As a neuroscientist who studies narcissistic personality disorder, I’ve found that a child’s family dynamic is one of the most significant predictors of narcissistic tendencies, including superiority, grandiosity, entitlement and lack of empathy, in adulthood.
To be clear, children and teens are naturally more selfish, not narcissistic, because their minds are still developing. So it’s normal for them to be less self-aware until they’ve learned important skills like emotional regulation and empathy.
Based on my experience, parents who make these three harmful mistakes are more likely to raise narcissistic kids:
1. Not acknowledging your own negative behaviors
Children learn by observing and reflecting, which means they might adopt your negative actions.
Let’s say a waiter messes up your order. Instead of handling the situation with grace, you humiliate and yell at the waiter. Your child watches and thinks the way you reacted is okay.
This is why it’s so important to teach and demonstrate to your kids what emotional intelligence (or EQ) looks like, particularly the empathy component.
A good way to start is to help them recognize how they’re feeling. Put a name to the emotion that you suspect they are experiencing. For example: “Do you feel hurt or disappointed by what your friend did?”
Practicing EQ will make it easier for them to express their feelings and be mindful of how others are feeling in the future.
2. Not mirroring or validating your child’s emotions
If you shame, distract or ignore your kid’s emotions, you’re essentially teaching them that what they’re feeling is wrong.
As a result, they’ll have a hard time regulating their behaviors, which can lead to a host of problems as they get older — from numbing behaviors like addiction to protective behaviors like grandiosity, which is a common narcissistic trait. Studies have also found that shame, insecurity and fear are at the root of the narcissist’s inner self.
Mirroring requires you meet your child where they are and help label their emotions. Validating their emotions means letting them know that what they’re feeling is reasonable.
Imagine that you’re picking your kid up from school. They get into the car and slam the door with an angry face. Instead of shaming them for having a bad attitude, mirror them by saying: “It looks like you had an awful day at school! What happened?”
Once they’ve told you what happened, validate them and say, “That’s not nice. I can understand why you’re upset.” This doesn’t mean you’re agreeing or disagreeing with their emotional response. You’re simply letting them know that how they’re feeling is acceptable.
Over time, they’ll get better at trusting their feelings.
3. Not calling out your kid’s narcissistic behaviors
If your kid is throwing a fit in public because they aren’t getting their way, don’t just let it happen. In situations like this, you don’t need to shame your child, but it’s important to get them out of the situation.
Start by asking three questions:
- “What happened?”
- “How are you feeling?”
- “How do you think your reaction is making the other person (or the people around you) feel?”
Instead of accepting their emotional dysfunction, you’re helping them flex their empathy, social awareness and emotional regulation skills — all of which are essential to building EQ.
One question I get from a lot of parents is, “How can I tell when my child is showing narcissistic behaviors?”
There are various tests you can do. If something bad happens during a movie you’re watching or a book you’re reading together, ask your child what they think the characters might be feeling.
If they say, “They feel sad or angry,” then your child’s EQ level is on the right track. But if they blow up or say they don’t care how the characters feel, you’ll know you’ve got some work to do.
If you’re worried your child has narcissistic tendencies and don’t feel you have the skills to help them, considering working with a therapist or counselor who specializes in personality disorders.
Remember, narcissistic behaviors are often habits that we learned during childhood, and they can be unlearned.
Cody Isabel is a neuroscientist, parenting coach and the co-founder of Rewrite and Rise, a coaching service that uses neuroscience and behavioral science to help adults and children overcome mental health challenges and improve their overall well-being.