According to Twenge and Campbell (2009), the level of narcissism displayed by individuals has reached epidemic proportions. The perceived self-worth of so many individuals is prominently displayed throughout society. The characteristics associated with narcissism is apparent through a quick glimpse at many of the programs offered on television through the prevalence of reality shows, such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Botched, and The Jersey Shore, among others. This leads one to consider what type of parenting styles encourages their children to grow up with the perception that they are the center of the universe as well as the measures parents can take to prevent this.
What is Narcissism?
Examples of narcissism are prevalent throughout society. This is observed through the examples of material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking. It is demonstrated through self-serving behaviors. According to Twenge and Campbell (2010), the number of individuals who are scoring higher on the Narcissistic Personality Indicator (NPI) which is implemented in the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is rapidly increasing. One out of four college students indicated agreement with the majority of the items presented through the NPI by 2006. NPD symptoms have been experienced by almost one out of ten individuals in their twenties and one out of sixteen in all age groups. This epidemic has “spread to the culture as a whole, affecting both narcissistic and less self-centered people” (p. 2). The argument that the “narcissism epidemic has touched every American” in some manner is presented (p. 3).
Causes of Narcissism
As narcissism increases throughout American society, Twenge et al., indicate that there are five primary causes that are attributed with this increase. These are a “focus on self-admiration, child-centered parenting, celebrity glorification and media encouragement, the attention seeking promoted on the Internet, and easy credit” (2010). Self-admiration is a normal aspect of life; however, when an individual becomes obsessed with themselves to the exclusion of others, it has elevated to narcissism. This overinflated ego is often initiated in early childhood as the parents dote on their adorable offspring and plant the idea that child is the most important person on the planet. This attitude is difficult to escape as the media presents a wide variety of celebrities who exhibit these traits and subtly encourages others to follow suit. The Internet and the use of social media provide a method to validate the sense of self-worth through the ability to leave comments about or click the like button on self-photos. This compels people to provide a photo diary of the events in their lives, especially celebrities, whose fans are quick to emulate. Easy credit is the entitlement that the narcissist believes is theirs. This consists of special treatment due to their overinflated sense of self-worth.
Narcissism is believed to have been present since the beginning of time as Yahweh, who had no father and no mother, was the original narcissist. This is known as divine narcissism. Building on the concept of mirroring, in which a developing infant can view themselves in their parents’ eyes, Yahweh as the parent utilizes his children as a mirror. The child develops a false self, in which they assume the personification that the parents have selected while hiding the person they truly are. As they may feel entitled to the attention, they may also develop a skewed view of the world as one in which love is absent (Lasine, 2002, pp. 36-37).
Research indicates that self-esteem has increased dramatically. Over 80 percent of recent college students scored higher than 1960s college students on studies to determine levels of self-esteem. In the late 2000s, 93 percent of middle school students scored higher than eleven to thirteen year old individuals did in 1980. Measures of self-satisfaction have increased as three out of four high school students report being satisfied with themselves whereas two out of three indicated the same in 1975. One of three are “completely satisfied” as opposed to one of four in 1975. These increases are reflected throughout all age groups that comprise American society (p. 14).
Originally, efforts to increase the levels of self-esteem and self-satisfaction have been undertaken to assist certain groups of people, presented through a variety of methods, such as the book Learning to Love Yourself, which was presented in 1987 to assist the adult children of alcoholics. This evolved into the belief that self-adoration was appropriate for everyone and applicable to all situations. A 2003 book was titled The Girl’s Guide to Loving Yourself: A Book About Falling in Love with the One Person Who Matters MostYou”. This message is echoed by pastors, such as Joel Osteen who wrote “God wants us to have healthy, positive self-images. He wants us to feel good about ourselves.” (p. 14). This message is expressed throughout all stages of life and is often initiated at birth as recent baby books present support for breastfeeding through indications that this natural activity causes bowel movements to be less aromatic. This provides further benefit to the child as diaper changes are less offensive to the person who is changing the diaper and is reflected through the expression on their face. The baby then perceives this as a “good message about himself – perhaps a perk for budding self-esteem.” (p. 15). One day, they will be forced to realize that poop stinks, even when it is their own. As the campaign to develop self-esteem at a younger age continues, mothers unanimously respond with “no” to the question of “Do you think a person’s self-esteem could ever be too high?” However, when the same question was presented to grandmothers, more than two-thirds responded with “yes” while describing those with overly high levels of self-esteem as being “arrogant, self-centered, selfish, and spoiled” and indicated that is not the manner in which their own children were raised (pp. 16-17).
Parenting has changed as a result of attempts to develop self-esteem in their children. However, these efforts often lead to the development of narcissism in their children. This has been accomplished by elevating the child above themselves and putting the child’s needs first. Parents often allow the child to select the activities or the meals of the day while refraining from denying the child’s wishes. Parents apologize for seemingly minor infractions. The parental power has shifted and the child is granted control. Parents who retain the traditional methods of child rearing in which materialism is reduced and manners and discipline matter are often in the minority. Efforts to raise their children in this manner encounter numerous challenges with resisting the narcissistic values that are considered normal now. A parent may deny their child the ability to own the latest electronic device as other parents, the media, friends, and the schools convey the message that resistance is futile and this resolve will dissipate (p 75).
The changes within the parental values are exhibited through the examination of traits parents wished to instill in their children. In the 1920s, these traits consisted of “strict obedience, loyalty to church, and good manners.” By 1998, these traits had changed to include “independence and tolerance.” In 2004, the responses to a nationwide study listed “to obey”, “to be well-liked or popular”, “to think for himself or herself”, “to work hard”, and “to help others when they need help”. However, by 2004, obedience was rated at an all-time low (p. 75).
Parenting roles have changed from the disciplinarian to the friend. More parents want their children to like them and not fear them. Parental styles evolved and the helicopter parent emerged. The helicopter parent is one that constantly hovers over their child to protect them from the dangers of the world. Parental pressure among sports leagues for children put an end to keeping score and implemented rewards programs in which children received a trophy for participating. Honor roles are no longer distributed to avoid hurting the feelings of the underachievers. Parents intervene with teachers concerning the child’s grades instead of having the child discuss the issue with the teacher. Colleges have reported that dear mom and dad continue this practice even though the child is now an adult (p. 79).
Modern behavioral theories are disproving the notion that narcissism arises from parental neglect as evidence is increasingly apparent that narcissism is the result of inflated feedback. The child will come to believe what the child is taught to believe. If a child is continuously told that they are worthless, that child will believe that they are worthless. Likewise, if a child is continuously told they are perfect, they will continue to believe that they are perfect. Four studies have been conducted to determine the effects of parental styles in the development of narcissistic personalities. Children who had mothers who were warm, yet psychologically controlling, such as a helicopter parent, scored the highest on narcissism. A second study determined that narcissistic young adults indicated their parents were indulgent. The remaining two studies asked teens and young adults about how closely their parents monitored them as young adults. The respondents with narcissistic characteristics replied that their parents “didn’t really know where they went at night”, which indicates narcissism is caused by a modicum of neglect. Twenge and Campbell are quick to discount these results due to small sample sizes, requesting adults to recall events from years ago, and results were contradictory, such as psychological control was attributed to narcissism while certain controls, such as curfews, impede it (p. 80).
Characteristics of a Narcissist
The three characteristics of narcissism consist of an inflated positive view of oneself, especially in traits such as physical attractiveness, importance, and power, being socially extroverted even though the narcissist has little interest in forming emotionally intimate relationships with others, and undertaking certain actions to enhance self-worth, including behaviors to gain attention, take credit for the achievements and accomplishments of others, seeking high-profile partners for romance, and seeking opportunities to gain public recognition. Narcissists will often respond with aggression when rejected or insulted (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008, pp. 876-877).
Twenge, et al., provided a literature review of previous research which indicates the pervasiveness of narcissism is indicative of generational influences and that the level of narcissism increases within certain demographical constraints. Through the review of literature, which utilized the Narcissistic Personality Indicator (NPI), the following determinations were presented: The Baby Boomers who attended college during the early 1960s until the 1980s are described as “inner fixated and absorbed” (p. 878). The members of Generation X, who reached college age between the mid 1980s until the late 1990s are classified as “lacking ego strength” and “having low self-esteem” (p. 879). The Millennials, or GenY, which is the current generation of college aged individuals, are “outer-fixated, group-oriented, and civically responsible” (p. 879). This indicates that the levels of narcissism have decreased throughout the generations.
The results of multiple NPIs were used to determine if narcissism has decreased since the Baby Boomers or if that assumption is false. The criteria used to determine the NPIs to include in the study stipulated that (a) the individuals had to be enrolled in a four-year college and excluded two-year institutions and military enlistment; (b) the students had to attend college in the United States at the time the NPI was completed; (c) “means were reported for unselected groups of students, not those chosen for scoring high or low on the NPI or another measure or singled out for being maladjusted, clients at a counseling center, and so on” (Twenge, et al., 2008, pp. 880-881), (d) the samples contained no more than 79 percent female or 79 percent male; and (e) the NPI implemented consisted of the 40-item forced-choice version. The use of the 40-item forced-choice version allowed the researching team access to the widest selection of results as it is the most common version of the NPI (Twenge, et al., 2008, pp. 880-881).
Following the analysis of 85 samples, which included a regression analysis to determine the results prior to 1990 as there were few samples of the NPI available before that date, and performing calculations to determine the magnitude of change within the NPI scores, it was determined that the earlier assumption that the level of narcissistic qualities has regressed since the 1960s is a fallacy. The results for college students between 1980 and 2006 indicate that NPI scores increased within a 0.33 standard deviation, which is reflective of a small-to-medium effect size. If students from the early 1980s established a benchmark reflective of a score at the 50th percentile, by 2006, the average student scored at the 65th percentile following the application of a normal curve. This is indicative of a 30 percent increase (Twenge, et al., 2008, p. 884).
The narcissistic child tends to have a sense of entitlement. They believe that they are worthy to have everything they desire because the parent rarely tells them “no”, and when they are denied what they want, they will often lash out and act like a brat. There are ways for a parent to combat this. The parent must be clear with expectations. This provides the child with clear guidance concerning expected behavior and establishes a plan to follow to achieve change. The parent should not allow the child to initiate an argument with the parent. If tempers begin to flare, the parent should be the adult that they are and walk away. Allow the situation to diffuse, and then attempt to address the issue again. Following an issue where the child misbehaves, the parent must make it perfectly clear that the behavior is unacceptable and will not assist the child with getting their way. The parent needs to remember that they need to be a parent to their child first. When a parent observes the child attempting to improve their behaviors, the improved behavior needs to be reinforced. Let the child know that the effort is appreciated. Provide a way for the child to earn the items they want. This can be achieved through the completion of chores or tasks, such as babysitting or mowing the lawn. This also provides the child with a sense of accomplishment. Finally, the parent must reinforce the decision to raise a well-rounded child (Lehman, 2015).
Kennedy-Moore (2015) indicates that narcissism is a “disorder of relationships”, while postulating that it is possible to provide intervention to children who are demonstrating the development of narcissistic tendencies. This intervention involves providing subtle clarification to the child by saying phrases such as “you are the most important person in the world to me” as opposed to “you are the most important person in the world”, or by simply making the statement “I enjoyed your company!” The variation “to me” in the first phrase provides covert limitations to the blanket statement of “you are the most important person in the world” which has the potential to encourage the child to take the phrase literally. The second comment conveys parental acceptance of the child. Consideration should be provided to the narcissistic child in the support of interaction with others. When insensitivity is displayed, speak with the child individually and encourage the child to imagine the manner in which the person will react. This should be done with compassion and provides the ability to learn methods of conflict resolution. Implement methods that allow the child to learn and grow instead of ignoring the issue in the hopes it will resolve itself.
Jacobson (2015) presents an article concerning research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that reveals that as children begin to compare themselves to others, which normally occurs around the age of seven, is when the narcissistic traits begin to appear. The lead author of the study, Brummelman, identifies children with high self-esteem as feeling “satisfied with themselves” and children with narcissistic traits have the belief that they are superior, are “entitled to privileges, and want to be admired by others” (2015). The results of Brummelman’s study support the theory that demonstrations of parental warmth develops high self-esteem while children who displayed stronger tendencies to be narcissistic were raised by parents who displayed the belief that their children were more special or entitled. This study further indicates that fathers overvalue their children more often than mothers and that the possibility that narcissism could be generational in which narcissistic parents raise narcissistic children was presented. The primary way to avoid raising a narcissistic child is for the parent to resisting the urge to overemphasize their child’s specialness and simply convey love instead of praise.
Taylor provides four suggestions for raising a child who is not narcissistic. This can be achieved by praising the child for specific positive behaviors, allow the child to apply their perspective in celebrating accomplishments, help the child identify the emotions in situations to develop empathy, and the parent must address their own insecurities. These four suggestions, combined with parental unconditional love, should assist with the development of a well-rounded child who has developed the capacity to care for others.
Lell (2015) states that “if life is full of anything, it’s contradiction, and in our efforts to support, and sacrifice to assure our children’s success, we may be fostering narcissism.” This reflects that the creation of a narcissistic child is the result of the subconscious desire of parents to do whatever possible to ensure their children have better lives than themselves. In many instances, this includes accumulating debt to assist with achieving this goal. In an effort to diffuse this and prevent children from becoming “self-absorbed jerks who divert responsibility for their actions”, it is important to teach empathy and compassion as well as ensuring the child knows their parents love them unconditionally.
The current prescribed treatment for narcissistic children consists of therapy and parental involvement. The parent bears the responsibility to teach their children how to empathize with others, hold the child responsible for their own actions and do not allow them to blame others for their mistakes, instill moral values by identifying unacceptable behaviors, teach the child to be pragmatic and realistic in setting goals or establishing standards, and do not place inflated expectations on the child. The parent should also allow the child to be themselves with acceptance and love (Shah, 2014).
It is the responsibility of the parent to instill self-esteem in their child and it is important for the child to learn how to effectively communicate with others. While it is acceptable to indulge your child occasionally, overindulgence often leads to the development of a narcissistic child. It can be difficult to avoid overindulgence as the commercialism is a pervasive aspect of the American way of life. Every parent wants their child to have a better life, but it is important to achieve a balance between having a “better life” and being a “total brat”. Every parent also wants their children to succeed in life, but it is equally important to develop empathy and respect for others.
Even though narcissism is rampant throughout American society, parents can assist their child from following the pack. The recommendations to avoid raising narcissistic children are consistent in advice. Ensure the child knows that they are loved and resist the impulse to give the child every material item they desire to possess. Instill a sense of empathy in the child to develop the ability to understand what others may be experiencing. Provide the guidance necessary for a child to become a well-rounded adult.
Rebecca Jacobson. “How not to raise a narcissist.” PBS News Hour. 2015. Web. 11 July 2015.
Stuart Lasine. “Divine Narcissism and Yahweh’s Parenting Style. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2002, pp. 36-37.
Janet Lehman. “Narcissistic Children and Teens: Does Your Child Act Entitled?” Empowering Parents. 2015. Web. 12 July 2015.
Shannon Lell. “Are We Raising Narcissistic Kids? And Is There an Antidote?” Huffington Post. 2015. Web. 11 July 2015.
Eileen Kennedy-Moore. “How NOT to Raise a Narcissist: What really causes narcissism in children and how parents can help.” Psychology Today, 2015. Web. 11 July 2015.
Palak Shah. “5 Unexpected Treatments For Narcissistic Personality Disorder In Your Kid.” Mom Junction. 2014. Web. 12 July 2015.
Marygrace Taylor. “4 Secrets to Raising a Confident Child (and Not a Narcissisist).” What to Expect. 2015. Web. 12 July 2015.
Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell. “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.” Simon & Schuster, pp. 3-8, 2010.
Jean M. Twenge, Sara Konrath, Joshua D. Foster, W. Keith Campbell, & Brad J. Bushman. “Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory”. Journal of Personality, 2008, pp. 876-890. Blackwell Publishing, Inc. http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/30457618/twengekonrathfoster2008ajop.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1437100198&Signature=aeZ1Z%2F1XbMDGYy3zLLkC7yicJ%2Fg%3D&response-content-disposition=inline