In the last few years, psycho-buzzwords like “gaslighting,” “toxic” and, especially, “narcissism” have saturated everything from our social media feeds to friendly coffee conversations. And while on the one hand it’s good to be aware of these terms and their real-life, often insidious impacts, we also want to make sure we’re not over-applying them—especially when it comes to children. That’s why we were intrigued by the topic of clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Ann Little’s upcoming book: childhood narcissism. In Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic Children, Dr. Little sets outs to identify early warning signs that can result in full-blown narcissistic disorder and how parents can stop it. Before you even pick up the book you’re probably wondering, oh no, is my child a narcissist? Did I make them that way? Let’s find out.
Is Your Child a Narcissist (And Did You Make Them That Way)?
A clinical psychologist schools us in little narcissists
First, What Is Narcissism and Why Is It So Bad?
Narcissism, Dr. Little tells us, refers to narcissistic personality disorder, a pathological condition that is characterized by selfishness, self-centeredness, entitlement and disordered relationships “Full-blown narcissists are self-absorbed, insensitive and lack empathy,” she explains. When people use the word narcissism (as in, “Omg, she’s such a narcissist”) they’re usually identifying some, or all, of the malignant traits of a full-blown disorder. Narcissists can be really difficult people. But Dr. Little points out that narcissism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “In fact,” she explains, “healthy narcissism is a needed and necessary aspect of both child and adult development. It fuels achievement, engagement and provides essential motivation for any number of desirable and worthy efforts.” Long story short, narcissism exists on a continuum that moves from healthy behavior to illness.
How Can You Tell What’s Age-Appropriate “Healthy Narcissism”?
“In healthy development, ‘age-appropriate narcissism’ changes as the child grows and matures. For example, a tantrum is age-appropriate healthy narcissism for a toddler as she is venting her demands on the world, but not so for a teenager,” explains Dr. Little. Empathy, or the ability to appreciate the perspective of another, is non-existent in early childhood but will begin to appear in the elementary school years and grow more sensitive and accurate as children pass into adolescence and adulthood. Specific behaviors have different meanings depending on the age and stage of the child.
So, Can My Child Truly Be a Narcissist?
Before you armchair diagnose your 6-year-old over a tantrum about a failed visit to the Museum of Ice Cream, Dr. Little shares that pathological narcissism cannot be formally diagnosed until after the age of 18. Additionally, “What makes narcissism difficult to diagnose in a child is that the symptoms of narcissism are appropriate at certain stages of development.” (See: Museum of Ice Cream tantrum). That said, traits can certainly emerge (and inform you) as early as preschool. And if these narcissistic tendencies and traits seen in childhood are reinforced—rather than reversed—they can become increasingly stable and dysfunctional over these formative years. Untreated, they can result in “problematic” or “destructive” narcissistic traits, which can then progress to a later diagnosis of “narcissistic personality disorder” (NPD) in a young adult.
What Are Early Warning Signs of Narcissistic Development?
Again, as your child matures, many tendencies that might reek of narcissism will subside. (Kids will be kids!). "You should see signs of development by age 10, but there may be subtle signs that precede that as early as 7 or 8," says Dr. Little. But failure to develop in these areas indicate the child may be at risk for narcissistic vulnerability. Traits that should lessen with age include:
- Emotional volatility
- Entitled attitude
- Angry or aggressive responses to being criticized, wronged, and disappointed
- Demands to “get their way”
- Needing to win or succeed without concern for the feelings of others (i.e., who are often hurt in the process)
- Bullying behaviors (i.e., teasing, threatening, scapegoating)
- Acting on information without regard for its impact on others
- Blaming others for bad outcomes or disappointments
- Preoccupation with getting their needs met (i.e., over those of others)
- A sense of extraordinary self-worth
On the flip side, there are important skills and abilities that should develop and broaden with age that show signs of non-narcissistic development. These include:
- Empathy develops and becomes more sensitive and appropriately expressed
- Cooperation (and cooperative relationships) increases in frequency and complexity
- Realistic self-esteem grows steadier and more differentiated
- More mature coping strategies develop
- Regard for the feelings of others builds
- Accuracy of perception and interpretation of information improves
The 4 Types of Parents That Promote Narcissistic Development
Don’t freak out. Yes, parents do impact narcissistic development. But this means that you can also stop your little narcissist-to-be (N2B) in their tracks. Dr. Little informs us there are four common types of parents associated with specific narcissistic outcomes:
- The hovering/directive position tends to create a superior, perfectionistic, “better than” attitude in the child
- The indulgent/permissive position tends to create an entitled attitude in the child
- The critical/harsh position tends to create a manipulative attitude in the child
- The inattentive/disengaged position tends to create a disengaged attitude in the child
How Can I, as a Parent or Caregiver, Curb Narcissism?
You want to avoid parenting extremes by loving the child as they are without overindulgence or deprivation. Balanced parenting, shares Dr. Little, “encourages development without over- or under-control. This kind of ‘moderation parenting’ is the key to raising empathetic, unentitled, and caring children.” But Dr. Little also very much stresses the impact of the quality of the relationship: “Parents who are most likely to raise non-narcissistic children see their child as ‘good enough’ and lovable as they are. They create a home environment marked by appropriate rules and structure with discipline that is steady and predictable.” At the same time, such parents require age-appropriate levels of independence and allow their children to be frustrated sometimes, rather than trying to prevent any sort of disappointment. Consequences are enforced with kindness and patient explanation. “I have learned over decades that the better the relationship, the more receptive the child is to education and influence of all sorts,” says Dr. Little
OK, But What About with a [*Shudders*] Teen?
Though it’s never too late to curb narcissism, it does become increasingly difficult as the child matures, says Dr. Little. This is why intervention when the child is still young and more easily influenced is critical. With an older child, counseling can help both parent and child improve their relationship and, in the process, encourage more positive development in the child.