As parents, we all want to encourage our children to feel good about themselves, so we praise them — but sometimes this can backfire. Rather than nurturing resilience and confidence, our praise can foster narcissism. It can be difficult to find the right balance — between helping children believe in themselves and their abilities and letting them know they are also one among others.
Adults who are narcissistic have an exaggerated view of their own importance. They believe they are superior to others and deserve special privileges. Normal rules don't apply to them. They exaggerate their accomplishments and have inflated fantasies about their own successes, attractiveness, power, or intelligence. They demand excessive praise and recognition.
Narcissists lack empathy for others and disregard their feelings. They will often use others to further their own gains. They react to criticism with anger, shame, or humiliation. Yet they cannot admit that they are wrong or take responsibility for their own actions and they feel no empathy or remorse when they hurt others.
Parents with the best of intentions may overvalue their children, thinking that will help boost their self-esteem.
These same descriptions apply to narcissism when it occurs in children and teens. Children who are narcissistic are raised to believe they are more special than their peers.
Studies have shown that narcissism is increasing among Western youth. Recently, a group of researchers explored this issue. They focused on the idea that children become narcissistic when their parents “overvalue” them and bring them up to believe they are uniquely special and more entitled than other children.
The researchers were also interested in the origins of self-esteem and how parenting and parental warmth impacted this trait.
Ironically, narcissists may have low self-esteem, despite their delusions of uniqueness and entitlement.
Self-esteem is a reflection of one's attitude toward oneself and is an emotional evaluation of one's worth. In contrast to narcissism, it means that one feels satisfied with oneself, but it does not imply a feeling of superiority to others.
People with positive self-esteem show less tendency towards depression and anxiety. They may fail at times, but this does not particularly damage their sense of self because they do not need to believe they are the best at everything they do.
Believing they are unique, narcissistic children have difficulty taking turns during play or school. They have trouble following rules and often bend them to facilitate their own success. They would rather quit a game than lose because the loss threatens their fragile self-esteem.
Rather than becoming resilient, the false sense of importance they have leads them to be unable to tolerate academic failure. They may abandon projects that don't offer immediate gratification. They cannot cope with boredom, and shut down when faced with challenges that are not immediately engaging and rewarding. They require constant praise to keep on task. They have difficulty establishing friendships with their peers.
At the most extreme end of the spectrum, narcissistic children and teens are often aggressive and violent, especially when they feel humiliated.
“Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others. That may not be good for them or for society,” Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.
Researchers examined the emotional experiences and development of 565 children in the Netherlands, ages 7 to 11, over four, six-month study periods. Children completed questionnaires designed to measure their levels of narcissism and self-esteem and whether they experienced their parents as warm and loving.
Parents completed questionnaires that also explored whether they had a tendency to overvalue their children and the degree to which they expressed love and warm feelings toward their children.
Overvaluing was very much related to the development of narcissism in the study group. The children whose parents believed “my child is more special than other children” were more likely to show narcissistic traits.
If children are treated with affection and feel that their parents enjoy their company, they may internalize a feeling of being a valuable member of their families and of society. This notion promotes positive self-esteem.
The overvalued child tended to believe “kids like me deserve something special” more often than their appropriately-valued peers. They were also less likely to be happy with themselves than their peers.
By contrast, a lack of parental warmth did not predict narcissism, but it did influence self-esteem. Children who agreed with the statement, “mother/father do not let me know that they love me,” did not become narcissistic to compensate for this deficit. But those children who did perceive parental warmth were more likely to have positive self-esteem, endorsing statements such as “I am happy with myself as a person.”
Lead author Eddie Brummelman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, added that parents with the best of intentions may overvalue their children, thinking that will help boost their self-esteem.
“Rather than raising self-esteem, overvaluing practices may inadvertently raise levels of narcissism,” Brummelman said.
These results are “consistent with the view that children come to see themselves as they believe they are seen by significant others, as if they learn to see themselves through others' eyes,” the authors write.
“Conversely, if children are treated with affection and feel that their parents enjoy their company, they may internalize a feeling of being a valuable member of their families and of society. This notion promotes positive self-esteem.”
The researchers caution that there are other roots of narcissism, including heredity and a child's innate temperament. However they hope their research will inform parents and suggest interventions to temper the emergence of narcissism in developing children and teens.
Understanding that blanket and overblown praise does not lead to self-esteem, and that parental warmth and acceptance does, should help parents do a better job giving their children the support they need without overdoing it.
Bushman, who is a father of three children, said the research on narcissism “has changed my parenting style.”
A lack of parental warmth did not predict narcissism, but it did influence self-esteem.
“When I first started doing this research in the 1990s, I used to think my children should be treated like they were extra-special. I'm careful not to do that now,” he said.
The findings should also help mental health counselors and health care providers counsel parents more effectively on the types of messages they are giving their children.
If you understand the distinction between overvaluing your child and offering them the love and warm support they need to develop positive self-esteem, you will be on your way to helping to temper the rise of this disturbing behavioral trend.
The study appears in the the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.