Narcissism - What comes to mind when you hear this word -- self-absorption, inflated self-image, lacking empathy, feeling better than others, taking others for granted? Is this what we hope for our children? Not really. These are concerning words, and not what most parents wish for their children. Of course we understand that very young children, birth to 5 years old, are naturally ego-centric as they learn where they fit in the world. But when children reach school age and are developing a clearer sense of themselves and others, narcissism becomes a concern as an extreme personality trait which can harm children’s development and social relationships. When most extreme, it is diagnosed as a personality disorder that requires therapeutic treatment.
Research suggests that narcissism is increasing.
Do Parents Influence Narcissism of Their Children?
Let’s turn to a recent study which examined narcissism in 7-12 year old children to find out how it develops. The team of researchers from the Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands and Ohio State University in the US explored 2 potential avenues of the Origins of Narcissism. The researchers tested two theories put forth in previous research. Social learning theory suggests that children may become narcissistic if parents convey messages that they are more valuable or entitled than others. Psychoanalytic theory proposes that children may become narcissistic if their parents show them little warmth.
This study of narcissism involved 565 Dutch children, ages 7-12 years, and their parents (415 mothers, 290 fathers) recruited from elementary schools serving lower to upper middle class neighborhoods. Parents and children completed questionnaires four times at 6-month intervals.
Children’s rating scales used multiple items to assess:
Narcissism (e.g., “Kids like me deserve something extra.”),
Self-esteem (e.g., “Kids like me are happy with themselves as a person.”) and
Parental warmth (e.g., “My mother/father treats me gently and with kindness.”)
Parent’s rating scales used multiple items to assess:
Parental overvaluation (e.g., “My child is more special than other children.”)
Parental warmth (e.g., “I let my child know I love him/her.”)
What Did the Researchers Discover?
The results of statistical analyses of the four waves of data upheld social learning theory. Parents’ self-reports of overvaluation of children consistently predicted their children’s self-reports of narcissism, but not self-esteem over the 18-month study. However, unlike psychoanalytic theory, neither parent, nor child reports of lacking parental warmth predicted child narcissism. On the flip side, children’s reports of high parental warmth predicted their self-esteem, although parent’s self-reports of warmth were not associated with children’s self esteem. It appears that the important factor in self-esteem was the children’s perceptions of their parents being warm towards them.
“When children are seen by their parents as being more special and more entitled than other children, they may internalize the view that they are superior individuals, a view that is at the core of narcissism. However, when children are treated by their parents with affection and appreciation, they may internalize the view that they are valuable individuals, a view that is at the core of self-esteem.”
This study used only questionnaires completed by parents and children. We know that what parents say they do and what they actually do may not be the same. From these study results we learned that what parents say they do and what children experience from parents’ behavior may be different as well. It would be interesting to add an observational parenting assessment of nurturing behavior to this research for an objective picture of parent-child interactions.
How Would Parental Warmth and Overvaluation be Detected Using KIPS?
In the videos shown in the KIPS onsite training we show a striking example of both parental overvaluation and warmth in one of the parent-child play videos. We see a Mom who shouts effuse words of praise whenever her 21/2 year old child drops a ball in the basketball hoop; even though it’s not a true accomplishment, because he achieved this skill long ago. With Mom’s prodding, the child plays along, repeating the action, and creeping closer to the hoop each time. He eventually begins clapping for himself and looking for praise when he simply places the ball in the hoop that is next to him.
On the items relevant to overvaluation on the KIPS parenting assessment [link], the Mom’s behavior during this sequence would be rated on 5-point scale (5 is high quality):
Reasonable Expectations - low quality (expectations too low; no challenges),
Adapting Strategies - low quality (parent makes few attempts to adjust strategies),
Encouragement - moderate quality (inappropriately uses words and actions to build confidence).
It’s equally important to note that on the items relevant to warmth this Mom would simultaneously be scored (5 is high quality):
Sensitivity of Responses - high quality (reads cues and understands child’s point of view) and
Supports Emotions - high quality (shares child’s emotions, models appropriate expression of emotions”).
Taken together, this Mom overvaluates her child’s behavior, but also appears warm. After scoring the KIPS assessment with a parent showing this pattern of scores, it might be helpful to review and reflect on this video with the Mom so she could see her interactions with her child through a different lens.
Could Mom be promoting narcissism? A parent’s reasonable expectations, accompanied by a few challenges and honest encouragement can foster a child’s positive and accurate appraisal of his/her own abilities, without promoting narcissism.
Is Mom building positive self-esteem? A positive perception of self can be fostered by a parent responding sensitively to a child’s cues and supporting him/her to express feelings clearly and, appropriately, while also understanding others’ feelings. These skills contribute to building character, which can lead to more empathy, flexible thinking and problem solving in social situations.
Building self-esteem brings to mind The Flourishing Programme, discussed in a previous post, which guides parents to develop flourishing children by promoting five factors required for psychological well-being –spersonal strengths, emotional well-being, positive communication, learning strengths, and resilience.
Through a parenting assessment you can gain insights into the interactions between parent and child. The case described above from our training, is a fine example of such an insight. Many training participants correctly identify the responsiveness and warmth of the mother, but don’t recognize the opportunity to adapt the challenge and more appropriately target the encouragement. With an observational parenting assessment, accompanied by self-reflection with parents, you can set families on a nurturing path to build children’s self-esteem and prevent narcissism.
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