5 Tips to NOT Raise a Narcissist Child
Written by Mary Ann Little, Ph.D.
Photography by Juan Moyano
I’ve never heard a parent say they wanted to raise a narcissist. Everyone wants to rear a well-adjusted youngster who is kind and capable, thoughtful and sympathetic, competent and productive, happy and successful.
While no parent wants their child to bear the scarlet “N,” some children actually end up selfish, entitled, and unempathetic. Tragically, emerging narcissists-to-be (N2Bs) will suffer these negative character traits, become unable to establish fulfilling relationships, and miss finding fulfillment and contentment as an adult. But…is there a way to stop this progression before it’s too late?
Cultural Messages: A Narcissistic Education
Given the nature of today’s world, it is increasingly difficult to raise a child who values empathy more than winning or enjoys watching friends succeed without succumbing to that dreaded FOMO. Both parents and children are bombarded with narcissistic messages that promote selfishness, superficiality, and unhealthy values. While such values are surely not good for grown-ups either, they are even more damaging to youngsters who are still fragile and susceptible to influence. Sadly, parenting styles that encourage and support the development of narcissism have become more predominant among all parents.
Cultural messages include overvaluing achievement, idealizing winners, under-appreciating solid performance, celebrating beauty, glorifying wealth and power, and rewarding success at all costs. Whether intentional or not, these pressures condone selfishness, insensitivity, and disregard for the feelings of others. The messages are everywhere: get ahead, regardless of who you hurt in the process; use people if it benefits you; take what you need and ignore the impact on others; put others down, if it elevates you—the list is long and growing. All these short-sighted notions reinforce self-centeredness and disregard for the feelings of others. In doing so, they can also lay the groundwork for narcissism.
While we all may feel powerless to change the world around us, there are steps that we can take to help our children grow up to be healthy and happy—in our own home and in our daily interactions with them. Research shows that parents should be invested in strategies that build a positive self-concept and strong self-esteem in the child. Strange as it might seem, helping a child feel better about themselves is an antidote for growing a narcissist under your own roof. However, not all self-esteem messages are the same, and it’s important to understand how building a healthy self-concept works.
Avoiding the Scarlet “N”—Tips to Grow a Healthy, Non-Narcissistic Kid
The process of growing a healthy self is more complicated than most of us realize. Children start life with a preschooler’s overly grand sense of self. “I can do anything and be anybody.” Children raise the window shades and actually believe they made the sun come up. They have to like themselves as they are, without maintaining that grandiosity into adulthood.
As the child matures, those early childhood ideas must be deflated and replaced with more realistic ones. “I can do things if I set my mind on them.” “I’m not great at math, but I can figure it out.” “I’m a great swimmer but those skills don’t help me with baseball—I can’t even connect with the ball.” The sense of self is becoming more accurate and more differentiated. Eventually, the healthy child will come to know themselves in light of their strengths and weaknesses and conclude that they are good enough—likable and valuable as they are. Parents play an essential role in this process. They should not try to deflate that grandiose child too early, but they must also not support grandiose views when it’s no longer developmentally appropriate.
So how do you know when to smile and play along and when to begin to gently deflate the balloon? This is a tricky, nuanced process. Parents must hold love constant while the child struggles with being less than perfect and not as accomplished as they dreamed. Through love and positive regard, they encourage the child to come to understand that they are loved as they are—not because they are the “prettiest girl in school” or the “best” violinist.
The following recommendations based on research, theory, and clinical practice are aimed at helping parents navigate this challenging role.
1. Avoid treating the child as “special.”
Over-valuing a child is a common pitfall that can develop out of a parent’s attempt to give the love and affection that the child requires. In a sense, viewing and treating the child as “special” makes too much of a good thing.
The “specialness paradigm” sets the stage for narcissism and can be seen in numerous parenting behaviors, including over-indulgence, pampering, over-valuing, intrusiveness, and over-control. Whatever the form, parents who view their child as “special” continuously reward and reinforce exceptionality. Such treatment teaches the child that they are extraordinary and, by definition, better than others. This contributes to the child’s sense of superiority and an inflated, fragile self-concept, one that is vulnerable to criticism and poor performance.
“Special” children fear being exposed as inadequate or as a failure—setting off a cascade of shame and embarrassment. They require continuous recognition and constant reinforcement. It is as if their self-concept is a bucket with a hole in it. Accolades, rewards, and recognition fill the bucket, but when deprived of those things, the bucket cannot hold. It leaks and the self-concept must be filled again. A defective sense of self is not only structurally unhealthy but costly emotionally.
● Parents who treat their child as special often make the child the center of attention in their lives—often to the exclusion of the marriage and other important family ties. Importantly, it teaches children what they should be entitled to in a relationship going forward. “Golden children” can expect to be attended to without exception and come to believe that their behaviors and actions should be treated as a priority.
● Parents who treat their child as special often overindulge them by meeting their every demand and failing to set limits, being reluctant to say “no.” Such parents give their children an inaccurate sense of the way the wider world works.
● Parents who treat their child as special often control them excessively and intrude into their emotional development. Over-controlling strategies include manipulation of a child through withdrawal of love, the induction of guilt around misbehavior, or expressions of disappointment that shame the child. Such parents teach children to be hesitant to trust others and fail to prioritize building emotional closeness.
The specialness paradigm is not good for children. The child eventually reasons that being extraordinary or special is a necessary component of being loved. Moreover, the child who is treated as a VIP comes to expect everyone else to roll out the red carpet. Kids with these narcissist traits or tendencies will inevitably be disappointed when the world around fails to give them the Hollywood treatment.
2. Set age-appropriate limits.
Imagine childhood as a gymnasium. In one corner, kids are jumping over hurdles and problem solving their way through a game of basketball. In the other corner, adults are picking up kids to help them over the hurdles, then telling their little team exactly how to win the game, micromanaging the plan every two minutes. Which group is going to end up with more strength and skills?
Children grow when they encounter hurdles that require adaptation and promote learning. Limit setting in its various forms, provides frustration that is essential for the growing child to mature through confronting and overcoming challenges. Importantly, it also insulates the child from narcissistic development.
Children must learn that they are mostly just like everybody else—they must make their bed and carry their dishes to the sink. While they need to feel loved, they must know that they are not above the systems that affect everyone—they will have to get a job, be at school on time, and treat others kindly. Recognizing and respecting limits tames grandiosity, which gives birth to being reasonable. Well-adjusted children are sensible, able to compromise, and can be a valuable member of a team.
Limit setting involves physical limits (you cannot take food into your bedroom), psychological limits (who is the best child in the family), and environmental limits (you must be four feet tall to ride the roller coaster). Establishing limits is an essential parenting role, and the experience of being limited is a necessary requirement for development to proceed. They allow the child to experience frustration, learn to handle negative emotions, and force the growth of psychological structures that will lead to self-discipline. External structure will eventually become internalized. Growth proceeds from “My teacher made me do my homework by Friday” to “I can do my homework early so I can play with my friend on Thursday afternoon.”
Parents who set few limitations and boundaries for their children compromise their healthy development. Children who do not experience such limits can conclude that the rules do not apply to them. They are likely to become entitled and count on special treatment, believing that they are superior beings. Moreover, lack of limit setting may interfere with the development of self-discipline, as it is hard to learn how to discipline yourself if you have not directly experienced limits in the world.
3. Offer judicious, not excessive, praise for actual achievement.
It’s not uncommon to see signs in school hallways that read, “Children need praise every day.” This philosophy has led many parents to the erroneous belief that praise doesn’t have to be rooted in reality. “You are the best child in the world” and “you’re a special girl whose talents shine brightest in the bunch” are some of the overinflated statements parents think will help their child “feel good” about themselves.
Parents who offer excessive praise undermine the effect of actual achievement and encourage the development of an unfounded, artificial self-concept. These parents tend to praise accomplishments that are unworthy of recognition and compliment. For example, a parent who has just witnessed their child give a solid but unremarkable choir performance might say, “Your singing is so beautiful you should be on the radio.” Not only does this type of praise lose its effectiveness, but it contributes to a sense of being special and an expectation for privileged treatment. It also carries an embedded message that love and acceptance are conditional on outstanding performance and ignores the more critical reflection of effort and self-improvement. In contrast, praise that is offered judiciously and realistically emphasizes effort over outcome and builds self-confidence.
4. Treat imperfection and failure as normal, to be expected, and valuable.
Children who grow and make progress in life do so through struggle. Achieving mastery (at any level) is a process and involves experience with both success and failure. Children must develop the ability to bounce back from defeat and try again.
Parents play an essential role by showing children that they are still loved when they get a poor grade or forget their homework, do not strike out the batter, or score a single basketball goal. Finding the internal strength to pick oneself up and keep trying takes time to develop. Parents can help in this process by accepting the child’s level of performance, whatever the level of accomplishment, as valuable. “Good job, Cindy. You’ve made progress with your math facts. You got more right this week than last week. Your hard work is paying off.”
Pushing perfection should be avoided. Family expectations such as these are hurtful: “We only accept A’s in this family—nothing less than 100 is acceptable in our house.” Unrealistic expectations can contribute to narcissistic development from different directions. If children meet those high standards, they are at risk of developing a sense of being special and entitled. If children cannot meet those expectations, they run the risk of developing a sense of being unworthy and unlovable, failing to be good enough.
Parents can help the child by teaching them that imperfection and failure are a normal and expected part of life. Focusing on achieving competence and mastering skills, as opposed to validation through exceptional, “practically perfect” performance, or social comparison, helps build a healthy self-concept and positive self-esteem.
5. Love your child unconditionally and accept them for who they are.
Parents who raise children with unconditional love contribute to a child’s sense of security and belief in their own lovability. As children grow, such parenting communicates love and warmth through acceptance, understanding, and the quality of involvement and nurture in ever-evolving ways. These parents know and accept the essence of the child. They demonstrate that the child is loveable and valuable for who they are, not what they do. This treatment allows the child to separate their sense of self-worth from their level of performance, whatever it might be. In effect, it helps to build a solid positive self-concept that is resilient in the face of frustration, disappointment, and social comparison.
Parental warmth and steady, consistent love insulate the child from narcissistic development. Children raised with warmth and acceptance learn to have confidence that they are “good enough,” being inherently as capable as others and not needing to prove themselves as a comparative success. They do not see themselves as more special than others but rather as kids who are satisfied with themselves and who like the kind of person they are.
Showing parental warmth, setting limits, and keeping your child firmly rooted in the real world will help children grow up to be emotionally healthy adults who are unselfish, un-entitled, and ultimately insulated from the narcissistic messages of the world.
Mary Ann Little, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic Children (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2023).
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