Parenting and the Development of Narcissism

Since his emergence on the political stage there has been increased speculation in a range of media about the possible narcissistic behaviour of US president Donald Trump. It is both impossible and unwise to attempt an online diagnosis but many of those who have commented on the quirks of his behaviour and personality – everything from his handshake to his claims about the size of his inauguration crowds – have also commented upon the possible origins of the Trump character. Much of the speculation has focussed on the parenting style of his father, the death of his older brother from alcoholism and what may have been a very unusual parenting style.

The four styles of parenting

Parents tend to be an anxious breed and the literature on parenting styles has grown in proportion to people’s interest in the subject. Baumrind identified 4 different styles of parenting:

  • The Authoritarian/ autocratic parent: These parents have a clear didactic model of parenting which seeks to mould the child into the desired model by constant shaping (rewards and punishments) and putting in lots of boundaries. Obedience and recognition of parental authority is stressed. Such a parent is more likely to punish than reward.
  • The authoritarian / responsive parent: These parents have high standards and expectations too but tend to use reason and explanation as well as recognising that the child is separate to the adult and should have the rights and respect afforded to them. Discipline is supportive of leaning behaviour change and self-regulation. Whilst the style is demanding it is flexible and responsive.
  • The indulgent /permissive parent: is affectionate and finds punishment hard. They don’t require age appropriate maturity of action in their offspring and they are responsive to the child’s needs without demanding self-regulation.
  • The indifferent /uninvolved: leaves the child to sort out their own behaviours and problems. There is an encouragement for the child to be independent and take responsibility for their own life.

Baumrind suggested that it is the style of parenting as summarised above, which directly influences the development of the child’s sense of self which is strongly related to the development of narcissism. Where responsive parents and indulgent parents may protect, being subject to demands of an authoritarian/autocratic parent or an indifferent one can leave a child with feelings of inadequacy – either because without guidance they make too many mistakes and learn failure too often (indifferent) or learn to fear the consequences of making a mistake (autocratic parenting.

The effects of Authoritarian Autocratic parenting

A child who is over controlled by a parent may be unable to develop a stable sense of self and rely on external feedback which helps to create a false sense of self. This external feedback which can include awards, work related performance etc… in turn feeds the parental approval which staves of the feelings of vulnerability and disapproval which developed because of the parental demands. Kernberg suggested that:

adolescents who follow the rules of the Authoritarian parent may be ‘‘over-idealized’’ and hence have an unrealistically grandiose picture of the self

This then leaves the young person with a dilemma, the need approval. The only way of getting that approval is to be exceptional. Those who fail to meet their own self-imposed high performance may sink into depression, withdraw from the fight to be special.

This behaviour pattern becomes so ingrained – after all in most it has been schooled in them since infancy, that they then enter a phase of denial that their behaviours are maladaptive. And because the parenting style has robbed them of an opportunity to look at the world flexibly they have nowhere else to go.

The effect of indifferent parenting

Despite the fact that this parenting style is diametrically opposite to the authoritarian one, the outcome for the individual can be similar, partly liked to lack of responsiveness. An absence of appropriate indulgence at an early age- cuddles, response to hurt, toys, entertainment from an interested adult. This can result in neediness and compensatory behaviours including the development of an alternate reality where the child is the centre of their own created reality – a kind of grandiose self as suggested by Kernberg almost 50 years ago.

If this grandiose self becomes a major part of the child’s developing psyche it can then build into a pre-disposition for narcissism in adult life.

The effect of parenting which is inflexible

As well as overall parenting style, parenting needs to be flexible and change with the growth and development of the child into adult. The behaviours of a parent toward a child needs to change as the child grows and develops. What is appropriate indulgence in a pre-schooler is decidedly inappropriate in a teen. And as discussed elsewhere, helicopter parenting which is both controlling and indulgent can rob a young person of the right to learn from mistakes as much as authoritarian parenting can overwhelm them.

A recently published 20-year longitudinal study into the effect of parenting style in the genesis of Narcissism by Cramer examined the effect of being subject to different parenting styles on the emergence of narcissism in 101 young adults. She found that in terms of the development of maladapted as opposed to healthy narcissist regard was:

  • Closely correlated with authoritarian demanding parents
  • That narcissistic tendencies can be observed in children as young as 3 years old
  • The development of a defensive denial mechanism was strong in young narcissists
  • That the chief correlation in the development of maladaptive narcissism appears to be parenting style.

In her conclusion to the study, she suggests that :

“Responsiveness that is inappropriate to the child’s developmental level, being too little in infancy/very young childhood (Authoritarian) or too great in adolescence (Indulgence), plus Demandingness that is inappropriate to the child’s developmental level, being too great in infancy/very young childhood (Authoritarian) or too little in adolescence (Indulgence), is related to maladaptive narcissism.”

Most of the ideas we have about the relationship between narcissism and parenting style is based on attachment theory. This empirical study helps us unpick how parenting can support healthy narcissistic self-regard and maladaptive narcissism – well worth a read.

  1. Cramer P (2011) Young adult narcissism: A 20 year longitudinal study of the contribution of parenting styles, preschool precursors of narcissism, and denial in Journal of Research in Personality 45 (2011) 19–28