Brian D. Johnson, Ph.D. and Laurie Berdahl, M.D.
It’s estimated that up to 6% of the US population has narcissistic personality disorder (narcissism for short), which is more common in men and has its roots in childhood. Extremely resistant to treatment, this severe mental illness leads affected individuals to create chaos as they harm other people. Before discussing how demands for support of ego and desires can go off the rails, let’s start with an overview of pertinent normal child development.
Small children are naturally selfish as a normal part of development in which they work to get their needs met and can’t understand other people’s needs and desires. Then as teenagers, kids are still typically self-centered as they struggle for independence.
As opposed to self-centeredness that should gradually decline, children need to develop healthy, lasting levels of self-esteem to be able to protect and care for themselves while caring about others, to resist dangerous influences, and to stay connected to family and society. Healthy levels of self-esteem indicate a child’s belief that he or she is loved and worthy as a person in the family and in society, and thus doesn’t deserve and is more resilient to mistreatment. In a nutshell, self-esteem isn’t self-centeredness because it doesn’t lead to putting oneself first to the detriment of other people’s needs and rights.
Typical childhood self-centeredness must change to pave the way to mental health in adulthood. To grow up able to function well in families and society, kids must gradually gain both the ability to see other people’s viewpoints and empathy for other people’s suffering. So, healthy kids should gradually show sincere signs of caring about the well-being of others. Not developing empathy while growing up is a warning sign of developing a serious personality disorder as an adult, including the narcissistic type.
How do people with narcissistic personality disorder (narcissists for short) act? Besides showing lack of empathy (as judged not by words but by actions), narcissists filter information and react on the basis of effect on their egos. Their actions reflect grandiose beliefs of superiority and uniqueness as well as their need for admiration and worship.
Narcissists are arrogant and preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited self-importance, success, and power (including that they alone can do something) and exaggerate their accomplishments and popularity. They exploit or take advantage of people for personal gain including feeding their egos and thus require excessive admiration. They pit people against each other to get what they want—they divide people to conquer and gain power over them. They manipulate others by influencing emotions like fear and anger, and with threats and lies. Another manipulation technique used is redefining reality by repeatedly fabricating fiction and arguing about it as if it were fact (such as presenting alternative facts), which leads listeners to question their own understanding of reality. Victims often experience a “twilight zone” sensation that is accompanied by anxiety.
Narcissists make others miserable and get aggressive with people who won’t give them the agreement, admiration, and respect they feel entitled to, expecting automatic compliance. These traits are often found in dictators. Like most personality disorders, narcissism is very difficult to treat because people affected aren’t able to understand that anything is wrong with them and thus are not motivated to change.
A narcissist is toxic to situations and people, except perhaps to an inner circle of supporters—at least for as long as they continue to support the narcissist’s agenda.
Now let’s go back to youth. Preteens aren’t developed enough to manipulate and given that teenagers are typically self-centered, clinicians are reluctant to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder before age 18. Still, you might notice one or more of these warning signs in teenagers indicating risk of developing narcissism:
- persistent bullying behaviors such as making fun of, threatening, degrading, or scapegoating people (including parents and other adults)
- persistent need to win no matter who is hurt
- persistent lying to benefit oneself (will lie about lying, turn lies into someone else’s fault, deflect accountability by attacking messengers who point out lies)
- egotistical view of extraordinary self-worth
- preoccupation with getting own needs met over other people’s
- entitled attitudes which lead to acting as if they deserve special treatment and to get whatever they want, no matter the circumstances
- aggressive responses to being criticized, wronged, or upset
- repetitively blaming others for bad outcomes
- and being much more competitive than cooperative.
If your child or one you know behaves this way, you can save your family and society from harm by focusing on doing the following:
- teach empathy
- value character traits like honesty and kindness over being tough or dominant
- change entitled attitudes and stop entitled actions
- squelch greed (say, “You’re acting selfishly and that’s not okay”)
- insist they put other people first routinely, remembering that actions speak louder than words (narcissists often say they are doing something to benefit others when they are really doing it for themselves)
- build healthy self-esteem (low self-esteem can also lead to entitlement and using others to support one’s ego)
- don’t allow false blame of other people for one’s own problems and failures.
Also avoid parenting styles linked to developing narcissist personality, such as neglecting, indulgent (spoiling with privilege and possessions, and promoting entitled attitudes) and cold, overcontrolling authoritarian methods which insist on perfection, winning, and toughness from a child.
On the flip side, you can also help teens and young adults learn to recognize narcissists so they can avoid their toxic harm or survive it. A necessary foundation for this is the ability to think critically about what someone says or does, which starts to develop during adolescence.
Critical thinking skills help us tell lies from truths and determine when someone is manipulating to take advantage of or scam us. Parents and mentors can help teach these empowering life-skills that protect against deception by con artists and abusive bosses, friends, and partners.
You can give your child life-long protective gifts of healthy levels of self-esteem and critical thinking skills while squelching entitlement and narcissistic traits to benefit you, your child and family, and all of us. And don’t forget that there is no shame in seeking help to get it done—seeking knowledge and help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013. Pages 669-672.
Barr, C. T., Kerig, P. K., Stellwagen, K. K. & Barry, T. D. (Eds.). (2011). Narcissism and Machiavellianism in Youth: Implications for the Development of Adaptive and Maladaptive Behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.