The Helicopter Parent and the Narcissistic Child

The phenomenon of the helicopter parent has been around since the 1990’s and was a trem first coined by Foster Cline and Jim Clay for the type of parent who, like a medivac helicopter could swoop in from nowhere and “rescue” their child from any sense of responsibility they may have in a variety of social situations including school and early adulthood.

Whilst it isn’t confined to the US where the phenomenon has been widely described, it has also emerged in China as the longer-term effects of their one child policy and increasing personal affluence has had a malign effect on a generation of very spoiled and indulged only children. Helicopter parents, the baby boomers, have become known for swinging into action to defend their offspring in everything to getting them up in the mornings by early morning calls to college to visiting colleges and even workplaces to complain about the unfair treatment of their privileged offspring.

These parents often, highly successful themselves have parented from afar but cannot tolerate their child to have a negative learning experience. As  Judith Warner  suggests in her parenting manual these parents are physically “hyper-present” but psychologically absent. In other words, they jump in and blame others for the weaknesses with which their own parenting style has endowed their children.

A recent longitudinal study in England suggested that such parenting style can have profound consequences on a child’s ability to develop into an adult that can self-regulate. Dr Mai Stafford of the Medical Research Council, the author of the report suggested:

“Parents also give us stable base from which to explore the world while warmth and responsiveness has been shown to promote social and emotional development. By contrast, psychological control can limit a child’s independence and leave them less able to regulate their own behaviour.”

And this may be a precursor for narcissistic traits from a very young age. After all, if you see your mother swoop down and demand an audience with the college principal because you got dropped from the school team until your grades improve, you are going to start to believe that you are special and entitled. Which may be the origins of Narcissistic traits and potentially NPD later.

So, can narcissism be linked to helicopter parenting style? The answer is a resounding “yes!” note though that this issue is linkage, not causation. Not all children with narcissistic tendencies have helicopter parenting and not all helicopter parents go on to have children with narcissistic tendencies. But parenting style as mentioned elsewhere is a big factor in the development of narcissistic personality disorder. So how can this affect narcissism in adults and what is the evidence for narcissism in childhood?

Is there any evidence of narcissism in children?

A certain degree of narcissism is considered to be healthy since having a positive self-regard and confidence is part of good mental health. In young children, the style of this in a relatively crude form would be appropriate to healthy narcissism, but to retain this as an adult, clearly is not.

Negative or pathological narcissism is not healthy and it is that type we associate with NPD and the problematic behaviours we see in those with NPD

There have been a number of studies into the emergence of narcissism. Although there is no evidence that narcissism exists in 3 years old children, it is possible to identify precursors of narcissism at this young age.

Some children develop a grandiose sense of self at a very early age. Researchers have observed and assessed grandiose self-entitlement and histrionic tendencies in young children of pre-school age alongside impulsivity and interpersonal antagonism designed to maintain themselves as the centre of attention. Carlson and Gjerde did a 20 year study and examined the development of these characteristics from pre-school to adulthood and found a strong correlation with the early emergence of these characteristics in pre-schoolers and adults who later went on to develop NPD however, as with all correlations they can spot the links but not the causation.

But what factors may be causative? Could Helicopter parenting reward and re-enforce the behaviours which Carlson and Gjerde observed in tots. I suspect is might be one of the missing links.

Converting narcissistic pre-disposition into a narcissistic youth the role of the helicopter parent

Morf and Rhodwalt (2001) developed a dynamic model of narcissistic development from childhood into adulthood in which they suggested that:

“The narcissistic self in constantly under construction”

So, whilst early predispositions exist, other factors are necessary for a full scale “conversion”. I would argue that learning plays a role in this. Therefore, watching your parent defend your sometimes-indefensible behaviour, argue that you are the brightest child in the class, when you are clearly not and then hanging around to pick you up before you even fall is a good way to “learn” the success of narcissistic behaviour.

Given the impact of smaller family sizes on how we regard our children. They are not the centre of most parents lives, this does not bode well for the future mental wellbeing of generation Y. This upcoming generation of privileged teens need to be allowed to fall and fail to learn a little humility and a lesser sense of entitlement. Otherwise we are all on for a bumpy ride.

  1. Kevin S. Carlson and Per F. Gjerde (2009)  Preschool Personality Antecedents of Narcissism in Adolescence and Emergent Adulthood: A 20-Year Longitudinal StudyJ Res Pers. 2009 Aug 1; 43(4): 570–578
  2. Morf and Rhodwalt (2001): Unraveling the Paradoxes of Narcissism: A Dynamic Self-Regulatory Processing Model Psychological Inquiry 2001, Vol. 12, No. 4, 177–196

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