How Not to Raise a Narcissist
If this topic raises your eyebrows, I assure you I thought twice before writing this. No one wants to have children who grow up to have narcissism or an air of superiority. Yet, somehow it is happening. Children between the ages of 7 and 11 begin to develop their self-esteem through evaluations of themselves and others and attitudes of narcissism can begin to sprout right under our own roof.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), narcissism is an inflated sense of self-worth, a lack of concern or empathy for others, entitlement, and seeking admiration of others. We have all come across those individuals who tend to brag, name drop, and ignore people they consider beneath them. Blaming parents for the negative qualities of their children isn’t necessarily fair either.
But there are some parenting strategies that increase the likelihood of a child’s development of a healthy self-worth as well as those consistent with attitudes and behaviors consistent with narcissism.
What we hope for our younger generation is a healthy dose of self-worth. That is accomplished when we believe we are a person of inherent value in society and our value doesn’t change based on our status or lack thereof. Parents who provide a warm, caring, and supportive environment for their children tend to promote positive development for the most part.
Some of the most subtle differences in parenting approaches that have been linked to our more self-absorbed friends include these methods. First, promoting messages of overvaluation or the belief that your child is more special and therefore entitled to special privileges can be a factor. That would obviously come from repeated experiences suggesting that your child deserves exceptional treatment. Parents can fall into this trap through guilt associated with divorce or changes that they didn’t want for their child. It can be incredibly hard to resist making up for our losses in life, but children can learn a great deal through the struggles in life and facing reality with a positive approach.
The second parenting observation that presents an issue is overindulgence. Giving children everything they want especially without the opportunity to learn to wait and earn something through effort and savings can keep a child from developing self-reliance. Learning to regulate our own effort in order to achieve a goal is critical to build maturity.
The third method is one that may surprise you: praise.
Praise in and of itself is not an issue. If fact, some types of praise are needed for proper emotional regulation and healthy development. According to When Parent’ Praise Inflates, Children’s Self-Esteem Deflates by Brummelman, Nelemans, Thomaes, and Orobio de Castro, (2017) in Child Development, inflated praise was linked to lower self-esteem rather than the intended higher self-esteem. What may be surprising is the additional finding that in children who already displayed high self-esteem, inflated praise leads to the development of narcissism.
If you think you may be guilty of lavishing praise on your little ones, don’t throw in the towel just yet. It turns out 25% of parents go overboard with praise.
So what does inflated praise look like?
Let’s say your seven-year-old son draws a giraffe for their science homework and it looks a little like a cow, or maybe a horse. Who knows? And you say, “Wow! That’s amazing sweetie!” while cheering them on. If everything they do is remarkable and wonderful even though it took little time and effort, you may have dished out a little too much enthusiasm.
This is one of those remnants of the self-esteem movement that started in the 1970s meant to reverse a trend in a generation of suspected dips in self-esteem. If we praise easy tasks, we give our child the impression that they can’t do better work. You don’t want to heap criticisms on a child’s work, but relaying realistic information can build their capacity to problem-solve and work to improve products independently. A simple acknowledgement followed by encouragement to do their best will often do the job.
Praise has been found to be effective when it is based on a person’s effort rather than ability. If we are told we are smart, we tend to believe we either have the capacity to do something or we don’t. In truth, our abilities are moldable and we can improve skills and talents with consistent effort. Artists develop skills through thousands of hours of practice in combination with their intrinsic interests.
The last area to consider for supporting a child toward healthy self-worth is to avoid encouraging them to achieve extrinsic goals or status based positions. In other words, support learning and growing to take their place in the community as one of many valuable members. You may want your child to be a doctor or believe they can be a doctor but focusing on working hard to learn in order to help others can help a child associate that goal with purpose rather than attainment of superiority.
Most importantly, parenting is the most difficult and worthy journey most of us face. It takes courage and constant grace to keep guiding our youth toward independence. Modeling healthy self-respect and doing your best each day is the best gift you can give others looking on in your world.