When we see children with signs of narcissism, it’s hard not to wonder, how did this happen? Was it a genetic disposition, or were these traits developed as part of their upbringing, as a result of their parents or caregivers?

According to a recent study in the Washington Post, researchers have taken a stab at that question by following and surveying 565 children between the ages of 7 and 11 and their parents — 415 mothers and 290 fathers.

The results are quite clear: “Parents who ‘overvalue’ children during this developmental stage, telling them they are superior to others and entitled to special treatment, are more likely to produce narcissistic children — who can grow up to become narcissistic adults, unless something is done about it,” said Tameka Anderson, founder of Parenting Confident Kids.

Why do parents struggle with the idea of “overvalue” in their child? And what should they do if they want their child(ren) to excel without contributing to narcissism?

Personality is a fascinating part of psychology. “Especially when it comes to narcissism, no other psychological term is used so often in stream culture,” said Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC,  a nationally certified counselor and founder of Counselingand Wellness Center of Pittsburgh.  

“While it is easy to note traits of narcissism, and there are certain parts to child development that are hallmarked by self focus, a mental health professional will not diagnose a personality disorder in a child,” said Wijkstrom. 

While that is true, there are things that parents do that can increase or reduce the likelihood of their child developing narcissistic traits. 

While all personality disorders have one part that is social or environmental and one part that is heritable or biological, we always do our best to focus on what we can influence as parents, our power then lies in how parenting does influence personality outcomes.

Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC,  a nationally certified counselor and founder of Counselingand Wellness Center of Pittsburgh.  

6 behaviours that can encourage the development of narcissistic traits:

1. They use shame-based parenting

“Children who are raised with shame, particularly shame around their inner worlds or who are shamed simply for who they are by their parents, are also at risk for developing a narcissistic personality,” said Durvasula.

“Shame can evoke a myriad of reactions in children, it can make them shrink in and become shadows of themselves, it can also make them become grandiose and self inflated in an effort to hide their woundedness,” said Wijkstrom.

For those with true narcissistic personality disorder, a part of the treatment is to uncover and heal the inner narcissistic wound.

2. They shower their child with adoration

Just as using fear, criticism, and shame can have adverse outcomes, so can too much adoration. “The parenting style that focuses completely on meeting the child’s needs without at times challenging them to become aware of themselves and the impact of their behaviors,” said Wijkstrom.

3. They don’t coach their child on empathy

“It is important to help your child think about how others are feeling and what they are experiencing,” said Wijkstrom. Without helping them gain an age appropriate awareness of others needs, the result is often narcissism.

4. Their love is conditional

Parents who are inconsistent, neglectful, or abusive can raise children who evidence narcissistic patterns in adulthood. In addition: “Parents who are very conditional in their love- the child learns that he or she is valued for what they achieve, how they look, how they perform – that also can result in narcissism,” said Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology and author of two books on narcissism.

5. They are emotionally unavailable–and compensate with material things

Cold parents who are emotionally unavailable and compensate with material things can also create a pathway for narcissism.

Children who grow up simultaneously overindulged and under indulged are also at risk. These are kids whose material needs are met – perhaps too much (as though they are “spoiled”) but whose emotional needs are not met at all.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

These kids may have gadgets and wonderful experiences and privilege, but are given no opportunity to grow an emotional vocabulary or emotional self-awareness.

6. They are bad role models

The fact is, narcissistic parents don’t have kids because they intend to cultivate and direct their children through life. Dr. Vikram Tarugu, CEO of Detox of South Florida believes these types of parents have kids because they have an instant, built-in partnership through which they have control, one which the narcissist may dictate the laws without any checks and balances.

The idea of “modelling” also comes into play. Kids do what they see – so a child with a dysregulated, vain, superficial and entitled parent – MAY (not always) simply mirror those qualities (some children who grow up like this feel a tremendous sense of shame about their parents’ conduct).  

“Most of these patterns undercut the child’s ability to develop a secure sense of self – and that insecurity can plague them into adulthood and manifest as narcissism,” said Durvasula.

Watch what happened when this man confronted his father:

Here are 2 parenting tricks that can help:

Of course, there’s also a way of parenting children so they have a better chance of not developing these psychological characteristic.

1. Be a good role model

“Find opportunities to highlight qualities that others possess that show unique skills,” said Dr. Rebecca Mannis, Learning Specialist at Ivy-prep.com

Demonstrate your comfort with others having qualities that you don’t have and your ability to celebrate their success. For example, you can say, “The way Aunt Jane set up the barbecue really made good use of the yard. It was different from what I planned but really worked for the occasion.”

As you shift the focus away from mastery and more toward caring for others, your child will internalize the lessons from those teachable moments.

2. Take note of and praise your child’s character

“Celebrate your child’s character”, says Dr. Mannis. That does not signify their achievements but more particularly the moments where they have shown empathy and were not drawing the attention to themselves only.

Say something like: “Joe, it was very thoughtful of you to play with your cousin while his mom was changing the baby’s diaper. Thanks for pitching in that way.”

Seek help if you need more guidance

Parenting is not an innate talent. The truth is, it’s a challenge that we can all learn and get better at. That’s why it is important to identify our blind spots and limitations, and work on them to make sure we can show up for our children in the best possible way.

Past, unresolved traumas can resurface in our parenting methods. And sometimes, there are underlying issues we are unable to identify. In that case, it’s important to seek the help or guidance of a professional licensed therapist.

Oftentimes, they can help detangle and make sense complex situations while providing a clearer path to a solution.

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