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Narcissism Can Arise As Early As 3 Years Old — How To Not Raise A Narcissist

Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.
March 20, 2020
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.
By Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy.
March 20, 2020
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The development of the mother-child relationship during the first three years of a child's life sheds significant light on how adult men come to suffer from confusion over their sense of self in relation to others—particularly with women. 

Chances are you have met men with interpersonal difficulties who needed to become attached to women who adore them. This adoration is commonly described as a narcissistic supply that the mother gives the child during his early years. If she doesn't provide this, the danger of raising a narcissist arises. 

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To that end, here's a look at the advances in psychoanalytic theories about a child's development during those early years.

The separation-individuation stage.

There is a stage of child development called separation-individuation during the first three years of life. This is when the child must work out his need to feel close to an admiring mother while also developing a healthy separation where he can tolerate that he is not omnipotent and grandiose—as he once believed as a toddler. 

During these years, it is required by the mother to help her son experience moments of inner separation when he realistically endures that she is not one with him. Although the mother may have shown delight at his experience of being grandiose and powerful, he must learn to temper and regulate these feelings and to wait and delay gratification because, in the healthy development of the child, he must come to know that they (mother and child) are emotionally and physically separate beings. 

The importance of setting limits.

Parents often wonder how to set limits on their children and why this is so important. Internal separation between mother and child refers to the development of such limits and the experience of differentiation between the infant and the mother. When limits are set early on regarding a child's behavior, the child experiences an inner process of mental separation from the mother. 

For example, when a mother tells her 2-year-old, "Use your words, not your hands—hitting isn't allowed," the child knows his mother has a separate vision of how he should behave. They are separate individuals. This cements the clarification the child needs that he can't do whatever he wants; he has a mother who is different from him and who may restrict his actions. If she fails to do so, he will feel too powerful and omnipotent, leading to the potential for the development of pathological narcissism as an adult. 

Children don't want to feel more powerful than their parents. In fact, it's scary for a young child to feel more powerful than his mother. The child needs her to set limits so that he knows how to relate to others in a way that is acceptable. If he is too powerful, he expects that he is entitled to more than a child should have. 

If, for example, the child isn't stopped from hitting his sibling, he feels more powerful than he should and doesn't know how to limit his impulses to express his frustrations and anger. This is a child who could grow up into a narcissistic adult man who feels that he has power and control over others under unreasonable circumstances. He learns to manipulate and coerce others unrealistically when it serves his ambitions.

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The individuation stage.

Individuation, on the other hand, refers to the development of the infant's ego, his sense of identity, and his cognitive abilities. It refers to a developing concept of the self. Although interrelated, it is possible for either separation or individuation to develop more fully than the other in this stage of development, largely depending on the mother's attitude toward the child.

When this period of development does not proceed normally, the young boy becomes fixated, leaving him mentally stuck at the time when he needs great adoration. He does not proceed to the realization that he is differentiated from his mother and cannot expect her to always affirm his sense of infant-like greatness. When this failure to develop occurs during these early years, a man never successfully overcomes these needs for affirmation and adoration. These needs come to characterize his personality, and if he is indeed endowed with a superior intelligence that is applauded too much by his parents, he may be overindulged inappropriately and develop an overestimated sense of entitlement.

This developmental phase is crucial for a child's later acceptance (as an adult) of his realistic power and control over himself and others. He must learn that he is not as extraordinary as he may wish to believe in his interactions with others. Each time he fails to get the recognition he longs for, he may feel very ashamed and vulnerable. This is his plight, his Achilles' heel, his flawed sense of self that can lead to a significant drop in self-esteem and even depression. These early experiences greatly affect an individual's lifelong lines of development.

Separation is important for autonomy. 

The mother who enables her child to separate well and develop autonomy gives him a greater sense of normal competence. The mother who prolongs her attachment to her son impedes this development and may lead him toward unhealthy relationships later in life, specifically with women, as he may want the same kind of narcissistic attachment that he held with his mother early on.

Narcissistic men did not wholly succeed in their psychological birth—where the boundaries between self and other were clearly defined, allowing a mutually satisfying marital relationship to form when they grew up. It's as if the child was not properly given enough autonomy to give up a kind of bossiness, which impeded his progressive development. He did not give up reasonable control over his mother, so he cannot feel safe and secure in a relationship and has clear boundary issues with his parents. 

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The importance of being disappointed.

At the beginning of a child's life, the idealized parent is gazed at in awe, admired, and looked up to. The child wants to become this same ideal. That is, the narcissistic self wants to be looked at and admired. Later in life, the narcissistic ideal is related to the man's ambitions. The normal narcissistic man reaches for his ambitions. The pathological man is humiliated when he fails to live up to his ideals or ambitions. 

While it is healthy to be motivated by ambitions, it is not healthy to love them unconditionally. Then, there are emotions of disappointment that contain shame. This shame results from infantile grandiose fantasies that are not restrained in the adult's personality. He experiences narcissistic humiliation when the admiration and confirmation of his ambitions are frustrated.

Thus, we have seen the remarkable significance of the first three years of life on the narcissism of a young boy as he grows up to be a man. His relationship with his mother during his infantile stages greatly affects his capacity to develop into a mature, normally narcissistic adult who can express normal intimacy with a woman. 

Still curious? Here are some rapid-fire tips on how to not raise a narcissist:

  • Stress the differentiation of the child from the mother, and promote his developing identity as an individual, separate person. 
  • Set reasonable limits on your child's behavior during his first three years.
  • Praise and admire him appropriately based on specific, earned achievements, not globally saying he is always great and special. 
  • Teach your child right from wrong so he develops a reasonable conscience.
  • Understand that all young children experience feelings of power and omnipotence naturally, but be cognizant that these feelings can veer out of control in cases of narcissism.
  • Help your child temper his emotions so he can feel them and express them without being overwhelmed by them.
  • Help your child tolerate frustrations, disappointments, and realistic delays in meeting his needs to help him gain resilience in the face of normal failures.
  • Encourage your child to find pleasure and satisfaction in independent functioning.
  • Help your child recognize other people's viewpoints.
  • Value character traits such as honesty and kindness toward others.
  • Recognize and discourage entitled attitudes and actions.
  • Discuss greed and selfishness, and teach sharing with others.
  • Discourage false blame of others for one's own errors and failures.
  • Avoid insisting on perfection, winning, and undue toughness. 
Adapted from Are You Living With a Narcissist? by Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from Familius, an imprint of Workman Publishing, 2020.
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Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. author page.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.

Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy. She received specialized training in child and adolescent treatment at New York University and adult psychoanalysis at The Society for Psychoanalytic Study and Research.

Hollman is the author of the books Are You Living With A Narcissist? and Unlocking Parental Intelligence. She has also written several parenting guides as well as articles on mental illness for Long Island, NY health professionals and schools, discussing issues relevant to educators and mental health counselors, including ADHD, the gifted child, and depression or anxiety in children.