How Parents Can Avoid Raising A Narcissist, From Psychologists
If your 8-year-old is running around naked screaming "Look at me!" you've got a happy child on your hands. If your 18-year-old is doing it...well, they might be narcissistic, says Keith Campbell, Ph.D., behavioral psychologist and author of The New Science of Narcissism.
Of course, running around in the nude isn't a classic sign of narcissism, but the need for attention, along with 14 other behaviors, can be. Noticing these signs in your own kid can raise some concerns, so we asked psychologists their best tips to avoid raising a narcissist.
How to tell if your child is becoming a narcissist.
When you look at the research, you can see hints of adult narcissism in younger kids (think impulsivity, rule-breaking, or lack of empathy), but most psychologists and researchers avoid labeling young children as narcissists.
"I would never panic about an 8-year-old's narcissism because a lot of that changes developmentally," Campbell tells mbg. In fact, personalities will continue developing until a person is in their mid-20s, psychologist and narcissism expert Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., adds.
It's also common for teens to act entitled and selfish toward parents and not necessarily a sign of a one-day narcissist. To get a better gauge of their personality, "Watch how they treat their peers," Durvasula says. "While they may not hit their marks with you, if they are practicing regulation and empathy with their peers, that's a good sign."
Parenting tips to avoid raising a narcissist.
Even though a young child who exhibits narcissistic behaviors might grow out of them, it can be helpful to offer some course-correction along the way.
When parents come to him with the fear of raising a narcissistic child, Campbell likes to offer a simple three-step mnemonic device: CPR, which stands for compassion, passion, and responsibility:
Teach them compassion.
"If you want to avoid narcissism, the No. 1 thing you can do is reinforce a sense of compassion and empathy in your children," Campbell says. This could include teaching your child about their own emotions and encouraging them to ask how others are feeling in a given situation. Modeling kindness and pointing out unkind behavior can be helpful, too.
"Never model entitled or dysregulated behavior (e.g., treat people out in the world well; let your kids see you manage your emotions in a healthy manner)," Durvasula says.
Encourage them to find passions.
Encouraging your child to find a passion is less frequently discussed as a way to avoid narcissism, but it's incredibly valuable.
When someone is focused on their passions, they tend to show enthusiasm and build camaraderie around it. Any ego involved will usually melt away if they're doing it out of love, Campbell says.
Instill a sense of responsibility.
Narcissists are really good at taking responsibility for good things in their lives, like their job, how attractive they are, or how much money they make. What they have a hard time with, however, is taking responsibility for the negative, Campbell tells mbg.
"If you teach kids to take responsibility, especially for mistakes, that can be a buffer to narcissism," he says.
That might mean turning your child's mistakes and misbehavior into teaching moments in which you encourage your kid to directly admit to what they've done and explain why it wasn't OK. Validate your kids when they take responsibility for their actions to reinforce their habit. (E.g., saying things like, "I'm happy you owned up to that; that's a very responsible thing to do.")
Continue challenging them.
Continue challenging your child so they know they have limits, like everyone else. "That's always a balance because you want kids to feel good about themselves and have confidence," Campbell says, "but if there's too much or it seems unhealthy, you may want to temper that ego with some reality."
For example, if your child gets every word right on the spelling test every single time, ask their teacher to give them more difficult words. This can also keep your child from becoming bored and acting out in class. It also teaches them to solve their own problems and develop a healthy level of self-efficacy, says Campbell, aka the opposite of snowplow parenting.
Remind them they're loved, unconditionally.
Avoid raising your child with the idea that love is conditional or to be earned, Durvasula says. This can lead a child to develop a deep need for attention, as well as a deep fear of rejection, anxiety, and repressed shame—all of which are traits of narcissism.
Campbell advises parents to reframe the thought I want my kid to feel special to I want my kid to know they're especially loved by me."
"As long as you have love, that tempers ego," he says.
When a child gets away with just about anything growing up, they're going to believe that's the way the world works and may develop a sense of entitlement.
"If you have a child who is behaving in a manner that is entitled, antagonistic, dysregulated, and cruel, as a parent you can set boundaries, set behavioral expectations, and set consequences," Durvasula says.
If your consequences aren't getting through to them and their behavior becomes increasingly difficult, consider working with a family therapist or child psychologist. Your kid may not listen to you, but a therapist may be able to monitor and identify whether these patterns are related to external issues such as bullying, anxiety, or issues with peers, Durvasula adds.
The bottom line.
When young children exhibit narcissistic behaviors, it's generally not too big of a concern since most of them will grow out of these personalities with time. Instilling a sense of compassion, responsibility, and emotional regulation, among other traits, can support that developmental process for the better.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.