Am I Raising a Narcissist?
by Mary Follin and Kristi Crosson
THE PROBLEM: I have recently learned that one of my friends is a narcissist (as diagnosed by a clinician), so I have been doing a lot of reading about the disorder. I am discovering that my daughter demonstrates some of the characteristics of narcissism, like being unkind to other kids, talking about herself all the time, and not appearing to feel remorse when she does something wrong. One example of how mean she can be is that she didn’t want to invite a little boy in her class to her birthday party because he ‘smells funny.’ I made her invite him anyway, but I don’t think the boy had a good time, since my daughter managed to show her displeasure by hardly talking to him at all. She’s only 6, but if she does have narcissistic tendencies, I want to get on it right away.
MARY SAYS: Many therapists agree that 6 years of age is too young for a child to actually be a narcissist. In fact, a certain amount of egocentricity is healthy at this age; children need to figure out who they are and how they fit in. As parents, it’s our job to guide our innately self-centered children into grownups who naturally feel compassion and empathy toward others. You’re doing the right thing by addressing these issues now, rather than waiting until your daughter is a tween or a teen, when she could conceivably cause more harm to others.
After all, you don’t want your daughter to be the ‘mean girl.’
From what you describe, it sounds as though your daughter may be struggling with some serious issues. Does she act like she’s better than other children? Does she feel entitled to get whatever she wants? Does she expect excessive praise, regardless of her performance? Is she often jealous? Does she lack the ability to imagine what others might be feeling? If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes,’ your daughter (and your family) may be in for a bumpy road ahead, and change will only happen if you go first.
Often times, when a child demonstrates disturbing characteristics such as these, he or she has managed to take control over the parent-child relationship. Whether your child was simply born headstrong (and you’re not), or she’s learned these behaviors from somebody else (not necessarily you), she’s figured out how to manipulate you. For whatever reason, she is getting away with behaviors that are not acceptable, and she is behaving like this with permission.
It’s time for you to step into your role as a parent and take charge. You must communicate zero-tolerance for cruel behaviors that are harmful to others. Here are a few ideas on how to start:
Be Firm. When you see your child behaving unkindly toward someone else, tell her in a clear and concise way that you insist she be sensitive to other people’s feelings, not just her own. Perhaps you’ve told her this already, but then what happened? It’s not enough to simply point it out. For example, if she won’t allow another child to join a game, pull her aside and ask her how she would feel if someone excluded her. Then ask her what she should do about it. An apology is in order, and an invitation to play should follow. If you daughter can’t (or doesn’t want to) see this, it’s time for her to go home so she can reflect on it some more.
In an ideal world, your daughter will realize what she has done, or at the very least, quietly go home with you. It’s more likely, however, that she will become angry and defensive, blaming you, the other child, anything rather than taking responsibility for what she’s done
Here’s where you need to be strong. (I am imagining this is the point where your previous efforts have come unglued.) Refuse to engage in her argument. Repeat your directive, regardless of how many times she comes back with a new defense. The responsibility is hers to be kind to everyone, period. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and don’t get sucked into an unhealthy back-and-forth.
Always remember, you are the parent.
Don’t Over-Praise. Parents often lavish excessive praise on their children, in the mistaken belief that lots of praise builds a high self-esteem. It doesn’t. Rather, too much praise creates an individual who seeks affirmation from external sources, which puts someone’s self-worth at the mercy of other people’s opinions. We’ve all known (or read about) narcissistic adults who spend every waking moment making sure other people are thinking about them, talking about them, and admiring them. What a tiresome way to live!
If you praise your daughter for every little thing she does, please stop! A parent’s praise serves one true purpose, and that is to be a role model for when and how children should eventually praise themselves—realistically, with honest feedback, and with love. Over-praising will create grandiosity in your daughter, which becomes even more insidious (and MUCH harder to let go of) when she takes over for you and starts doing it on her own.
Balance Her Relationships. How many chores is your daughter expected to do? How often does she ask about YOUR day? Is she expected to help her siblings (if she has any), or feed, water, and walk a dog? In too many families, the singular answers to each of these is none, never, and no. In a home that is overly child-centric, the children are rock stars, and everybody else is there to admire them. While that may sound like a drag for ‘everybody else,’ it’s much worse for the child.
Children need to be needed. (Who doesn’t?) They want to learn how to diaper a baby sister, teach the family dog to do tricks, set the table. Don’t mistake “Aww, Mom, do I have to?” for not really wanting to. This is what we all say (even to ourselves), when we have to interrupt what we’re doing to do something else.
Self-sufficient young children are a joy to behold. They pack their own lunches, manage their own homework, even do their own laundry when they’re tall enough to reach. They grow into independent bigger children who see themselves as contributing members of a class, a sports team, a community.
And make it a point to tell your child something about yourself—every day—to help your child develop curiosity and interest in others.
With a focused effort, you can reverse the behaviors you are observing in your daughter. At first, she might feel like she’s fallen from her throne and can’t do anything right. But over time, she will get it. Your challenge will be patience; it’s important you execute your new plan with caring and love, not anger and disappointment. More than anything else, your overly self-centered child needs to know you love her unconditionally, and that no matter what she does, you will always be there for her.
KRISTI SAYS: Let’s be real here, all children have “narcissistic tendencies.” They only think of themselves, they say rude things, they have no concept of personal space, and they think the world revolves around them. Like you said, your daughter is only 6-years-old. I would be slow to label her a narcissist and would instead look for ways to help her develop a healthy view of herself and to exhibit more compassion as she grows.
Isolating others and being mean can be a cover for your daughter’s own insecurities. It may reflect how peers have treated her, or it may protect her from being bullied. (By joining in on the bullying, she doesn’t become their target.)
Kids don’t always realize the impact their words have on other children. As parents, it’s our job to teach them. One thing I like to do with my kids when they use mean words is to turn it back on them momentarily. I find that it helps them to understand that what they say matters.
I might ask, “How would you feel if someone called you smelly? What if they said you were the stinkiest creature to ever walk the earth, and no one should play with you because or they’ll stink, too?”
I may also ask something like, “Now how does it feel when people say you are a good friend, and they can’t wait to play with you? What if they said you were the coolest kid, that everyone should want to hang out with you?”
Then I’ll follow up with something like, “One of these statements feels good to hear, and the other doesn’t. Which one feels good? Which one doesn’t? How does it make you feel? How can you use kind words with your classmates instead of unkind ones?”
When I use this tactic, it helps my children develop an understanding of the power of words. I don’t expect my children to be friends with everyone, but I do encourage them to be kind.
At school, children are in a bubble. They only experience life with the same group of kids, day in and day out. If you want to help your daughter develop compassion, expand her world. Take her to parks in other parts of town. Give her opportunities to connect with new kids. Let her experience what it’s like to be an “outsider.”
Get her involved in activities that require her to interact with a diverse group of peers, like a sport where kids need to work together. Maybe she could volunteer to read to shelter pets or participate in a food drive for the hungry. These types of activities will help her see a world beyond herself so she can develop a compassionate heart.
Let there be consequences when she is unkind and reward her with praise when you observe her being kind or helpful to others. For the birthday situation, you unfortunately set her up by forcing her to invite the boy she didn’t like. She was still around the same peers, and you added him to the mix, hoping she’d be kind. It sounds like she did a pretty good job given the circumstance. She may have ignored him, but it doesn’t sound like she purposefully tormented him or teased him, either.
She deserves praise for that. It’s a good step, one that can grow into something more.
One way to help correct her behavior is to have her practice apologizing. Even if she doesn’t “feel” remorse, she can still learn to do the right thing. You could have her say something like, “I’m sorry I called you smelly. It wasn’t kind.” Even if she only practices with you, it’s a way to help her verbalize what she did. Eventually, you can have her go a step further and actually say it to the person she hurt.
I always have my kids apologize to someone when they’ve done or said something hurtful. When they were little, they didn’t necessarily “feel bad,” and they were reluctant to do it. But I’ve noticed as they’ve grown older, the “feeling” of remorse is starting to follow the words.
Continue looking for the good in your daughter and don’t label her just yet. She’s still a child and has a lot of time to learn and grow.
ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising small children (Kristi). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in! If you have a question for Mary and Kristi, we’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more ASK MOM advice.
Mary Follin is author of the award-winning children’s book ETHYR and Teach Your Child to Read™, an online phonics program for children ages 3-6. She is mom to two grown kids.
Kristi Crosson is a freelance writer, homeschooling mom of three children, and author of Healthy Mom Revolution, a blog that offers insights on healthy parenting.
Suzanne Johnson, mother of five children and grandmother of six, is an illustrator, book cover designer, and author of the Realms of Edenocht series.