Last week, I wrote about narcissism, giving a definition, some background and theory. (“Are You Living With a Narcissist? Take a Look in the Mirror“.) Today we will continue with some of those thoughts, adding a little bit of advice for parents.
Narcissism is fairly normal and common with teenagers. It is considered to be part of the adolescent development. In fact, Narcissistic Personality Disorder can only be diagnosed in adults, as teens don’t have a fully developed personality.
So why talk about it as it relates to children? The foundation of a personality begins in childhood. It is when we are developing our personality that disorders are prevented. And thus, the time to catch narcissism is when personality is forming. Adolescents, in particular, are a bit narcissistic. Big surprise, huh?
When children challenge parents and authority figures and act overly confident are important developmental times. It may actually be an opportunity for some good parenting. In fact, the adolescent time frame may be the best chance for addressing narcissistic.
Four Narcissistic Concepts
Four common beliefs that can lead to the development of narcissism if left unchecked:
1.“Best.” Telling children that they should “do their best” is a loaded concept. By definition, children are immature and may misunderstand what you intend to say. There are two potential problems with this thought. First, children may take this to mean that they must “be the best.” They may also think that they have to win everything all the time in order to be okay. Of course, this isn’t realistic. Being the best is rare, and losing can be a great learning opportunity.
Second, we are in danger of setting unrealistic expectations about effort. Children often give up if they have to be “the best” all the time. Many times they won’t try out for things they enjoy for fear of not meeting up to expectations. These expectations are dangerous to our psyche. To be clear, doing your best isn’t bad, but it’s just not achievable all the time. Think about world class sprinters. They would tell you that they don’t even try to run their best race each time. Instead, they attempt to peak when it means the most. Thriving in competitive situations is an important skill to learn in a competitive world.
2. “Perfect.” The Bible refers to perfection in the Sermon on the Mount. Christ says, “Be ye therefore perfect.” While the concept is something to help us establish an ideal, once again, we must be careful. The reality is that we are not perfect. The Greek word used in the Bible has three other potential translations: whole, complete, and holy. Therefore, the concept of perfection may include the idea of being complete or whole. Being whole seems to require some form of self-honesty. A first step in achieving this type of perfection is to recognize that, as humans, we are not perfect yet and that we have weaknesses. The only way to achieve any type of perfection requires repentance.
Children, in particular, are going to be imperfect and make mistakes. The key to becoming complete is to overcome these weaknesses and mistakes. This is best done when we allow ourselves to truly examine our imperfections. When children hear that they should strive for perfection, they may think that they need to hide their mistakes or sins. Children may become afraid of taking feedback for fear of not appearing good, well-meaning or holy. It is this very fear of feedback that can lead to narcissism. As parents, it would be wise to teach our children to accept and deal with their imperfections. One way to do this is to be honest with our kids about our own weaknesses. Share with them our imperfect, human side.
Please understand, I am not saying don’t teach the scriptures, or even teach children to work hard. What I am saying is that this may be a confusing concept, especially when we can’t be perfect.
3. “Should.” Other similar phrases include: “ought to” and “shame on you.” Sometimes we do need to do things, but if you find yourself using these words a lot, you may want to examine this concept in more depth. “Should” is a word that can induce shame. Shame can lead to self-hate, which is common in the psychological makeup of narcissism. One popular theory about narcissism suggests that it may develop from overly critical parenting. When over-criticized, children begin to doubt their self-worth. While all parents give feedback to their children, the harm comes from being more negative than positive.
4.“Special.” Telling kids they are special may set them up to think they are better than others and deserve special treatment. While it is true that everyone is different, they don’t necessarily deserve to be treated differently. Narcissists believe that they should be treated differently and often become entitled, showing little gratitude or empathy for others.
Imagine a family and society where we can be honest with our human weaknesses. Children would not need to be overly special or perfect or win everything, and adults would take feedback objectively and without defensiveness. Chances are we would solve more problems.
West Ridge Academy is a Utah nonprofit youth residential treatment center. For more information visit www.westridgeacademy.com