“Yet another frustrating conversation with my son,” Halley remarked to her therapist. “He is so arrogant, demanding, and controlling. He refuses to see that the wrong in his actions and insists that everyone else is to blame for his situation. I’m so tired of fighting with him.”
Halley’s 17-year-old son developed severely escalating lousy behavior over the years. At first glance, he was charming to be around and seemed to have plenty of friendships, but he never solidified deep relationships with anyone in particular and he tended to wear out his relationships with alarming speed. His teachers had similar experiences interacting with him. He was great at the beginning of the year but by the end, he was pushing all of the boundaries and was frequently in trouble. His grades fluctuated depending on whether or not he believed an assignment, class, or even teacher was worthy of his energy and time.
Halley tried to reason with her son, but his argumentative skills easily outmatched hers. She talked to his guidance counselor who seemed to enjoy spending time with her son, but that only led to more broken promises. She even reached out to family and friends for help, but her son would only soak up the attention and then change nothing about his behavior. Finally, she talked to her therapist about the situation.
Narcissism can’t be officially diagnosed in a person until 18 years old and there does need to be a previous 5-year pattern of narcissistic-like behavior in order to justify the diagnosis. Yet there is no need to wait for a diagnosis before doing something to try to minimize narcissistic tendencies. Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be a small part of a person’s personality, a full-blown disorder, or can even be mixed with other severe personality disorders such as Borderline, Paranoid, and Anti-Social. To minimize the intensity of narcissism, try this:
- Go to family counseling. The best type of therapy is one in which the parents and teenager are equal participants. If needed, siblings can be added to the treatment as well. This allows for a level of accountability for both the teen’s and the parent’s behavior, helps to mediate between disagreements, and provides a safe place to vent frustrations.
- Trace the roots of narcissism. Narcissism is part biology (inherited from a family member), part environment (modeled by a parent or as a result of abuse or neglect), and part choice (the teen sees the benefits in being narcissistic). Unfortunately, in our current culture, there are plenty of high profile people (politicians, musicians, athletes, entertainers, and actors) who display the characteristics of narcissism thereby glorifying the behavior. By identifying the core of where the narcissistic traits are coming from, localizing treatment and helping to limit the behavior in the future becomes much more straightforward.
- Start using the word “narcissism.” The best way to introduce the concept of narcissism is to use the term as a new regularly practiced vocabulary word. Drop it in a sentence, define it when asked, and offer suggestions for narcissistic behavior – such as when a person refuses to apologize even after being exposed or proven wrong. Familiarizing the teen with what narcissism looks like provides them with the ability to start recognizing it in themselves.
- Point out and discuss the narcissism in others. The next step is to point out narcissism in others. Begin with the family member who the teen most likely inherited the trait from. Then move to TV characters, people in the media, or sports figures. Casually introducing the trait of narcissism as common in people who are easily identifiable gives context for the teen to examine narcissism in different aspects of life and what that looks like.
- Be strong. As a whole, narcissists respect strength and laugh at weakness or vulnerability. So keep this in mind when talking to the potential teen narcissist. Don’t be surprised by their lack of empathy or unwillingness to see or value things from another’s perspective. Rather, expect this reaction and work within it. Attempting to get a response from them with an emotional approach will lead to nowhere.
- Use the hamburger method. One of the best ways of confronting a narcissist is the hamburger method: compliment, confront, compliment. By sandwiching a confrontation in between two compliments, the likelihood that it will be heard and understood dramatically increases. Confronting head-on is never ideal. This makes the narcissist feel attacked and they become too defensive to be reasoned with.
- Do a mission trip. This doesn’t have to be an overseas adventure. There are plenty of local organizations that need volunteers and offer multiple ways for people to help their community. Sometimes, seeing how difficult life is for others can reduce the sense of entitlement a narcissist has.
- Remember the serenity prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Anytime a person is dealing with a narcissist, this is an excellent reminder of accepting what can’t be changed – which is the narcissism itself – and instead of changing your expectations of the narcissist, or knowing when to do both.
- Limit TV and video games. This might not be possible for older teens but it is for the younger ones. By limiting exposure to TV shows which celebrate narcissistic behavior, this reduces the likelihood that it will be seen in a favorable light. Similarly, by limiting video games that generate a false sense of superiority and domination, the desire for other similar environments declines.
- Encourage face to face interaction. A lack of proper social skills can perpetuate a type of narcissism known as covert narcissism. This type of narcissist uses silence and isolation to manipulate others into submission. By encouraging face to face interactions instead of using electronic devices, this increases social skills and decreases the potential of covert narcissism.
Even though her son was close to the age of being officially diagnosed as a narcissist, Halley used these techniques to be sure she was doing as much as she could to help her son. Her unwillingness to give up on him made a lasting impact and, as an adult, his narcissism was on the low end of the scale instead of being higher. Parents have the unique opportunity to truly make a difference in developing their child, a chance that should not be passed up or taken for granted.