Buy It For Me NOW!
How to Cope When Your Child Wants to Buy Things All the Time
Written by Yvonne Newbold
It’s very tough for parents when their child has little or no understanding of money, and wants to buy new things all the time. If your child has very high levels of anxiety which can sometimes lead to difficult or dangerous behaviour that can become violent towards you and the rest of the family, this behaviour is both very common and can be very frightening.
It’s a very common issue - This is a topic that comes up again and again in the private Facebook Group we run, with parents sharing some very harrowing stories of how their children can react if they can’t get the go-ahead to buy what they want, or if, when it’s already been ordered online, the child can’t bear the wait until it arrives.
So, I thought it might be helpful for families in our community if I shared some thoughts. I’d also like to thank the members of our community who have passed on their own thoughts and suggestions, which I’ve endeavoured to include in this article.
Why do these behaviours happen?
As with any difficult issue, if you can understand what might be causing these behaviours, you’re often half-way to being able to being able to make things much easier for you, your child, and your whole family.
Why do some children and young people want to buy things so much?
The short answer is lots of different reasons. In reality, there are probably lots of reasons why this happens and those reasons may be different for each child, or for the same child who may have different reasons for wanting to buy things at different times.
Complex and deeply emotional.
There is probably something quite deeply emotional and complex going on with this and the more you can try to understand why it's happening, unpicking as much of the complexity as possible, the easier it will be to support your child or young person through this successfully.
Attachment to possessions.
Possessions can feel deeply emotional and it's easy for people - adults and children alike - to become attached and fixated on all sorts of things. When this happens about something we've seen and badly want, the urge to buy it can become quite overwhelming.
Shopping is fun!
We all know this. Why do we sometimes call shopping "retail therapy"? It's because buying things can make us feel good.
What else is going on?
With some of our children, there may be additional reasons why buying something can become all-consuming.
All behaviour is a form of communication.
What is your child trying to tell you when they are desperate to buy a particular new thing?
We buy things to cheer us up.
Within our culture is a very strong belief that "buying something" will cheer us up. Our children pick up on this too, and if they are feeling really low as many of them do, they may hope that buying something will make them happier. They may not even be aware that this is their thought-process; a lot of this may be being processed subconsciously. Of course, when that thing arrives, it's highly unlikely that any new possession will have such a profound effect as to change the mood and mindset of someone, and nor will it significantly increase levels of self-esteem.
Self-esteem is an important factor here. Low levels of self-esteem is very common in children with disabilities or additional needs, and particularly if they also have a tendency towards difficult and dangerous behaviour.
Self-esteem - Often a strong "need" to buy things is also strongly linked to poor levels of self-esteem. A child or young person who has set their heart on wanting to buy something may feel that in some way things like their mood or status or sense of well-being may be enhanced by owning it.
Self-esteem If their request to buy something is refused, it can also have a negative impact on their self-esteem. Saying no to a child’s desire to buy something can feel to the child that they, themselves, are being rejected. They may feel that they aren’t loved enough, aren’t valued enough or aren’t worthy enough to be allowed to buy it.
Children with ADHD often crave the stimulus of excitement that buying something can bring. It’s sometimes described as a “dopamine hit”, and some families have described this need to purchase new things as being a form of “self-medication”. It’s certainly often used as a coping strategy.
Autistic children and young people often have intense interests in a particular topic, and their need to buy is often strongly linked to buying something that is related to the topic that they are so interested in.
Children with PDA - For many children with extremely high anxiety levels, including those who have Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), wanting to buy things is often tied up with their sense of needing to be in control and of influencing all interactions.
Other reasons Sometimes the reasons that children want to buy new stuff is simply due to being bored, tired, hungry, or generally out-of-sorts. They may feel the need to feel a higher level of stimulation.
“Unboxing” videos are very popular with children and young people, and can increase their perceived “need” to own things that they’ve seen unboxed. These videos are very slick, carefully edited and use soundtracks and special effects to enhance their impact. Children or adults are filmed opening a newly delivered parcel, often a high-value toy or electronic gadget, with highly staged over-the-top enthusiasm and excitement as they “discover” what’s in the box. However, many children, particularly if they are neurodiverse, don’t realise this, and take what they see at face-value. This means that they expect to feel the same level of heightened excitement when they open their parcels too, and when they don’t there can be crushing disappointment to deal with as well.
Does it live up to expectations? So, despite the desperation of waiting for this new "whatever" to arrive in the post, when it arrives it can seem very disappointing.
So the cycle of buying continues - When a child is disappointed with their new purchase, they often assume that it’s because it wasn’t’ the right choice. So they can quickly re-focus on something else in the hope this time it might make them feel better. So the whole “I want to buy it now” cycle starts all over again. Which means that they are setting themselves up for yet more disappointment, either because their parents have to say no, or even if they do say yes, there is likely to be a similar sense of crushing disappointment that will be delivered alongside the parcel.
Buying as a coping strategy for loneliness - As well as low self-esteem, a lot of the children in our community struggle with friendships and relationships. Are they desperately wanting this item to help compensate for a lack of friends and social skills? We can all become incredibly attached to certain items, but some children can attach a very strong emotional bond to an inanimate object, and this is particularly true of many neurodiverse children and young people. So this “need-to-buy-now” can also be a coping-strategy to help soften the impact of repeatedly feeling rejecting, hurt and confused by the their peer group when their efforts to make friends are thwarted?
Feeling safe - An inanimate object can feel very safe. Unlike fellow humans, they don't answer back, they don't do anything unpredictable, they don't make you feel threatened or unsafe in any way. What's not to like, eh?
The impact of anxiety - Children with very high levels of anxiety often also have difficult or dangerous behaviour. Anxiety makes a child feel distressed, frightened, confused and unsafe. They are very likely to do whatever they can to try to feel safe again. Feeling safe is the opposite of feeling anxious. Sometimes the coping strategies that they adopt to try to feel safe again are behaving in difficult and dangerous ways, and one of these difficult behaviours may be to become very emotionally invested in buying a particular item.
Are they problem solving to meet their own needs? So, if your child is very insistent on buying something, it could be that they are trying to do their own problem-solving, perhaps by trying to fulfil a deep-seated need this is causing distress because it’s not being met. Perhaps their longing for this item is an attempt to feel happier and safer in the world around them, and in so doing, perhaps they are trying to find ways to reduce their own anxiety levels.
How does all this pressure to continually buy things make you feel?
Chances are that your heart sinks every time your child wants to buy something. You’ll have been there hundreds of times before, and you know that these intense feelings of wanting to buy something are going to escalate and are likely to get out of control. You know that you’re unlikely to hear about anything else because your child thinks they need it so much. It’s draining, exhausting, depressing and it can be very frightening if previous similar episodes have led to extreme episodes of behaviour where family members may get hurt.
You may feel utterly helpless in knowing how to redirect your child and stop them talking about it incessantly. You know where this is likely to be heading, and it’s not looking good. Feeling helpless, powerless, desperate, panicky, angry, frightened and a thousand and one other things is perfectly valid and understandable.
You may feel very negative towards your child as well when it happens. That’s perfectly understandable too, particularly if this is happening very frequently.
Averting a crisis If your child has a tendency towards violence when they are emotionally heightened, you may also be desperately working out a way to giving in and buying this much wanted item to avert a crisis where someone might get hurt. If that’s the case, you may also be having very mixed feelings about whether or not you’re doing the right thing, and possibly even anger and resentment that you feel you’re being pushed into this against your will.
Guilt for buying it That can also feel into very painful feelings of guilt, especially if you have more than one child, and your other children aren’t making these sorts of demands on you.
Guilt for not buying it - Conversely, you may also be feeling guilty because you simply can’t afford It and you can see how much your child wants it. Most parents want to be able to see their children be happy, and not being able to buy them something that they want can be very painful and lead to feelings of failure.
Guilt about being fair – if you have more than one child, it’s not fair to spend money on something that one child wants, without evening things up and spending a similar amount on all their brothers and sisters. Realistically though, that can be prohibitively expensive and it’s simply not always going to be possible, which can then lead to other issues, and make you feel very guilty.
Acknowledge your own feelings - Whatever you’re feeling, it can really help if you can capture those feelings and acknowledge them. The more aware you are of how this very difficult “buy it now” type of behaviour is impacting your own emotional well-being, the better you’ll be able to respond to your child in a way that is less likely to make things worse.
Losing control - Of course, it can be very tempting to just do whatever you can to try to stop a child’s incessant pleading and bargaining, but sometimes, even with the best will in the world, a parent can lose control and snap at their child in anger or fear. When this happens, as we all know, it can quickly escalate an already difficult situation and make it even harder to find a way through it.
How does it make you feel? By understanding which of your emotions have been triggered by this behaviour and why, you’ll have a much better chance of staying in control and handling things better. Give yourself time and space whenever you can to think through these difficult issues.
Sometimes it may go wrong - It’s not always easy, particularly in the heat of the moment when all you’re hearing is your child asking to spend money again and again. Of course, sometimes you’ll be triggered, and that can mean that you react in way that later on you wish you hadn’t.
Please don’t beat yourself up when you do get it wrong. Being a parent is incredibly hard at times, and being a parent to a child with severe anxiety which leads to difficult behaviour is even harder. Cut yourself some slack. Be kind to yourself and remember that it’s the times when it went wrong or where we handled things badly that we learn the best and the most valuable lessons.
Lots of parents also worry about their child’s future, and how they’ll cope in adulthood if this impulsive spending isn’t curbed. Please know that things really can and do get better, and there are dozens of strategies that you can use to help your child to develop a better understanding of the value of money, as well as helping them to become more realistic in their spending choices.
However, there are no overnight fixes. This is a long game, which will take time, patience, realistic. Welcome the great opportunities that this situation is presenting to connect with your child and strengthen your relationship.
Remember that none of this is your fault, and it’s not your child’s fault either. You both rock.
So, what can you do to help?
- Finding what works best for you Every child is different, as is every reason to want to buy something. You know your child better than anyone else. Not every one of the following ideas will help with every child every time, but hopefully there are enough suggestions that they’ll be some things that you can try. It’s about working with your child and what you know and what you’re still learning about them, to find the best ways to support your child to develop a more sustainable relationship with money and buying things. What works in one family may look entirely different to how another family moved things forward. With some thought, planning, being creative and experimenting with different ways of doing things, you’ll find the right way to help your child too. It might not always be easy, but it’s definitely worth it.
- Keep asking yourself questions. Keep thinking about what this particular item might mean to your child, and in what way might they think that this could help them feel happier and safer?
- Acknowledge your child's intense feelings of wanting whatever this is. Validate their feelings, let them know you understand how tough it can be to want something so incredibly badly. Be empathetic and understanding, even if whatever they want so much seems trivial and inconsequential to you. It's enormous to them and it's dominating their thoughts. Minimising it or dismissing it in any way can sometimes be interpreted by the child that you are dismissing or rejecting them as well.
- Reassure, reassure, and reassure some more. Do whatever you can to help your child feel safer.
- Introduce wish lists. You can make your own, or if you have an Amazon account, some families have very successfully encouraged their children to use the Amazon Wish List function to add all their "must-have" items to. It's acknowledging and validating their feelings. You can also use the Amazon wish list to gradually introduce some thinking time to ensure that this really is the item that they want over a consistent length of time. Sometimes, when families have successfully introduced this wish-list concept, a few days later the “must-have” item has been almost forgotten, and replaced with something else.
- Talk about previous "must-haves" they have desperately wanted. Are they still treasured possessions? Gently explore with them how they felt when it arrived, do they still love it, or have they gone off it, and if so when did that happen and why? Encourage them to think about these issues and let them take the lead, but you may be able to use some of these previous experiences to help them to be able to manage these intense feels of "I-must-have-this-thing-now" much more effectively.
- Take a photo of the item for your child to be able to access whenever they need to. Maybe print it out so they can carry it with them. For many children with an additional need or a disability, they can panic if they can't see something that is very important to them. By taking a photo so that they can look at it whenever they want, you are acknowledging their strong feelings towards this item, and helping them to feel that they have been heard and validated. This is enormously beneficial to their general well-being, but especially in terms of their self-esteem.
- Feeling loved and valued We talked earlier about how this impulsive spending can be strongly linked to self-esteem. Sometimes, there may well be an element of using this as a way of proving to themselves that they are loved and valued. What other ways can you find to help your child know how loved they are? For some children, they may not always understand the emotions that kind words and actions carry and instead, they may seek to “see” physical proof of their importance in the world. This could be an area you need to work on with your child, which might entail lots of chats to find out how they view things and to explain how acquiring multiple material possessions isn’t the best way to feel good about yourself.
- When it’s on its way You can also take photos of items that have been ordered and are already on their way. For some children, the intense waiting time is simply too much to handle. Having a photo of it to look at can make it feel more real and concrete.
- Coping with “buyer’s remorse” Find ways to talk about these issues too. Could “buyer’s remorse” be a good way of describing your child’s feelings between that exciting moment of buying something and the moment, sometimes several days or even weeks later, when it actually arrives. Do they want to keep it or send it back if it’s disappointing?
- It’s exhausting! Maybe, maintaining that sense of anticipation before it actually arrives is exhausting. That moment of satisfaction with a new purchase just takes too long to happen, so that the item itself has lost its shine by the time it gets delivered.
- Connecting with the wider world - Could there be an element for your child of wanting to connect with the wider world in making a purchase, knowing that a whole team of people from warehouse packers, to parcel sorters, lorry drivers and postmen are working together to bring something special to their house for them? Could there even be a little bit of a sense of power for a child who largely feels powerless in the world around them, that all these people are working to bring it to them?
- The whole ritual of online shopping, from the pressing of the “buy now” button on screen, to the postman knocking on the door with a parcel that maybe actually has the child’s name on, is a very exciting process, and also very successful at helping a disempowered child feel important. Could some of this need be fulfilled by asking friends and family members to occasionally send your child a card through the post? Or maybe let your child write themselves a letter and post it back to themselves?
- Value of money - For many children in our community, understanding the value of money is something that they will really struggle with. It's even harder now that we use credit and debit cards so much. A few years ago, when using cash to buy things was the norm, at least you could see that they money in a purse was reducing as you spent it. On plastic cards, there is nothing to see, and the abstract concept of the card representing the amount of money in a bank account is meaningless for many children.
- Support needed This group of children will need much more support over a very long period of time to grasp the concept of money, financial management and budgetary planning. Some children will never grasp it.
- Protect your card details - Protect yourself by ensuring that card details are not held on any device that your child uses. Ensure that your bank cards are not accessible either. A child who desperately wants to buy things who also doesn't have a good grasp of how money is finite, is simply not going to be able to resist the temptation of spending, if it's easy for them to access your card or your card details. Hundred of pounds can be spent online in the blink of an eye, with devastating consequences for family finances. Make sure this can't happen in your house.
- Reduce anxiety levels - Always seek out ways to help your child reduce their overall anxiety levels. If they are behaving in very difficult, dangerous of violent ways, instead of thinking "How do I make my child behave?", it can be much more productive to think "How can I help my child to feel safer and happier?"
- Explain about marketing, and how companies are very clever at persuading people to buy things that they might not really need. Point out how websites or shops might use colours in packaging or in the way something is presented to make it look incredibly attractive. Point out any words that are encouraging a sense of urgency. Depending on your child's age and developmental stage, you might be able to help them to understand that they are being manipulated into spending money. Anxious children are likely to be outraged by this idea! They often have a very strong need to be in control so that their world feels safer, and if they think they've been tricked into wanting something they won't be happy! This alone can turn things around for some children who will never want to make an impulse purchase again!
- Connect with your child whenever possible - When things happen where that makes you feel that you’re out of your depth, or when things are really annoying and irritating, it’s only human nature to want to disengage and withdraw from the situation. This can mean that you are doing everything you can to tune out your child’s incessant demands to spend money, or to shut down the conversations in ways that can make things worse rather than better. However, if you can change the way you look at this issue so that every time it happens you use it to learn a little bit more about why your child is behaving like this, or to help them to understand a little bit more about money, or to help them extend their ability to wait a few more days before definitely deciding that this is really what they want, it can make a big difference over a period of time. Every time you have a conversation with your child, you have the potential to increase your connection with them, building trust, letting them know that they are valued and loved, and that you have time for them.
- Be creative in finding ways to help your child develop a better sense of the value of money. Over time they can begin to understand that there is never enough money to buy everything we want, but with careful thought and planning we can use money wisely to make it last longer, go further, and to make sure we can buy what we really need. You can turn things into age and developmentally appropriate games and have fun with it. See who can find the most coins down the back of sofas or in hidden corners on bedroom floors. Encourage them to save any money or loose change in a box and help them to count it. How much more do they need to buy whatever it is that they want so badly? How can they reach their goal of having enough money? Can they do any jobs to earn towards it? Have they got a birthday coming up soon and if so, are they likely to get any birthday money? Have they got any old unwanted toys that they could sell? These sorts of conversations can help them to develop their own thinking about money, and gradually all this support from you can help to shift their attitude to money.
- Modelling is one of the most effective ways of helping children to learn about how to do things well. You can involve them in any shopping you do, from one-off online purchases to the weekly family food shop. When you order online, maybe take a photo of what it is that’s on it’s way to your house, and let your child see you looking at it in the days leading up to the delivery. You can talk about how hard it is to wait, wondering how long it will take to arrive, and talking about all the people in the delivery chain that make it all happen. Let them help you unwrap it, and maybe even talk to them about whether it was worth the money. Should you keep it or send it back? What else could you buy with that money if you did send it back? All this modelling can really help to normalise the range of feelings that can be experienced by buying something, as well as giving you and your child lots of time to explore some of these feelings together.
- Visuals can really help. We talked earlier about how taking a photo of the much-wanted item can help, but many children struggle with the concept of time, and the idea that things are happening that they can’t actually see. So a visual timetable with each of the days on it between ordering and expected delivery date, with pictures or words of what is due to happen on each of those days. Look at pictures or websites which show what the people in the delivery chain look like, and think where the parcel in likely to be in that delivery chain. Tracking a parcel can help too.
None of this is easy, but it is possible. You know your child better than anyone and you have the best chance of working out exactly what might be behind your child’s behaviour in wanting to spend so often. At Newbold Hope our tagline is “Stay Curious, Be Kind” and this is exactly what informs the whole Newbold Hope Approach. When you stay curious, it means you keep asking all the “why” questions, which enables you to keep an open mind. It’s almost impossible to become judgemental when your mind stays open to the whole range of possibilities and you keep asking yourself questions and keep yearning to find out more.
Keep going and never give up. Things really can and do get better and wishing you all the luck in the world that things soon improve for your and your child.