Last week, a father sent an email to me about his teenage daughter. After reading the characteristics of narcissism, he was concerned that she had narcissistic personality disorder. She would appear to others to be the ideal teenager but at home she acted entitled, superior, and refused to apologize or express any empathy. With her siblings she was controlling, demanding, bullying, and belittling. She ignored rules, raged over any perceived offense, verbally attacked her family, and threatened to leave and never come back. In desperation, he reached out for help.
This article is an attempt to help explain how a child becomes a narcissist. Even the best of parents and circumstances, might not be enough to counteract the aggressiveness of this personality. Since personality disorders are formed well before the age of 18 but are fully established by 18, the teenage years can be very revealing. There are three components to the development of narcissism: biology, environment, and choice.
- Biology. The latest research in the development of personality disorders indicates the possibility of a genetic link. This is fairly easy to see in families as narcissism seems to be more prevalent in some family trees. But genes are not wholly to blame. Just because a person is predisposed to a personality disorder does not mean it will be developed. It just increases the possibility.
- One of the best methods for testing this theory is to create a genogram. This is an elaborate family tree with more specific information such as marriages, divorces, deaths, children, and in this case added entitlement, superiority, arrogance, and lack of empathy. Each person is identified, examined for narcissism, and then labeled accordingly regardless of being a blood relative.
- Brian did this exercise. However, he was coming from the perspective that narcissism was not in his family tree because he did not like his own diagnosis. With each addition of a family member on the diagram, the traits of narcissism were examined. Brian’s self-analysis caused him to realize that many of his relatives, including his mother, were narcissistic. Interestingly enough, some who were not narcissistic, had actually married a narcissist.
- Environment. According to Erik Erikson, the development of shame and doubt, as opposed to the healthy outcome of autonomy, occurs between 18 months and three years. This is the perfect foundation for a deep rooted insecurity that is at the heart of narcissism. Trauma during these years, in combination with a genetic predisposition, can activate early narcissistic behavior.
- Some trauma is avoidable such as abuse, neglect, or abandonment by a parent. Other trauma is not. The death of a close family member, a childhood illness, sexual abuse by a neighbor, and poverty can be intensely embarrassing and shameful for some. The desire to cover up these incidents by pretending they did not occur might activate narcissistic behavior.
- At first, Erica painted a perfect picture of her family. But slowly, as time and trust in therapy increased, an entirely different reality came to light. Her father abandoned the family when she was two forcing her now single parent mother to live in poverty. Without any family support, her mother had to rely on neighbors to help care for Erica and her sister. Both girls were sexually abused several times which they hid from their mother. Erica hid the shame of these three traumas by glorifying and exaggerating the accomplishments of her mother and herself.
- Choice. This last ingredient of narcissism has not been researched. Rather, I have observed it consistently after having worked with hundreds of narcissistic clients. The choice to be narcissistic usually occurs during the teenage years, just prior to or around 18. The natural developmental stage of role identity, literally forces a teenager to choose who they want to be and how they want to be perceived by others.
- Teenage years are difficult especially for those with a demanding narcissistic parent and significant childhood trauma. In a desperate effort to fit in with peers, a teen might choose to ignore these two major areas and instead pretend that everything is perfect. From the outside looking in, this teen might even be one of the most popular kids in school.
- After hearing Charlie’s story, a guidance counselor suggested counseling. But Charlie was mortified at the thought and highly resistant. He used his charm to deceive others into believing that there was nothing wrong and it worked. Rather than confronting his past and healing from it, Charlie chose to deny it and cover up whatever was revealed. In this way, without consciously realizing it, Charlie chose to be narcissistic.
Once a parent recognizes the potential for narcissistic development in their teenager, the best next step is therapy. A skilled therapist can encourage the healing of childhood trauma thereby reducing the need to cover up any perceived shame. They can also point out parenting techniques that discourage rather than embolden the budding narcissist.