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A spoiled child (spelt "spoilt" in British English), also known as a spoiled "brat" in a derogatory way, is a child or adolescent that exhibits behavioral problems from overindulgence by his or her parents. Children and teens who are perceived as spoiled may be described as "overindulged", "grandiose", "narcissistic" or "egocentric-regressed". There is no accepted scientific definition of what "spoiled" means, and professionals are often unwilling to use the label because it is considered vague and derogatory. Being spoiled is not recognized as a mental disorder in any of the medical manuals, such as the ICD-10 or the DSM-IV, neither is it part of the proposed revision of this manual, the DSM-5.
In 1989, Bruce McIntosh coined the term the "spoiled child syndrome". The syndrome is characterized by "excessive, self-centered, and immature behavior". It includes lack of consideration for other people, recurrent temper tantrums, an inability to handle the delay of gratification, demands for having one's own way, obstructiveness, and manipulation. McIntosh attributed the syndrome to "the failure of parents to enforce consistent, age-appropriate limits", but others, such as Aylward, note that temperament is probably a contributory factor.It is important to note that the temper tantrums are recurrent. McIntosh observes that "many of the problem behaviors that cause parental concern are unrelated to spoiling as properly understood". Children may have occasional temper tantrums without them falling under the umbrella of "spoiled". Extreme cases of spoiled child syndrome, in contrast, will involve frequent temper tantrums, physical aggression, defiance, destructive behavior, and refusal to comply with even the simple demands of daily living.
Children with underlying medical or mental health problems may exhibit some of the symptoms. Speech or hearing disorders, and attention deficit disorder, may lead to children's failing to understand the limits set by parents. Children who have recently experienced a stressful event, such as the separation of the parents or the birth or death of a close family relative, may also exhibit some or all of the symptoms. Children of parents who themselves have psychiatric disorders may manifest some of the symptoms, because the parents behave erratically, sometimes failing to perceive their children's behavior correctly, and thus fail to properly or consistently define limits of normal behavior for them.
Physicians can counsel parents in the proper ways to deal with their children to prevent spoiling as follows: Up to the age of six months, a parent need not worry that comforting a crying child will result in spoiling, but after that time they should encourage children to comfort themselves, lest they begin to associate crying with a ritual. Parents should prepare themselves for children's being obstructive and attempting to test limits between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, should set firm and clear limits, should provide choices for children during stand-offs, and should not become aggravated or feel guilty about doing these. They should also be aware that verbal pleading does not work at those ages, since children do not develop the concept of (adult) morality until they are around 6 or 7 years old.
Treatment by a physician involves assessing parental competence, and whether the parents set limits correctly and consistently. Physicians should rule out dysfunction in the family, referring dysfunctional families for family therapy and dysfunctional parents for parenting skills training, and counsel parents in methods for modifying their child's behavior.
In early infancy, a baby seeks food, contact, and comfort by crying. This behavior should be viewed as a distress signal indicating that some biological need is not being met. Although parents sometimes worry about spoiling their children by giving them too much attention, specialists in child development maintain that babies cannot be spoiled in the first six months of life. During the first year, children are developing a sense of basic trust and attachment. In general, the more attention and care they receive from their parents, the better.
Alfred Adler (1870–1937) believed that "only children" were likely to experience a variety of problems from their situation. Adler theorized that because only children have no rivals for their parents' affection, they will become pampered and spoiled, particularly by the mother. He suggested that this could later cause interpersonal difficulties if the person is not universally liked and admired.
A 1987 quantitative review of 141 studies on 16 different personality traits contradicted Adler's theory. This research found no evidence of any "spoilage" or other pattern of maladjustment in only children. The major finding was that only children are not very different from children with siblings. The main exception to this was the finding that only children are generally higher in achievement motivation. A second analysis revealed that only children, first-borns, and children with only one sibling score higher on tests of verbal ability than later-borns and children with multiple siblings.
Spoiling in early childhood tends to create characteristic reactions that persist, fixed, into later life. These can cause significant social problems. Spoiled children may have difficulty coping with situations such as teachers scolding them or refusing to grant extensions on homework assignments, playmates refusing to allow them to play with their toys and playmates refusing playdates with them, a loss in friends, failure in employment, and failure with personal relationships. As adults, spoiled children may experience problems with anger management, professionalism, and personal relationships.