Disclaimer: This article is not about how to prevent your child from becoming a narcissist. Narcissistic Personality Disorder starts early in life and is often a defense mechanism against chronic neglect and emotional or physical abuse. We all have narcissistic tendencies, however, that need to be dealt with so that we become healthy, whole people. For more details, see https://poemachronicles.com/traits-narcissist/ .
We love our children so much that it is easy to accidentally create an environment ripe for nurturing narcissistic tendencies. But the lifelong consequences of a narcissistic child can be devastating, both for the child and for your family. Narcissistic tendencies include the following traits: a fragile ego, low self-esteem, bragging, inability to be honest with self and others, and an inability to face up to personal responsibilities. A lack of empathy for others and the suspicion that everyone else has it better than they round out the devilish catalog.
Helicopter parenting is partly to blame, but our culture of selfies and body worship doesn’t exactly help. To make matters a little more complicated, certain phases of natural development are naturally more self-focused than others. Every healthy two year old and thirteen year old has a bit of narcissism as they are embarking on journeys of self-discovery.
So if you want to help your child possess a healthy self-esteem without over-correcting into narcissism, there are ways to make this journey easier. Of course, parenting can never rule out all the possibilities of children whose lives never quite launch or who veer terribly off course. After all, your child, adolescence forward, is an individual moral agent and must be treated as such.
However, if your son or daughter is showing narcissistic signs such as self-absorption or selfishness, you have more power to correct this course than you realize.
Here are some tools to help both you and your kids:
- Stop the blame/shame game. We parents often model this more than we realize. One of the most common shame/blame rituals played in homes everywhere is the “Who moved my ____?” The question is both shaming and blaming because it assumes that the responsibility for lost items rests on someone other than to whom they belong. This may seem subtle but it sends the message that our actions are someone else’s fault and boy, are they in trouble.
In many homes, everyone rushes to find the lost item in order to avoid blame and gain favor. Too many little scenes like this teach children that it is never ok to be at fault and that our actions can be laid at the doors of others. Try to rethink the role of blame in your household. Asking the others if they might know where you mislaid your item teaches kids that it is ok to ask for help, and it is ok to be imperfect.
- Play Mad, Glad, Sad. While my kids were young, we played this around the dinner table. Basically, everyone at the table shares a time that day when they were mad, glad, or sad. This teaches self-awareness and cultivates intimacy. Don’t try to fix their emotion, just validate it. If your son or daughter reveals that a friend betrayed a confidence and they are angry, validate that emotion without trying to fix it in any way.
If you can cultivate conversations around the dinner table that focus on each individual in their turn you teach them to be honest with themselves and others. They learn that their feelings and experiences matter. You teach them that being open is safe, at least within the family unit. These conversations also lead to a great many fruitful discussions in a natural way that prove helpful. My kids remember this ritual fondly to this day, now that they are grown.
- Never shield them from the consequences of their own actions. This might seem obvious, but as a college professor for nearly twenty-five years, parents arrived at my office in a snit because their child was failing. I say child ironically as most college students are adults. And if your child is a minor in college, you do them no favor by running interference even then.
Many educators I know retire or leave their field early because they can no longer withstand the verbal abuse from parents. If you want your child to learn to respect others, it is required that you do so yourself. But more importantly, allowing your child to fail a class might be the most valuable thing you do as a parent, barring cases where there are learning disabilities, etc… Why? Because allowing them to be responsible for their own education means they will take up the burden of responsibility for the rest of their life. Or they won’t. Either way, you can’t force success on a child or be successful for them. You can, however, let them reap what they sow.
- Quit being afraid of their failures. This is a weak spot for most of us. We are afraid of our children’s failures because, in our minds, it represents a failure on our parts. And to be honest, sometimes it might be, though a lot of the time it is not. The danger here is two-fold. If we fear our children’s failure, they will become afraid to fail. Failure is an important teacher. It teaches us humility and perseverance, among other things.
The second danger is that our children will start to hide their failures from us, either to protect us or out of fear. Whether our children’s failures are moral, educational, or a failure to take responsibility, we help them create false selves when we make it too dangerous to be real. Children obviously should not lie, but parents have the responsibility for making it safe to tell the truth. Better yet, model the right way to handle failure by accepting your own without falling into self-blame, self-pity, or anger.
- Praise them for the right things. Children need praise, but if you praise a kid continually for being smart, or athletic, or pretty, they will focus their energies on becoming smarter, stronger, and prettier. The problem with this is that all of these things are somewhat shallow. You end up with a know it all, a jock, and a child focused on image. Praise them for the real things like telling the truth when it was hard. Praise them for facing a fear or for persevering on a difficult project.
The secret to praising your children well is validation. If your son or daughter brings home a great report card, tell them that you love seeing them absorb the material or getting excited when they learn something new. The key to validation is recognizing who they are first, then what they have done second.
The important message for your children is that you enjoy who they are, not just what they do.
This gives them the sense of worthiness that we all must have in order to feel loved. Not only are they gifted in their unique ways, but the essence of who they are is important and valued. This is how God loves us. He enjoys who we are because the good things we do can only be done through Him.
Any way you look at it, teaching our kids to value the self at an appropriate level, to contain within themselves the ability to self-correct without fear, and to be wholly comfortable with who they are requires that we be on the same path. And the world needs people that are fully alive, brave enough to be who they really are and willing to risk. The world does not need any more cowards hiding behind labels, full of grandiose claims that are empty.
My children are all grown now, and the mistakes I have made are multitudinous. However, I say without equivocation, that I enjoy each one of them, each of them revealing the glory of God in their own unique way. How blessed I am.
For more on a narcissistic home environment see: