Are you turning your child into a self-loving narcissist?
Micheko Productions, Inh. Michele Vitucci/Alamy Stock Photo By Emma Young Does your child think they are special? Has he or she ever said something like: “Without me, our class would be much less fun”, or “I like to think about how incredibly nice I am”, or “Kids like me deserve something extra”? If so, you might be creating a narcissist. Narcissism is a personality trait consisting of an inflated self-image and a desire for others to recognise your superiority. At the extreme it is a psychiatric disorder, but the vast majority of us fall somewhere on the scale of “everyday” narcissism. How narcissistic you are is influenced in roughly equal measure by genes and other factors, the most important of which is parenting. Last year, researchers including Eddie Brummelman at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Brad Bushman at Ohio State University in Columbus, reported that narcissism is cultivated by parents who believe their child is more special and more entitled than others. “Overvaluing parents overestimate, over-claim and overpraise their child’s qualities,” says Brummelman. “For example, they overestimate their child’s IQ, claim their child has knowledge of many different topics – including topics that don’t even exist – and lavish their child with praise even if the child doesn’t perform well.” Such parents often try to make their child stand out from the get-go by giving him or her a unique or uncommon first name, he adds. Jean Twenge at San Diego State University in California, co-author, along with psychologist Keith Campbell, of The Narcissism Epidemic, argues that the self-esteem movement that began in California in the 1980s is at least partly to blame. By encouraging parents to tell children they’re special, it has inadvertently fostered narcissism, she says. Brummelman believes that when children are overvalued they may internalise “unhealthy feelings of superiority” – the core of narcissism. Instead, he thinks parents should aim to cultivate self-esteem or “healthy feelings of worth” in their children. His work suggests that they can do this by focusing on being “warm”. “When children feel loved and cared for, they may internalise the belief that they are worthy as a person – the core of self-esteem,” he says. Twenge agrees. “The easiest advice for building self-esteem instead of narcissism in children is to say ‘I love you’ instead of ‘You’re special’,” she says. But others are more equivocal. “I don’t like using the terms ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ because many of these traits are mixed blessings,” says Campbell. Indeed, there is growing evidence that some aspects of narcissism increase a person’s chances in life. Meanwhile, psychologists continue to debate the difference between narcissism and high self-esteem. Some believe overblown self-esteem is a scourge, and that generation Y – people born between 1980 and 2000 – is particularly afflicted. To add to the confusion, studies show that narcissists often score highly on measures of self-esteem. There’s no evidence that overvaluing parenting style leads to full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, notes narcissism researcher David Kealy at the University of British Columbia, Canada. What evidence there is suggests it is associated with childhood emotional deprivation of one form of another. Nevertheless, given our scant knowledge about how narcissism develops, the link with overvaluation of children has important implications for parenting, he says. To further explore the link, Bushman has developed a Parental Overvaluation Scale. It asks parents of children aged 8 to 12 to rate their level of agreement with statements such as: “I would not be surprised to learn that my child has extraordinary talents and abilities” and “My child deserves something extra in life”. Anyone with a child in this age group can find out where they fall on the scale by taking the test online. More on these topics: