How to Avoid Raising a Narcissist

If your teen is a bit self-absorbed, you are not alone. Many teens go through a phase of believing they are the center of the universe, and while annoying, it will likely pass.

However, there are some teens who could be developing a narcissistic personality. They insist on special treatment, think the rules don’t apply to them, frequently brag about themselves, and seem insensitive to anyone else’s needs. Too much of the wrong attention, and too little of the right attention, can create a child that feels entitled, steps on other people’s feelings, needs to constantly be rescued, expects different rules than everyone else, and in spite of everything you give, still seems to be dissatisfied and unhappy. These children are becoming narcissists.

Narcissism is more than believing “I’m great!”; it’s believing “I’m better and more important than you!” Narcissistic children want to always be in the limelight. They care more about admiration than genuine friendship, and they have trouble putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Although they may brag and seem confident, their self-esteem is fragile. As a result, they try to cover up their insecurities with a persona that is more important, worthy, and intelligent than anyone else, and they’re likely to lash out aggressively if they’re criticized, teased, or rejected.

Below are tips from experts on how to avoid raising a narcissist:

Avoid Overpraising

We all love our children beyond measure, but be careful to not overvalue them. Studies show that parents who described their children as “more special than others” or who deserved “something extra in life” are much more likely to have children who score higher on tests of narcissism. Parents should certainly praise their children for special accomplishments or appreciate specific talents they have, but parents should avoid saying anything that implies that their children are better than everyone else. Repeatedly telling them how unique and special they are plays into their tendency to crave and hog the limelight, as well as their anxiety and resentment when they’re not the star. To learn more about how to build your child’s self-esteem without overpraising them, please read our previous blog, How to Build your Child’s Self-Esteem.

Build Empathy

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another is a vital life skill, and some children need more help learning how to connect with others. The more we can guide our children in thinking about how different situations look from another person’s point of view, the less likely they will develop an attitude of superiority. The best way to improve your child’s empathy is to use every opportunity that arises in your daily lives to consider how other people might feel. Ask open-ended questions that prompt them to interpret other’s mindsets. You might ask, “How do you think your teacher felt when the student yelled at her?” or, “How do you think your friend felt when ​you canceled your plans at the last minute?” or, “Why do you think that TV show character acted like that?”

Be a Good Role Model

Demonstrate the importance of kindness and generosity. Teens observe their parents’ behaviors carefully, so if your attitude and actions reflect compassion, they are much more likely to adopt these values as well. Show an invested interest in helping other people. Demonstrate random acts of kindness anonymously, and encourage your teens to consider how they can brighten someone else’s day.

Volunteer Together

Helping others can be very fulfilling, and if you can show your teen, through example, how enriching it is, they’ll start to make an association between helping someone else and their own joy. Service projects can help youth develop empathy for others and realize how fortunate they are in comparison. There are lots of service projects available to teens, including: organizing a blood drive; hosting a themed event for young kids at the local library; helping an elderly neighbor with yardwork; assisting Habitat for Humanity; holding a collection (such as canned goods for the food bank); caring for animals at the shelter; cleaning park trails; or sending care packages to troops. Volunteering as a family at a local charity can provide quality bonding time and help remind teens to be a giver, not just a taker.

Assign Chores

It’s important for everyone in the household to contribute to the family, including your teen. While you might think chores will weigh your kids down and add to their stress level, in fact pitching in around the house will help them become more responsibility and feel a sense of capability. Keep your teen down to earth with age-appropriate duties.

Teach Healthy Coping Strategies

Teach your teen healthy ways to deal with stress and uncomfortable feelings. Ideas include creative activities (drawing, dancing, playing music), exercise, journaling, reading, and relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing or mindfulness).

Don’t Connect Rewards or Consequences to Possessions

If the rewards and consequences you set for your teen always focus on their belongings, they may grow to believe material possessions are the most important thing in life. While it’s certainly ok to discipline a teen by restricting their cellphone privileges or reward a good job with a small gift, it’s important that you use other methods as well. You might reward your teen with a fun outing, for example, or discipline them by assigning extra chores.  

Discuss Emotions Regularly

Talk about emotions often. Share your own experiences with failure, rejection or other strong emotions. Discuss the temptation you may have felt to blame other people or put others down, but that you used healthy coping strategies (discussed above) to deal with the situation instead. It can be very difficult for an adolescent to work out what they’re feeling when they are very upset. It’s important to label emotions. For example, if your teen does poorly on a test, they might be feeling disappointed, but they might tell you that their teacher is terrible or that they are too busy and stressed to study. You could say, ‘I think you might be feeling disappointed with that grade. What do you think?’ Help your kids identify what triggers their emotions and teach them how to self-regulate.

Teach Responsibility for Their Choices

One of the best ways to deal with a narcissistic teenager is to ensure they are held accountable for their actions and behavior. Don’t rescue your teen every time they make a mistake or step in to save them from a failure. Instead, let your teen experience the consequences that naturally arise from their behavior. Now is the time for teens to make mistakes – when the mistakes are small and you’re able to help versus making mistakes as an adult, when the consequences are bigger, and they have to handle it on their own. So, instead of trying to prevent your teen from failing or making a mistake, use them as teaching opportunities. To learn more, please read our previous blog, Helping Youth Overcome Failure.

Never Tolerate Aggression

Under no circumstances should parents ever permit cruelty. It’s normal for kids to occasionally be cruel as they develop, especially among peers or with pets, but that does not mean it should be accepted or brushed off. Instead, correct it immediately and talk about what it feels like to be helpless and abused by someone bigger and stronger than you.

Seek Professional Help

If your teen’s attitude seems excessively narcissistic – for example they are unable to maintain friendships because they alienate their peers or they are acting out in ways that negatively impact their life (such as getting suspended from school) – talk to your teen’s pediatrician.

Final Thoughts…

Children really don’t need a lot of praise, activities, possessions, or accolades to feel good about themselves. There really is no substitute for warm connection with a parent. Attentiveness and time spent are equated with caring and love. It is your love and real concern that a child will internalize, and that will ultimately give her a sense of worth, security, and compassion towards herself and others.

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