We all know the story of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in the river and eventually died as he pined away in vain. From his name comes the word “narcissism,” which is exhibited by people who are very vain and seemingly in love with themselves.
Parents do not want to raise children infatuated with an unrealistic vision of themselves. And yet, recent studies show that there is a growing problem of narcissism among the young.
Initially it was believed that narcissism was a behavior that was part of someone’s personality or a character trait. However, a study conducted by the Research Institute of Child Development and Education at the University of Amsterdam traced narcissism back to childhood and parenting style. Findings were reported by CNN.
It all began in the 1980s when the idea of raising children to feel good about themselves became a crucial part of child rearing. Stories of successful adults who attributed their accomplishments to their parents’ belief in their abilities and dreams became the inspiration for every parent who wanted nothing more than the best for their own children.
Parents learned that if they value their children, the kids learn to value themselves as well and grow up with self-esteem.
However, valuing a child is purely subjective and, soon, the healthy dose of self-esteem became an overdose of it, leading to “overvaluing.” Thus, the current rise in narcissistic behavior.
Eddie Brummelman, co-author of the study, told CNN that the study used a series of questions which determined whether the parents had a realistic view of their children, or whether they thought their children were more special than others and deserved to be treated better. They asked whether or not the parent would be disappointed if they were to learn that their child was “just a regular child.”
Lavishing kids with praise
The researchers discovered that parents who tend to lavish praise on their children, telling them they are special and deserve extra-special treatment, basically “overvalue” their children and could be unintentionally developing in them narcissistic traits such as superiority and sense of entitlement.
They even went as far as to create fake newsmakers such as “Queen Alberta” and books such as “The Tale of Benson Bunny” and asked the parents if their children were familiar with them.
Whether it was an honest mistake of the parents or a delusional belief in their children, parents who overvalued their children also tended to claim their kids knew these non-existent characters and books.
The study included children aged 7 to 12, noting that the childhood narcissism typically began developing at age 8.
Researchers interviewed 565 children and asked them to answer, true or false, a series of statements from the 10-point children’s narcissism scale.
Among these were: “Kids like me deserve something extra”; “I am a great example for other kids to follow”; “I am very good at making other people believe what I want them to believe”; and “I like to think about how incredibly nice I am.”
The researchers then took note of the kids’ answers and compared them with those of their parents.
The results were consistent with the social learning theory, which states that children come to see themselves based on how they are seen by people of significant influence in their lives.
“When children are seen by their parents as more special and more entitled than other children, they may internalize the view that they are superior individuals, a view that is at the core of narcissism,” said Brummelman
He explained the problems that arise from narcissism. “Narcissistic children,” he said, “feel more entitled than others and they want to be admired by others… When they feel they don’t get the admiration they want, when they are humiliated or when they are rejected, they tend to lash out aggressively, so it predicts provoked aggression.”
But more than this, narcissism may also lead to other serious problems such as being “prone to experience emotional extremes when they are praised or not praised, and those who also have low self-esteem could suffer from anxiety and depression,” Brummelman added.
I was a little overwhelmed with all this talk on “overvaluing.” How are we parents supposed to raise confident children with a healthy dose of self-esteem without praising them and telling them they are special?
Fortunately, the study on childhood narcissism is not without good news. The study makes it a point to distinguish between healthy self-esteem and narcissism.
According to Brummelman, narcissism refers “to the feeling of being better than others and the feeling of being more entitled… and creating admiration from others. But self-esteem is more a genuine feeling of being worthy.”
The study had a series of statements on self-esteem that children were asked if they could relate to, such as: “Some kids are happy with themselves as a person”; and “Some kids like the kind of person they are.”
Parents were also asked specific questions on how they treated their children such as “I let my child know I love him / her” and “I treat my child gently and with kindness.” Children were then asked the same questions to see if the child felt what their parents were doing.
From here, researchers were able to gather that the biggest factors influencing self-esteem were warmth and affection from parents and felt by the child. They concluded that children who felt warmth and acceptance from their parents grew up perceiving themselves as socially accepted as well, regardless of whether or not they actually enjoyed social acceptance.
The study showed that children who “are treated by their parents with affection and appreciation without conveying that they are superior to others… internalize the view that they are valuable individuals, a view that is at the core of self-esteem.”
There is a way of praising children without overinflating their ego. Experts suggest that parents praise meritorious behavior and specific actions and efforts of a child rather than general traits.
For example, if a child does well in an exam, it would be better for the child to be praised for focusing in class and studying well at home rather than simply being told, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re the best!”
It is best to value children based on their specific traits and let them know that they are appreciated based on their actions. Their uniqueness comes not from simply “being special” for no reason, but for making something out of themselves.