Is Your Adult Child a Narcissist?
Sparing your adult child from a harsh, counterproductive label.
Posted Jul 12, 2020
When I coach struggling parents, a question that often comes up is whether or not their adult child may be narcissistic. This concern results from them feeling hurt, anger, shock, frustration, sadness, and worry related to their adult child behaving in ways that are consistent with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
People who have NPD tend to have the following personality characteristics:
- Big time egos. Narcissistic adult children think the world revolves around them. They make unreasonable demands and push time and place boundaries when doing so.
- Feeling entitled. I often hear parents telling me how their adult children feel they are owed things like financial support or that parents should shoulder their responsibilities. This can include them automatically assuming their bills will be paid, laundry will be done, or expecting help to apply to jobs, make meals for them, and even them expecting parents will clean up after them.
- Distorted thinking. Narcissists lie to themselves and to others in their lives. They often deny things that are obvious. They embellish past events to support their distortions and fantasies.
- Hidden need for validation. Narcissistic adult children need to feel constantly valued from others because, sadly, they don't adequately value themselves. They often want credit for things that are givens such as showing up and being nice to others at a family function. You may find yourself giving your narcissistic adult child an inordinate amount of praise over something that’s a normal and expected part of family life.
- Exploiting others. Narcissists manipulate to get what they want. This exploitation can be easy to see (throwing temper tantrums) or passive-aggressive (not responding to communication). They may try to entice you with sweetness and affection when they want something, and blaming their behavior on you. In more extreme cases, they may not visit or allow you to contact your grandchildren
- Throwing Others Under the Bus. Narcissistic young adults are often putting down other people's accomplishments. You may find your narcissistic adult child trashing their acquaintances and friends behind their backs, but feigning respect for them when these same people come around.
What Leads to Adult Children Becoming Narcissistic?
There is no universal clear reason why some adult children become narcissistic and others don't. Some theories suggest that genetics are the reason for the development of narcissism, which, like many other personality traits, tends to form in childhood.
There is also the belief that certain family dynamics seem to lead to this personality disorder. The more common thought is it's the result of living with a narcissistic parent in an absence of love and affection, or being raised in a highly competitive or even shaming environment. Neglect, abuse, or, on the other extreme end, even excessive idolization of a child growing up can play a role.
A Better Question: When Does My Adult Child NOT Act In Narcissistic Ways?
If tomorrow you go out and buy a new or used model of a car of a certain color, aren't you more likely to see cars like yours on the roads from that point on? This is because of a cognitive process called selective attention. Selective attention is the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time. Attention is a limited resource, so selective attention allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what matters.
Applying the concept of selective attention to this post, the more you label your adult child as narcissistic, the more likely you are going to see them that way. In other words, when you give someone a label, they tend to live up to it in both your perceptions and in their corresponding behaviors. But what could happen for you and your adult child if you actually use selective attention to notice, and supportively point out, the more positive, non-narcissistic behaviors that you may have been previously overlooking?
Freeing Your Adult Child From a Negative Narcissistic Label
Is there really any downside to making a concerted, conscious effort to look for and reinforce exceptions to narcissistic behaviors? For example, mentioning how it feels good to you when observing your adult child:
- Holding a door open for a stranger or a family member.
- Doing certain tasks when not asked to do so.
- Expressing appreciation for certain things you've done to help.
- Being supportive to a sibling.
- Being affectionate and attentive with your family pet.
- Being patient with you when you don't understand something.
- Showing grit when striving for a past accomplishment that was challenging to reach.
- Being non-defensive when discussing a particular struggle.
- Sincerely owning and apologizing for a mistake.
There are many adult children out there who tend to behave in narcissistic ways than there are actually full-blown narcissists. I have certainly acted in narcissistic ways. Have you and did you even more so when you were younger?
Parents understandably can feel drained, worn down, and hurt when an adult child acts in a narcissistic manner. But as I wrote in my book, Liking the Child You Love, be careful not to let your own toxic thinking patterns steer you toward rigidly labeling your adult child as a "narcissist." The last thing you want to do, after all, is to unwittingly or wittingly encourage your adult child to live up to such an all-encompassing, negative, and even toxic label.
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Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.
Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY.
Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.
Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.
Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)