overindulged. In some ways it is even more tragic for the traumatized child to experience overindulgence. It is as if the over caring, overprotective, over giving caregivers, despite their desire to just shower the child with love, are actually adding to the child’s losses. All children, and especially traumatized children, benefit from environments that are nurturing but also have good structure and boundaries, where they are not overindulged.

The following are some important tips that parents and caregivers of traumatized children might benefit from embracing:

Tips for avoiding overindulgence:

  • Insist that your child cares for her belongings and to respect another person’s property.
  • Create enough free time for your child, away from TV and/or devices, for him to learn to entertain himself.
  • Allow your child to do what she is old enough to do for herself most of the time.
  • Have some clear rules and insist that children follow them.
  • Make sure that children do some household chores that benefit the whole family.

Be aware of the potential pull to overindulge a traumatized child. Recognize some of the ways that happens. Recognize the negative outcomes of overindulgence. Insist they give back to the family to help with their developmental tasks. Continue to nurture and guide. In these ways, caregivers can better insure that the traumatized children they are raising has limits. It can feel easier to overindulge but in the long run, it is not a kindness or genuine expression of love to do so. Instead provide an environment that balances receiving with structure, limits and rules that promote healthy growth and responsibility.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you are raising or in some way caring for a child you know has been traumatized, do you recognize some of the ways you might be pulled to overindulge that child? What are some specific ways you may have done that or perhaps are currently doing that?
  2. How clear is it now about the importance of learning what overindulgence is about, why it can be very negative in the long run and why it is important to provide loving limits, rules and expectations around being responsible?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute