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The Intentional Art of Not Raising a Narcissist

Research emphasizes core traits that support healthy emotional function.

Apostolos Vamvarous via Unsplash
Source: Apostolos Vamvarous via Unsplash

As the author of the "Forget Co-Parenting With a Narcissist" series, I assure you, one item tops every parent’s wish-list: how to not raise a narcissist.

The good news is young minds are malleable and you have more control over child-rearing than you may think. Kids under age 12 generally don’t show signs of personality disorders.

The ability to engage in abstract thinking doesn’t blossom until adolescence when teens are able to consider a problem from various viewpoints. Taking others' perspectives is key. Because young children lack the neurological ability to comprehend someone else’s point of view, this post is largely geared toward adolescents.

If your heart starts to race as you scroll your memory bank and the mean things Jason has done in P.E. class, or how Sara can’t seem to hang on to friends, take a slow, deep breath.

Narcissists act as if they have power. Once you internalize how predictable and psychologically lazy their time-worn moves, your central nervous system will thank you. And studies show that kids can thrive socially and emotionally with the presence of one stable, loving parent.

At the core of high-conflict divorces and contentious co-parenting lies an inability to sustain relationships. And conflict can be unilaterally driven by one party. Be that as it may, conflict resolution is a critical life skill and a key component in success, regardless of the domain. Let’s review the behavioral manifestations of disagreements, including healthy ways to resolve problems.

According to experts, teenagers approach conflict according to four distinct styles: attacking, withdrawing, complying, and problem-solving.

Not surprisingly, teens who lean toward the first two types — engaging in conflict or petulantly refusing to address problems, are more likely to have mood disorders or break the law. Those who blithely comply with their parents’ demands may suffer from depression and anxiety because they haven’t learned to resolve conflict at home or with their peers.

The good news is those adolescents who approach problem-solving as a way to address conflict, fare much better. They possess durable psychological well-being and healthier relationships across settings.

Caveat: While conflict is the lab for resolving disputes, arguments give off heat. We cannot act rationally unless we possess a calm mind and body. Because teens are provocative and impulsive, by nature, it’s up to us to model self-restraint. This means suspending our initial reaction when our kid says, “I hate your house rules! Dad is more relaxed and doesn’t make me do as much homework and chores. I’d rather live with him.”

Armageddon can be averted with a secondary reaction such as, “I understand how difficult being a teen is. Maybe we can sit down and come up with a more efficient homework and chores schedule so you have more fun time. First, do you think you could articulate why I put so much emphasis on academics and responsibilities?”

Attention to the following areas can help support your child’s mental health and appropriate emotional expression:

Empathy. The ability to consider someone else’s perspective and to imagine walking in their shoes comprises empathy. According to Wied, Branje, and Meeus, empathy improves communication and helps people become successful at resolving interpersonal conflicts in long-term relationships. Empathizing with children includes being attuned to their physical and emotional needs, understanding and respecting their individual personalities, and expressing genuine interest in their lives and their pursuits.

Help your child by:

  • Modeling a caring disposition. This could be volunteering at a soup kitchen, treating wait staff and other service providers with respect, and giving others the benefit of the doubt, rather than blame or judge.
  • Eliciting the opinions of teachers, coaches, and other adults who have regular contact with your child. Communicate that you value compassion toward others and ask for feedback if they observe less-than-kind behaviors from your child.
  • Teaching your teen that the world does not revolve around him/her. Narcissistic parents commonly go overboard with praise, including how much smarter, more athletic and attractive their kid is compared to others. They may also exact overly-harsh criticism and intolerance for mistakes. All the more reason to have consistently firm house rules. For example, to not dominate conversations, to put down their phone when speaking with others, and to handle conflict with civility.

Independent thinking. For families locked in a never-ending cycle of manipulation and abuse, kids are typically not allowed to have feelings and thoughts independent of their toxic parent. The goal is to form their ideas of the world and what happens around them based on their observations and experiences. A formidable task, as narcissists don’t believe in differentiation.

Somewhere between infancy and adolescence, the narcissistic parent loses focus (if they ever had it) and stops seeing the child as a distinct individual with feelings and needs they must validate and meet. The child becomes, instead, an extension of the parent. The parent sees normal emotional growth as selfish or deficient, and this is what they mirror to the child. For the child to get approval, he or she must meet a spoken or unspoken need of the parent; approval is contingent on the child meeting the parent system’s needs (Donaldson-Pressman, & Pressman, 1994, p. 30).

Help your child to:

  • Assess the positives and negatives of a situation.
  • Analyze why a choice is or is not warranted.
  • Think outside the box, even if this means going against the herd.

Curiosity. Asking open-ended questions encourages kids to have a healthy skepticism about what others say. Being curious about their thought process helps them learn to identify and label feelings and to engage in problem-solving. When dealing with a difficult parent, it may be tempting to try and get to the bottom of things, and find solutions. By engaging in self-exploration, a child learns to examine his or her thought process and thus, gain psychological insight and patience.

Help your child to:

  • Self-reflect through questions. For example, “Why did I say this rather than that?” “I wonder what would happen if I tried this next time.” “Mom says dad is emotionally abusive. Is this my experience or is it just easier to agree with her?”

Humility. According to research by psychologist Daryl Van Tongeren and colleagues, a humble disposition can be critical to sustaining long-lasting relationships. It may also support mental health more widely by providing the ability to shake off grudges, foster patience, and to forgive oneself. Living with a narcissist makes humility wholly out of fashion, however. At its core, being humble is to be reminded about how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of life. Kids who grow up in chaotic households often lack self-confidence, a necessary skill for possessing a flexible mindset. Self-confidence means we can set our ego aside because we’re secure enough to change our views when we encounter new information and a different set of circumstances.

Help your child to:

  • Treat you with respect. If he is permitted to act rudely to you, he will repeat the same behaviors toward others.
  • Redirect him when he falsely blames others for disputes. After all, there are two options when we argue with someone: we either want to be in a relationship or we want to be right.
  • Teach this four-step approach to apologize:

“I am sorry for…"

“This was wrong because…”

“In the future, I will (or will not)…”

“Can you forgive me?”

Anger-management. Personality disordered individuals possess rigid, concrete and inflexible thought patterns. They externalize problems and blame discord on other people, rather than reflect on how their actions influence conflict. A byproduct of watching a parent fly off the handle is that she may mimic explosive outbursts when she feels wronged. Conversely, witnessing volatile behavior may scare her and she may cope by holding in emotions and refusing to express her feelings. But feelings always go somewhere and eventually the “model kids” explode.

Help your child to:

  • Normalize anger. Many concrete thinkers assume anger is a bad emotion. You want to convey that anger is neutral, even helpful, for example, when someone is mean to us it encourages assertiveness. Unjustified expressions of anger can also teach us to take responsibility for our emotions and to find healthier ways to communicate frustration.
  • Use words to express what angers them, including “I” statements. For example, “I feel sad and rejected when dad pays more attention to his new family instead of me on our weekends.”
  • Recognize where in their body they hold anger. Self-awareness around a rapid heartbeat, tightening in the chest or butterflies in the stomach alerts us that something isn’t right.
  • Take a “brain break” to slow the mind and body and prepare for problem-solving mode.

Self-regulation. Transitioning between two homes with different rules and behavioral expectations take its toll. Coping with conflicting environments can negatively affect a child’s ability to concentrate and to manage competing demands on their environment. Stress can impact their ability to communicate effectively and increases the odds that they lose control over their emotions.

Help your child to:

  • Engage in cognitive reframing by examining thoughts and reinterpreting them to change the emotional response.
  • Take a pause between a feeling and an action.
  • Bounce back from setbacks and stay calm under pressure.
  • Pay attention to what they pay attention to — an essential ingredient to grounding them in the here-and-now.
  • Practice slow, deep breathing, meditation, and other mindfulness-based exercises to better master their feelings and emotions, and increase their sense of agency. The problems with the difficult parent will keep coming, but their ability to deal with them changes.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), multiple research studies showed that mindfulness improves attention, helps to regulate negative emotions and promotes higher-order thinking.

No parent wants to look into the future and see a walking, talking, combative personality disorder marching their way. Rather than worry about the obstacles, why not view the present as an opportunity to teach a malleable mind how to problem-solve?

Copyright 2020 Linda Esposito, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author.