Does anyone feel like narcissism is the psychology buzzword du jour? Everyone is talking about narcissism, separating from narcissistic partners, and even communicating with a narcissist when you absolutely must. While there are probably not as many people as we collectively suspect running around with diagnosed NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), you could self-diagnose at least one person in your lifetime with narcissism. That’s because the classic, well-known traits of narcissism are thinking highly of oneself and needing attention to always be on them. That undoubtedly sounds like someone you know. Maybe even someone you birthed — to the point that you might be asking yourself, “Is my child a narcissist? Were they born this narcissistic, or did I do something to make them that way?”
Of course, the question you genuinely want to be answered is what you can do to help your (potentially narcissistic) child learn to be a better human, friend, and, eventually, partner or parent. So, to help you navigate this complex and often confusing conversation, Scary Mommy spoke to several experts. Keep reading for their insight on narcissism in children and what you, as a parent, can do to curb narcissistic behavior in your household.
What is narcissism?
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., a psychoanalyst who works with children and specializes in narcissism, tells Scary Mommy, “Narcissism in adults is characterized by excessive self-centeredness, an exaggerated sense of superiority that may conceal deep feelings of inferiority, and a persistent lack of empathy for others that is often due to early childhood parenting, especially during ages 1 to 3.”
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), other core symptoms of NPD include:
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited brilliance, power, or success
- Sense of entitlement
- Superficial and exploitative relationships
- Arrogant and haughty behavior
- Monopolizing conversations
- Envy of others and the belief that others envy them
- Tends to belittle or demean others
- Constantly brags and exaggerates their success, especially to make those around them feel small
- Has a tough time empathizing with others
- Does not take kindly to authority figures and often pushes back
- Has a hard time attaching or depending on others
- Often experiences feelings of boredom and emptiness
- Has an excessive need for attention and admiration
- They exhibit perfectionist type before and have intense negative emotions after making a mistake
- An inflated ego
- They expect a level of special treatment from people of authority, caregivers, or their parents
- They often look at themselves in the mirror
- They have difficulty maintaining eye contact
*To figure out whether your child is a narcissist, it's important to consider specific factors like their age, maturity level, and the consistency and patterns of their behavior. A child that regularly shows the actions listed above at an extreme level that negatively affects those around them could very well be on their way to having a narcissistic personality.
Can a child be diagnosed with narcissism?
Clinical social worker Kimberly Perlin says there are actually some early warning signs of narcissism. “You would want to pay specific attention to cruelty to animals and others. You would want to notice if your child needs to be acknowledged as the ‘best’ or above his peers. Also, notice if your child has a tendency to put others down as a way of making themselves look superior,” Perlin advises.
However, just because your child displays narcissistic tendencies doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a narcissist. “I would caution that the first thing you have to remember is that childhood requires a child to be inherently narcissistic,” Perlin explains. “They are in the business of developing themselves, and they do not have the same resources adults do. Your child is an unfinished work and is greatly impacted by how you respond to their responses. Instead of screening for narcissism, I would focus on teaching compassion — self and towards others. Also, guiding children how to identify, tolerate and cope with feelings, particularly negative feelings, is important.”
Just a note: Since many narcissistic characteristics are simply part of a child’s developing personality, most doctors won’t officially diagnose someone with NPD until they’re over the age of 21. In fact, it’s pretty common for kids to exhibit some narcissistic traits as part of the natural character development process.
How do you make sure your kid doesn’t grow into a narcissist?
Are you starting to question every move you make as a parent now? Sure, you don’t want to cut your kid down, but can building them up too much cause your child to grow into a narcissistic adult? The opposite attitude may be a more significant contributor to narcissism.
Perlin suggests that striking a balance in your parenting might be critical, saying, “Children that are neglected, abused, or not given consistent limits have a higher risk of developing narcissism. Children that are taught to have unrealistic expectations of themselves (that everything they do is amazing or that they are inherently destined for greatness, for example) are more prone to narcissism. Pairing consistent limits with connection and emotional intelligence will decrease the chance of your child developing narcissistic tendencies. Essentially, narcissists cannot tolerate negative feelings about themselves. They see their worlds in very black and white terms.”
Hollman elaborates, “To raise a child with healthy self-esteem and the ability to relate well with others, parents need to keep in mind different characteristics of healthy parenting that will not lead to them becoming narcissistic adults who become attached to partners who excessively adore them. This adoration is commonly described as a narcissistic supply the mother gives the child during the early years. If she doesn’t provide this, the danger of raising a narcissist arises.”
Hollman goes on to offer these general parenting tips that may help curb your child’s chances of becoming a narcissist:
- Promote the child’s growing identity and self-image as separate from the parent.
- Set reasonable limits on your child’s behavior with empathic explanations.
- Praise and admire your child’s specific, earned achievements, not globally saying he is always great and special.
- Teach your child right from wrong, so he develops a reasonable conscience.
- Teach your child the golden rule: Treat others the way they want to be treated. Not only is this like the basics of empathy, but it'll also help reinforce the differences between right and wrong.
- Sometimes allow your child to face their mistakes and failures instead of saving them from every mishap. When given the chance to learn from our actions, we learn from our actions and how to be better.
- Understand that all young children experience feelings of power and omnipotence naturally, but that these feelings can be moderated over time in realistic ways.
- Help your child modulate or regulate their emotions so they can feel and express them without being overwhelmed by them.
- Help your child tolerate frustrations, disappointments, and realistic delays in meeting their needs.
- Encourage your child to find pleasure and satisfaction in independent functioning.
- Help your child recognize other people’s viewpoints.
- Value character traits such as honesty and kindness toward others.
- Recognize and discourage entitled attitudes and actions.
- Discuss greed and selfishness by teaching sharing with others.
- Discourage false blame of others for one’s own errors and failures.
- Avoid insisting on perfection and always being the winner or the best, so normal failures are accepted with resilience and a desire to learn from mistakes.
So, is your child a narcissist? By definition, no, since a child cannot be given an NPD diagnosis until the age of 21. However, if your child starts to exhibit narcissistic traits and you grow concerned about the direction things are headed, follow Hollman’s actionable parenting tips above. And, per Perlin, pay attention to your child’s patterns of behavior to note any that are consistently extreme, disruptive, or damaging to the relationships around them. Armed with information, you can better discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician or therapist.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., psychoanalyst and expert on Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Kimberly Perlin, clinical social worker
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