You’ve met that child: The one who insists on special treatment, who thinks the rules don’t apply to him, who brags and seems insensitive to anyone else’s feelings or wishes, who has loud, public tantrums if he doesn’t get his way… This child may have some superficial charm, but if you spend much time with her, you walk away feeling irritated and thinking, “Who does she think she is?!” Or worse.
Young children are naturally (and adorably) self-focused and have unrealistically positive views of their abilities. When a three-year-old says, “Watch me do my big jumps!”, this reflects an age-appropriate delight with new abilities and desire for parental approval. Around seven years of age, children become able to compare themselves realistically to their peers. For most children, this leads to a drop in overall self-esteem. For some, it’s the beginning of a narcissistic view of themselves.
What does narcissism in children look like?
Sander Thomaes and his colleagues developed the Childhood Narcissism Scale. Items include:
“I think it’s important to stand out.”
“I am a very special person.”
“It often happens that other kids get the compliments that I actually deserve.”
“I like to think about how incredibly nice I am.”
Research with this scale shows that some children in the eight to fourteen age range are reliably more narcissistic than others. Boys are somewhat more likely to be narcissistic than girls.
Narcissism is more than believing “I’m great!”; it’s believing “I’m better and more important than you!” Narcissistic children want to be always in the limelight. They care more about admiration than genuine friendship, and they have trouble putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Although they may brag and seem confident, their self-esteem is fragile, because they’re apt to lash out aggressively if they’re criticized, teased, or rejected.
The origins of narcissism in children
A new study by Eddie Brummelman at the University of Amsterdam and colleagues sheds some light on the origins of narcissism in children. The researchers assessed over 500 7- to 12-years olds and their parents four times over the course of 18 months.
They found that greater child-rated parental warmth, measured by items such as “My father/mother lets me know he/she loves me,” predicted higher self-esteem six months later, but not greater narcissism. On the other hand parental overvaluation, measured with items such as “My child is more special than other children,” predicted greater narcissism six months later, but not higher self-esteem.
This is an important study, because it’s prospective and longitudinal (rather than just a cross-sectional snapshot), and it points to some important mechanisms behind the growth of children’s narcissism and self-esteem.
But here’s what the study does NOT say:
It does NOT say, “Let your child fail!”
It does NOT say, “Too much praise can turn your kids into narcissistic jerks!”
It does NOT say, “Coddling parents may make you a narcissist!”
These recent headlines miss the point of the study.
How not to raise a narcissistic child
Narcissism is a disorder of relationships. While it may be tempting to “take a narcissist down a peg or two,” that’s not helpful or kind.
Narcissistic children need to learn to connect rather than impress. Repeatedly telling them how unique and special they are plays into their tendency to crave and hog the limelight, as well as their anxiety and resentment when they’re not the star.
On the other hand, genuine warmth—telling and showing children “You are special to me” rather than “You are special!”—can help them develop a sense of deep acceptance that underlies genuine self-esteem. The greatest compliment a parent can give a child is, “I enjoyed your company!”
Narcissistic children need help learning to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings and responding in caring ways. We can talk about feelings as they come up in books, movies, or real life. We can encourage empathy and recognize kindness and cooperation. We can even let them experience the quiet thrill of doing an anonymous act of kindness!
We can support their efforts to connect with peers. Genuine friendship is a good antidote for narcissism.
When they behave in insensitive ways, we can pull them aside and help them imagine the other person’s reaction. We need to do this gently, and with compassion, mindful of how fragile these children are, and how deflated they feel by criticism. When they mess up, we need to emphasize making amends and moving forward rather than convincing them of their badness.
Although narcissism can be measured reliably in children, it doesn’t mean these children are permanently flawed or doomed. We need to have faith in our children’s ability to grow and learn.
Lifting the Burden of Potential
For further reading:
Brummelman, Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., de Castro, B. O., Overbeek, G. & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. PNAS. http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2015/images/03/09/narcissistic-parenting-study.pdf
Thomaes, S., Stegge, H., Bushman, B. J., Olthof, T., & Denissn, J. (2008). Development and validation of the Childhood Narcissism Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 90, 382-391.