• Too much parental attention can lead to a child’s inflated sense of self.
  • An idealized self can be unrelenting in its demand for perfection in any given area.
  • Teaching empathy and compassion toward others safeguards against unhealthy narcissism in children.

If you were to sample American parents about whether they would like to have egotistical, arrogant, and demanding children devoid of empathy and compassion, the vast majority would shout “no.”

Yet, over the past few decades, the number of narcissists and adults with related mental health disorders seems to be rising. Where does narcissism come from? In our child-rearing and popular culture, where are we missing the mark? Narcissism can develop from two primary sources: doting parents and the idealized self.

Doting Parents

In the first scenario, parents are over-involved with their child, yielding to most demands and, in so doing, communicating to the child that she is very special and should be treated as such. They shower glowing attention on their child and often rely on hyperbolic compliments, such as, “You are the smartest girl in the world!” In addition, they overreact to their child’s disappointments and frustration because of their over-concern about damaging their child’s self-esteem.

In one situation, a six-year-old boy cried so loudly when he lost a competitive game at a playground that his mother picked him up in her arms and consoled him as intently as if he had just suffered a broken arm. His mother inadvertently conveyed that losing games is a disaster rather than just a normal consequence of actively participating in life. “Too much love” is dependency, overidentification with the child to satisfy parental needs, and/or obsessiveness driven by anxiety, which benefits neither the parent nor the child over the long haul.

In narcissism-promoting families, parents do not set enough limits, typically making excuses for their child’s unhealthy behavior. Excuses such as, “Johnny hit your son because he was tired,” or “Susie is not used to sharing her toys” are frequently made instead of the parents constructively trying to deal with the behavior in question. Also, these parents spend little time teaching empathy to their children. Teaching children how others feel when bullied, humiliated, or attacked helps them develop an empathic attitude toward other people.

Like helicopter parents, these parents do not provide enough time for their children to develop their own psychological resources. As with physical skills, children need time alone to practice psychological skills, such as self-soothing (calming themselves when upset), initiating activities to satisfy curiosity or affiliative needs, and coping with unpleasant emotions. Parents are often most helpful when they do nothing but encourage psychological growth. Saying emphatically, “It’s okay to be upset when losing a game but hitting someone is not,” may be all that is necessary.

The Idealized Self

Besides developing in doting families, narcissism often occurs in dysfunctional families in the form of an idealized self (a la Karen Horney). A child who has been rejected, overprotected, severely criticized, and/or abused may develop a grandiose self, which is a means of compensating for strong inferiority feelings. By denying feelings of inferiority, the child feels powerful, especially talented, and/or very good-looking. Unfortunately, the self-esteem boost derived from an inflated, unrealistic picture of self is fragile and dependent on the ongoing validation of others, most often in the form of admiration and applause. When such validation is lacking, severe depression can occur.

For example, when high achievers at Ivy League schools encounter other students more academically gifted than they are, those whose self-esteem is tied up with being the best often feel demoralized, as if they have no value, when they lose their position at the top. An idealized self is rigid, permitting no deviation from its requirement for perfection. The higher rates of suicide at these schools compared to less prestigious universities attest to the toll taken by the need for perfection and unparalleled achievement.

Guidelines for Parents

The adage from yesteryear, “Children should be seen and not heard,” has long vanished from American child-rearing practices. In its place has arisen a child-centered mandate for middle- and upper-class parents with the caveat, “Don’t bruise your child’s ego.” Parents following this mandate are overly solicitous, reluctant to make demands or corrections, and eager to spare their child disappointment. As a result, winning becomes everything, which is apparent at little league baseball games, e.g., where parents not only raucously cheer for their child’s successes but shower obscenities on umpires who deliver unfavorable calls.

  1. In competitive activities, reward effort and downplay failure. While celebrating victory is joyful and worthwhile, communicating that failure is catastrophic is harmful. In addition, teaching children that cooperation is more valuable than competition in reaching group goals is important.
  2. Teach empathy and compassion by regularly explaining how others feel when attacked, bullied, made fun of, or otherwise demeaned.
  3. Avoid exaggerations, such as “You are the best singer [or dancer, or athlete].” While success in each field depends on talent and hard work, luck or chance–being in the right place at the right time (a factor that we have little control over)–determines who gets to the top of a professional or athletic ladder. Avoid instilling unrealistic expectations that may lead to overwhelming disappointment and frustration for your child.
  4. Teach your children that boredom, disappointment, and frustration are just as much a part of life as contentment, joy, and pleasure and that learning how to deal with feelings is an important life goal.
  5. Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development can be very helpful in understanding your children’s behavior. More useful than Freud’s psychosexual model, Erikson’s stages help put children’s behavior into perspective. In Erikson’s stage two, e.g., the temper tantrums of the terrible twos are seen as manifestations of the child’s autonomy, that is, the ability to manage oneself. While two-year-old children are not very wise at self-management, they are trying to assert their independence and make their own decisions, but they need parental guidance to do a better job of it.
  6. During the critical first years of development, remember that children need time alone in addition to playtime with peers. Time alone to explore, daydream, and develop autonomy and initiative is invaluable in solidifying the boundaries of the self and strengthening internal resources.
  7. Limit TV and video watching to minimize the Internet’s and popular culture’s unhealthy influence in promoting aggression.
  8. Pursue your dreams and interests–those separate from your parental role. As Kahlil Gibran said many years ago, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies, but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”

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