Treating an adult like a child, or infantilization, creates a cycle of dependence in which the adult constantly needs to be told what to do and how to do it. The negative effects of infantilization on older adults, as when younger health care workers call them “cute” or “honey,” are well-documented as involving an accelerated loss of functioning. Infantilization also causes resentment in the target. You probably know this feeling quite well if you’ve been treated in a patronizing manner by someone younger than you, if not in a medical setting, then perhaps at a store counter. “Let me show you this, sweetie,” would be such an example. In additional to feeling less than competent, you probably also feel insulted and resentful.
Even in children, infantilization can have negative consequences. Imagine you have a young daughter who’s just learned to tie the laces on her sneaker. She definitely takes longer to do this than it takes you. You’re in a rush to get her out the door, though, so you continue to tie her shoelaces in the morning just to save those precious moments. By taking over this task that she now is able to complete on her own, you’re reducing her sense of autonomy, even though you’re doing so for a perfectly legitimate reason. Eventually, with enough practice when you’re not rushed, she will become an accomplished shoelace-tier, and this will no longer be an issue.
Now that you’ve imagined this scenario, consider what happens with parents who are high in narcissism. They need their children to stay dependent on them long past when the childhood days are over, so that they can continue to feel important in their lives. New research by University of Southern Mississippi’s Nathan Winner and Bonnie Nicholson (2018) explored the role of overparenting, popularly known as “helicopter parenting,” and its influences on young adults. This popular term is a bit misleading, because it assumes that all parents of current young adults constantly hover over their children in order to see what they’re up to. Apart from the overgeneralization factor, it's not the hovering that's the issue. Instead, overparenting involves the continued treatment of children as children, and therefore seems more accurately represented as infantilization.
According to Winner and Nicholson, overparenting involves both “over-involvement and intrusiveness,” paired with “warmth and responsiveness.” Parents who overparent, the authors argue, can “impede on appropriate development of young adult independence” (p. 3650). Unfortunately, the use of the term helicopter parent has caught on to the point where all parents of millennials (those born in the late 20th century particularly) are regarded as having these qualities and, in turn, of having created an entire generation of selfie-taking and self-obsessed narcissists. We know that this is not true.
Some millennials are narcissists, but so are individuals from each generation. Instead of lamenting the ubiquity of overparenting by an entire generation of narcissistic parents, it is more accurate to regard the narcissistic parenting style as a function of a trait that varies across individuals. Furthermore, its damaging effects may be best thought of as restriction of a child’s autonomy by needing to maintain parental dependence, which in turn leads the individual to be less able to live an adult life. Indeed, the research conducted by Winner and Nicholson is based on the characterization of overparenting as “oversolicitous parenting observed in parents of younger children, where parents display high levels of warmth and involvement in situations where children do not need assistance or reassurance.” Its most damaging effects, they go on to argue, are most “troubling for the psychological development of young adult children” (p. 3651).
The Southern Mississippi researchers believe that it’s the excessive control involved in overparenting that is at the heart of the difficulties that children of narcissistic parents can experience. Winner and Nicholson define “parental psychological control” (PPC) as emotional intrusion, not just the attempts to limit the child from becoming a grown-up. Using a sample of 380 young adult college students (79 percent female), the authors measured overparenting by asking participants to report on how they perceived the parenting they were receiving, as well as their own levels of narcissism. Unfortunately, because it was the children responding and not the parents, it wasn’t possible to determine the levels of narcissism of their parents.
The undergraduates in the study reported perceived parental over-intrusiveness with the Helicopter Parenting Scale (e.g., “My parent solves any problem or crisis I might have”) and the Psychological Control Scale (e.g., “My parent is a person who brings up my past mistakes when he/she criticizes me”). Students reported on their own levels of narcissism with a standard personality inventory that assessed the two facets of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. All of the analyses were correlational, a fact that should be taken into account when interpreting the results, along with the fact that no parents were actually assessed.
Moving on to the findings, those correlations were fed through a statistical model that allowed Winner and Nicholson to arrive at some insights into the possible direction of relationships between parental behavior and child narcissism. In this model, PPC scores indeed proved to affect the relationship between overparenting and child narcissism, and slightly more so for the vulnerable rather than the grandiose narcissism scores. In other words, children whose narcissism reflects an attempt to deal with feelings of weakness and inferiority were more likely to be exposed to overly intrusive parents who tried to control them. Even so, the statistical results led the authors to maintain that they found general support for the overparenting-PPC-narcissism relationship rather than just for the impact of parenting style on vulnerable narcissism.
As the authors conclude, “The potential for parents to go too far in their desire to remain prominent and involved within their children’s lives appears to be linked to the development of narcissistic traits” (p. 3655). Again, we do not know what their parents were actually like, but the existence of this relationship suggests how narcissism can be passed on from generation to generation. Parents who dig around in the emotional lives of their children will produce children who may, in turn, feel that this is the best way to raise a child. The Winner and Nicholson study sheds light on one step in the process: the recollection by children of how their parents treat them.
It's also important to note that, as the authors suggest, those over-controlling parents actually use a great deal of warmth and affection as they pamper their children and give them everything, or more than everything, they need. In the process, their children feel they will be loved if they accede to their parent's wishes, further eroding their sense of autonomy.
To sum up, having narcissistic parents doesn’t doom people to becoming narcissists themselves. Being treated as a child doesn’t mean you have to be one forever once you recognize your own potential to be a grown-up.
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Winner, N. A., & Nicholson, B. C. (2018). Overparenting and narcissism in young adults: The mediating role of psychological control. Journal of Child and Family Studies. doi:10.1007/s10826-018-1176-3.