Up to 6% of the US population has narcissistic personality disorder, and its roots are believed to have a strong link to childhood.
Does living with your child feel like you’re living with a narcissist? Does their behavior feel selfish, exploitative, or overly self-involved?
You may not realize it, but the actions of parents may be inadvertently reinforcing these behavior patterns. Here, I discuss the common parenting traits that may be causes of childhood narcissism.
Too much praise
It might seem like praise is the obvious cause behind narcissistic behavior. But there is now scientific evidence to show that routinely showering children with praise can lead to them developing narcissistic tendencies.
‘Helicopter parenting‘ is a problem associated with parents who dote a little too much on their children. Helicopter parents regularly swoop in to save the day, leading children to believe that they are ‘special’ and therefore superior to others.
To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with rewarding a child or encouraging them. Every parent wants their child to be confident and to feel loved.
The problems arise from non-stop lavishing of praise, which may end up with a situation where the parents are living with a narcissist, molded by their own hands.
There is a line of thinking that suggests hostile parenting may result in a child developing narcissistic personality disorder. ‘Hostile’ parenting is characterized by a lack of warmth or interest in the child, coupled with regular, unnecessary criticism.
This is quite the opposite of over-praising a child. The theory goes that a child who feels inadequate due to their parent’s actions will develop a low sense of self-worth.
The child will suffer from the lack of a natural development towards a healthy level of self-esteem, without guidance from an authoritative figure who takes a real interest in them. A child with hostile parents will instead develop a level of self-esteem far beyond what is normative.
Encouraging a sense of entitlement
Pushy parents who are overt in their opinion that their child is better than others may be directly encouraging their child to develop the same sense of entitlement.
This may manifest in children as an inability to play fairly (and being a sore loser), a desire to bend rules to their own whims (not only while playing games), and a lack of empathy.
In smaller children, these behaviors are far from uncommon. They are naturally selfish as they do not understand other people’s needs and desires. This is not problematic, as it is just a developmental stage in their personality.
As they grow up, their sense of entitlement should wane as they develop social skills and learn to work with others. A child who has had their sense of entitlement overly reinforced by their parents will struggle to leave this behind.
This may be of detriment to their ability to form relationships and to fully experience empathy in the future.
This is a vicious circle. When the child grows up and has not resolved their own narcissistic behavior, there’s every likelihood that they will be the cause of similar tendencies in their own children.
Partner versus partner
In some cases, one parent is actually encouraging narcissistic behavior in the children because they are themselves a narcissist.
It’s called Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). In these cases, there exists an ‘alliance’ between the narcissistic parent and the children, in which the parent covertly encourages the children to negatively judge the other parent.
This is a hugely damaging relationship for a family to have, and as the children are being set up to judge an adult’s behavior, it can also over-inflate their sense of self-worth.
If it doesn’t lead to narcissism in the children, this relationship can still damage them emotionally – as their negative responses towards an adult are regularly being reinforced.
What are the warning signs when you’re living with a narcissist?
It is sometimes very obvious that you’re living with a narcissist.
This type of person tends not to accept the blame for things, which in older children can develop into a lack of ability to take personal responsibility as an adult.
They may crave or demand positive attention, and throw a tantrum when they don’t get it – or are told off.
Or, as above, they may display problems when interacting with other children – and you may observe them manipulating their peers to their own ends.
If you’re picking up on these signals, it may be time to check your own behavior to see if you’re becoming a negative influence. I know this can be hard to admit – but it’s for your child’s own good.
Alternatively, it may be time to seek professional treatment.
How can childhood narcissism be treated?
There are a number of treatment options available for people suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, but they may not all be suitable for children due to their age.
In many cases, development of the disorder might be limited or reversed by a change in parental behavior. While the brain is still developing, it is very malleable and open to influence from external factors – this is called neuroplasticity.
As we age, neuroplasticity decreases. So for older children, a treatment such as psychotherapy or family therapy may help them to explore the causes of their own behavior.
This can help them to identify maladaptive and inappropriate behaviors, and work towards lessening or eliminating these.
However, this blog definitely isn’t written with the intention of scaring you into spotting the narcissist in your perfectly normal offspring.
Remember that a degree of selfishness is natural among young children who don’t fully understand the world yet, and in teenagers, who often have a rebellious streak as they strive to become independent from their parents.
But if you suspect you’re living with a narcissist even after taking these factors into account, I suggest that you tackle the problem as early as possible.
Helping your child find a way to deflect narcissistic behaviors can only be a benefit to them in the long run.