How Parents May Turn Children Into Narcissistic Young Adults
New research connects parenting style with maladaptive development.
Posted May 22, 2020
What makes people narcissistic? Why are we facing an apparent explosion of unhealthy self-identity, especially in young people who suffer from greater anxiety and insecurity than prior generations seemed to grapple with, while at the same time seeming to desire and expect a better world than the one in which we are living? In spite of the catchy title, it's not my intent to blame parents. As discussed below and elsewhere, intergenerational issues leave everyone accountable, and no one to blame.
Healthy vs. Pathological Narcissism
Narcissism itself is a normal, healthy personality trait. How is it possible to enjoy solid self-care, healthy self-regard, self-compassion, or security without well-tuned narcissism? Being able to form good relationships with others demands that each person involved needs to be able to balance their own needs with the needs of others.
This, too, requires adaptive narcissism, side-stepping both codependency and extreme self-sufficiency. Couples who lack healthy narcissism fall into repetitive, painful patterns of feigned intimacy and cycles of destructive aggression. Without safe-enough narcissism, relationship sanity is out of the question.
Understanding pathological narcissism is huge as our civilization becomes increasingly complex and fragmented, driven by potentially dehumanizing and isolating technologies which threaten to replace real relationships with simulations while at the same time holding-forth the promise of new ways to form meaningful communities which transcend physical space, even fostering growth during adversity.
How to Raise Narcissistic Kids
In order to better define the role of parenting in pathological narcissism, researchers Charlotte van Schie, Heidi Jarman, Elizabeth Huxley, and Brin Grenyer (2020) conducted a study looking at key factors hypothesized to be involved, not previously measured together in a larger sample.
Looking at dimensions including overprotection (“helicopter parenting”), overvaluation, leniency, and mistreatment, they recruited 328 participants ranging in age from 17-25 years, the majority (77 percent) women, and asked them to complete a series of measures:
- Pathological Narcissism Inventory (PNI): This instrument distinguishes between two types of narcissism, grandiose and vulnerable. Grandiose tendencies are reflected in items asking about grandiose fantasy, exploitativeness, and self-sacrificing self-enhancement. Vulnerable tendencies in contingent self-esteem, hiding the self, devaluing, and entitlement rage.
- Parental Bonding Instrument (PBI): The PBI asks participants to look back on how they were raised and report on memories of key aspects of how their mothers and fathers treated them. There are three subscales: care, over-protection, and authoritarianism. Care ranges from warm to cold attitudes, empathy to lack of understanding, and acceptance to rejection.
- Over-protection: Using a six-item scale, participants estimated how intrusive parents were, and the extent to which they try too hard to minimize often normal risk.
- Authoritarianism: This seven-item scale relates to how restrictive parents are versus how much freedom they provide, approximating leniency.
- Parental Overvaluation: Participants recalled their parents' degree of over-estimating accomplishments and offering disproportionate praise, estimated with a four-item scale used in prior research.
- Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ): This measure 5 dimensions of childhood neglect and mistreatment: emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, and sexual abuse.
Data were analyzed using SEM (Structural Equation Modelling) to look for correlations among the different factors relating maternal and paternal factors to vulnerable and grandiose narcissism.
While there were differences between mothers’ and fathers’ reported influences, overprotection was a common factor for both vulnerable and grandiose narcissism, all other factors being equal. As suggested by prior research, the current work lends further credibility to the notion that overprotection by parents is associated with narcissism in young adult children. In addition, while parenting by both fathers and mothers was important, maternal contribution played a larger role on average.
Maternal overvaluation was particularly correlated with grandiose narcissism. Paternal overvaluation, on the other hand, was associated with grandiose narcissism only when participants reported less caring, more lenient fathers. Greater caring from fathers accompanied by firmer limits appears to protect against the grandiosity-promoting influence of overvaluation from fathers.
Whereas paternal leniency was partially associated with grandiose narcissism, maternal leniency was associated with vulnerable narcissism. Vulnerable narcissism was also associated with maternal abuse and neglect.
Paternal abuse and neglect did not play a large role in this sample, beyond the protective effect of caring fathering in limiting grandiosity, an unclear finding given the important role of maltreatment in development. It may be that paternal factors influence other personality outcomes, as childhood trauma may be related to other personality problems than narcissism, notably Borderline Personality.
This research highlights two main findings: first, the overprotection is associated with pathological narcissism, both grandiose and vulnerable. Second, that as with prior research, the mother’s personality and parenting have a greater impact, on average, than the father’s, though there is more to this gender difference than meets the eye.
The maternal effect may not be inherent to the mother-child bond and may be more about whomever the primary caregiver is, gender notwithstanding. Women are still more often the primary caregiver in spite of cultural shifts, and the effect of socialization and gender norms, and related factors, also plays a likely role. To that point, less “traditional” fathers, who worked less and spent more time in child-rearing were more likely to be sensitive during play, and enjoy more intimate marriages (NICHD, 2000).
Likewise, according to a 2014 study, fathers who spend more time parenting show changes in brain and endocrine activity, with male and female brains converging on a "parental caregiving neural network." Regardless, the behavior and personality of the primary caregiver, over secondary caregivers, contributes to the development of narcissism.
Too Safe to Be Safe?
Overprotection is thought to get in the way of development, leading to fewer chances to learn from failure and develop a thick skin, and shock when shifting from the overprotective family of origin to the “real world,” where people don’t always give a hoot.
Indeed, prior research suggests that accomodating children's’ anxieties keeps children from learning how to cope with distress and uncertainty, factors which contribute to all kinds of adult issues.
Likewise, overvaluation and leniency can undermine various adaptive developments. Getting praise without earning it leads to a skewed view of the world, inaccurate views of how reward and effort are related, and a poorer understanding of how to set boundaries and limits in adult situations. Learning these skills in a college dorm without proper guidance can add fuel to the fire.
Maltreatment compounds the impact of parenting style on personality, leading to greater feelings of interpersonal vulnerability. This is especially and tragically the case when trauma comes from primary caregivers, compounding unsafety with betrayal and mistrust. Adversity can also be passed from generation to generation, affecting parenting in negative ways—for example, weakening reflective function, a key mental skill required not just for parenting but also life—as shown with traumatized mothers.
This research suggests what many already recommend: raising secure kids with a resilient sense of self and ability to navigate a complex, increasingly demanding and distracting reality requires a combination of kindness and firmness, the ability for parents to tolerate anxiety and uncertainty—dealing with their own ghosts along the way—while supporting appropriate risk-taking and balancing earned praise with candid, useful feedback.
Taking this approach to parenting is complicated when other families, schools, and the culture at large promote pro-narcissistic values of overprotection, overvaluation, leniency, and callousness.
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