Every night before going to sleep, my daughter and I snuggle in bed and talk. She tells me what’s on her mind, what’s worrying her, what she really wants Santa to bring her for Christmas.
One night not long ago, I was telling her about the American women’s soccer team, how proud I was that they’d won the World Cup. Her reaction floored me.
“It sounds like you’re bragging,” she said. “It sounds like you’re saying they’re better than everyone else.
“Uh … well … they did win,” I replied, slightly confused.
“I don’t like it when people brag.” There was the sound of imminent tears in her voice. “Other kids brag all the time about how good they are at things, and it makes me upset.”
“Why does it make you upset?” I asked. “Everybody has things they’re good at.”
“Because I’m not good at anything!” Sobs broke loose. “I want to be special, too, and I’m not!”
I was stunned.
I’m the kind of mother who makes a conscious effort to make my daughter feel special. I tell her what I like about her drawings. I praise her thoughtful behavior. I tell her how lucky I am that she’s my daughter.
But seven years of trying to make her feel good about herself seem to have gone unheard.
My daughter doesn’t feel like she’s special, and I don’t know what to do about it.
Psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin thinks self-esteem building has taken a wrong turn. It’s not about praise or attention as much as it’s about whether your child can rely on you for comfort and reassurance.
Dr. Malkin is interested in promoting healthy narcissism, the ability to enjoy feeling special but not get hooked on it.
Feeling special means you feel a little bit better than the average Joe in certain ways. Maybe you’re a better driver, or you’re a better friend, or you’re better informed.
Contrary to what my daughter believed, those feelings don’t constitute bragging or arrogance. They’re a sign of healthy pride.
We need to be able to celebrate our achievements, acknowledge what we’re good at, and receive praise. Feeling proud of ourselves helps us stay optimistic, aim high, and bounce back from setbacks.
But there’s a limit.
We don’t want to feel so enamored with ourselves that we overlook our own faults and failings. We don’t want to get obsessed with ourselves at the expense of considering other people’s feelings.
What we want in our children is both confidence in themselves and concern for other people. Kids who think they’re great—and other people are great, too.
So how do we build a sense of healthy pride?
Do we do it by smothering children with praise and attention?
The Recipe to Feeling Special
If you look at advice on how to make a child feel special, you’ll hear a lot about scheduling one-on-one time, giving praise that’s specific rather than general, and expressing love unconditionally.
What you won’t hear much about is secure attachment.
Dr. Malkin believes that secure attachment is key to avoiding unhealthy narcissism and its equally unhealthy opposite, echoism.
An authoritative parenting style develops that secure attachment. It teaches kids they can trust their parents to be there for them when they need them. These firm yet loving parents set age-appropriate limits, talk about feelings and emotions, and model the power of apologies by example.
When parents are highly responsive to their children’s needs, including their children’s needs for independence and separation, their children come to learn that the world is safe. They can rely on others to be there for them. They can rely on others to give them space when needed. They can make mistakes, and the world won’t come crashing down.
The way you love your child teaches her how to love.
Feeling Special is an Inside Job
It was a relief to hear that what my daughter needed most was to feel that I was there for her.
She didn’t need me to assure her she was special. She needed me to listen to her fears, hold her, and acknowledge how hard it was to feel like everyone else is better than you.
It’s hard to listen to your child when all you want to do is change her mind. I wanted to prove to my daughter she was special. I didn’t want her to feel this way.
But I also knew that’s not what she wanted.
She wasn’t telling me this so that I would change her thinking. She was telling me this because I’d taught her she could come to me with difficult emotions. I’d never invalidate her by telling her she shouldn’t be feeling that way.
That’s how we make our children feel special.
Not by convincing them. But by listening, even when we don’t want to hear.