Children who grow up to be narcissistic adults seek praise as addicts seek their drug of choice—in increasing quantities from anyone who will give it to them. Neglect, abuse, harsh criticism, and erratic or exaggerated praise can lead children to feel unloved for being who they are. To avoid raising a narcissist, a parent needs to be present, empathetic, accepting, and consistently responsive to the young child’s needs.
We can be busy most of the day but it’s important to take some time every day to simply enjoy your young child. When you have a child on your lap while talking on the phone, you’re not present to the child. The mental/emotional presence is the important factor, even for an infant. Ultimately, spending time and playing with a child is one of the most fulfilling things we can do.
Showing empathy when children express their feelings and ideas allows them to develop empathy for themselves, and eventually for others as well. Parents shouldn’t deny, downplay, or redirect their children’s feelings. Nor should they overreact when children disagree or share experiences. Otherwise, they will develop shame and learn to hide their opinions and experiences in the future.
3. Consistently responsive to the child’s needs
Parents should become aware of ways in which they project their own needs for status or convenience onto their children. By becoming aware of our own biases and desires, we can become more open to really listening to what the child needs and desires. This doesn’t mean becoming an indulgent parent; it simply means being open to the fact that our children are distinct individuals. So, rather than projecting on them our own desires that they become football quarterbacks or Olympic stars, we can allow them to develop their own direction.
Accepting children means interacting with them without constantly judging them positively or negatively. When we play referee with regard to every action they take, we miss out on really knowing and loving our children.
Excessive praise often causes kids to secretly fear being found out that they are not really as talented or smart as thought. The child may also hyper-inflate the importance of the attributes praised, while neglecting or concealing other perceived weaknesses.
While parents have to have expectations and give guidance, children should not be made to feel that they can’t do anything right. Criticism is much more effective when it’s constructive and given in reasonably small doses.
No parent is perfect. But if, for the most part, we can provide guidance while be accepting of our children, they are likely to become compassionate, authentic, and self-reflective adults.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
References: “Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders.”