With the definition and examples of narcissism so prevalent in our culture, it is easy to wonder if a child is a budding narcissist. This is especially concerning when those examples are prominent sports athletes, glorified actors/actresses, or dominate leaders in politics or business that the child admires. So how does a person know if a child is a narcissist?
After reading the definition of narcissism, nearly every two-year-old will appear narcissistic. Most children, however, grow out of the behavior while it seems to linger for others. One of the characteristics is that a child needs to display the signs of narcissism five years prior to their eighteenth birthday in order to meet the full standard. This allows for some parental guidance during childhood so the fullness of the disorder will not manifest.
It is important to note that narcissism is half biological and half environmental. So only the half that is environmental is what can be affected. To that end, there is a huge difference between someone who has narcissistic traits and full personality disorder. All is not lost. Here are some suggestions for parents wanting to minimize the narcissism:
- Minimize entitlement. The lack of an economic downturn within a family unit can create an atmosphere of entitlement. While the suggestion is not to artificially create uncertainty, a parent can limit the amount of gift giving and have an expectation of chores/work to earn an allowance.
- Balance the ego. In an effort to increase a child’s self-worth, some parents take the measure too far by treating the child as superior, perfect, or more special than others. This can overinflate the ego resulting in an “I’m better than you,” mentality. Rather, the parent should emphasize a balanced ego.
- Model empathy. A tell-tale characteristic of narcissism is the lack of empathy for others. However, a narcissist has empathy for themselves and expects others to have it for them. Parents need to model empathy not just for the narcissistic child but for others in order to teach compassion. This should not be forced or the child will learn how to fake it.
- Listen to demands. Many narcissistic children are experts in getting what they want exactly the way they want it. Ironically, a narcissist can be formed by either total compliance or total in compliance with their expectations. The goal is to listen but find ways to modify their request.
- Avoid rescuing. One of the blessings (and sometimes curses) of parenting is the ability to rescue a child from their mistakes. Doing this too frequently can foster a feeling of entitlement while teaching the child that they won’t be held accountable for their errors. Let outside consequences occur, only rescuing as a last resort.
- Selective attention. Narcissists crave attention from others and need it to survive. Just like a two-year-old, if they can’t get positive attention, they will throw a temper tantrum to get negative attention. This is a tricky area of parenting as ignoring a budding narcissist will make them enemy number one. So be selective about giving out attention without disregarding them.
- Show unconditional love. To most parents, this comes naturally but many fail to view this from the eyes of the child. Ask the child if they feel loved no matter what they do, think, say, or behave. Try to avoid performance-based love because it fosters narcissistic behavior by teaching a child to achieve a standard before they can receive love.
- Consistent parenting. Erratic or abusive parenting can develop narcissistic tendencies in a child. Either way, the child learns that they cannot depend on the parent to be rational or reasonable so they only depend on themselves. This creates ego-centric behavior and a disregard for authority.
- Enforce consequences. Any signs of bullying behavior or taking advantage of others inside or outside of the family unit should be immediately addressed and disciplined fairly. Do not glorify these behaviors. Instead, focus on teaching long-term relational skills even when the child strongly dislikes another child or adult.
- Point out the narcissism. This can be done directly and indirectly. Begin by identifying narcissistic behavior in another family member as an example of what not to be when they grow up. Then shift to saying, “You are acting like (fill in with the name of the narcissist) when you do…” These two steps will teach by example.
Remember there are some things you can’t change with parenting but you can reduce the impact of narcissistic traits. However, just because a child shows at eighteen most of the narcissistic characteristics, life can still strip away at the ego. While parenting maybe done at that point, a parent can still remain a consistent guide in the child’s life well throughout adulthood.