While the dangers of narcissism are well documented, its origins are not. Now, a new study from Ohio State University sheds light on how parents play a big role in the early development of narcissism in children.
The study, appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, followed the participating parents and their children (aged 7 to 11) over one-and-a-half years to try and ascertain the factors that led children to have inflated views of themselves.
The results showed that parents who “overvalued” their children when the study began ended up with children who scored higher on tests of narcissism later on. Overvalued children were described by their parents as “more special than other children” and as kids who “deserve something extra in life.”
“Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others. That may not be good for them or for society,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study. Bushman conducted the study with lead author Eddie Brummelman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
Brummelman said that parents with the best of intentions may overvalue their children, thinking that will help boost their self-esteem. “Rather than raising self-esteem, overvaluing practices may inadvertently raise levels of narcissism,” Brummelman said.
Parental overvaluation of children was measured with a scale that asked moms and dads how much they agreed with statements such as “My child is a great example for other children to follow.” Both children and parents reported how much emotional warmth parents showed, with participants indicating how much they agreed with statements like “I let my child know I love him/her” (or “My father/mother lets me know he/she loves me”).
Children were measured for levels of both narcissism and self-esteem. While many people believe narcissism is just self-esteem on steroids, that is not true, say the researchers. In this study, children with high self-esteem, rather than seeing themselves as more special than others, agreed with statements that suggested they were happy with themselves as a person and liked the kind of person they were.
“People with high self-esteem think they’re as good as others, whereas narcissists think they’re better than others,” Bushman explained.
While parental overvaluation was associated with higher levels of child narcissism over time, it was not associated with more self-esteem. In contrast, parents who showed more emotional warmth did have children with higher self-esteem over time. Parental warmth was not associated with narcissism. “Overvaluation predicted narcissism, not self-esteem, whereas warmth predicted self-esteem, not narcissism,” Bushman said.
Parental overvaluation was connected to narcissism even after the researchers took into account the narcissism levels of the parents. In other words, it is not just that narcissistic parents have narcissistic children – the parental overvaluation played a key role.
But the researchers noted that parental overvaluation is not the only cause of narcissism in children. Like other personality traits, it is partly the result of genetics and the temperamental traits of the children themselves. “Some children may be more likely than others to become narcissistic when their parents overvalue them,” Bushman said.
Brummelman added that the results suggested a practical way to help parents. “Parent training interventions can, for example, teach parents to express affection and appreciation toward children without telling children that they are superior to others or entitled to privileges,” he said. “Future studies should test whether this can work.”
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