13 Ways Narcissists Behave Like Children

How narcissists' tactics can be eerily similar to kids in their 'Terrible Twos'

Posted Jun 21, 2020

Studio Grand Web/Shutterstock
Source: Studio Grand Web/Shutterstock

I recently watched a friend’s 5-year-old try to convince his mother to let him change the rules and watch TV before doing his homework.

“The homework takes so long. It’s too hard,” the child implored.

Then, without skipping a beat, the child said, “But if you let me watch TV first, I can get the homework done in a jiffy. It’ll be easy,” he said.

We don’t necessarily expect young children to be consistent. They are learning how the world works and just trying to get their needs met.

Like children, narcissistic adults also bend the truth. Narcissists believe (or at least act like they believe) that whatever they say in each moment is the absolute truth. No matter that their statements are often completely contradictory.

But unlike innocent children, narcissists' inconsistencies and manipulations have far greater consequences to those around them.

If you expect narcissists to consistently behave like responsible adults, you are likely to be disappointed.

Rangizzz?Shutterstock
Source: Rangizzz?Shutterstock

When narcissists feel humiliated, slighted, or inferior, they frequently revert to a childlike state, behaving like a child during the “terrible twos.”

Such regression is not surprising. Narcissistic Personality Disorder may develop due to early trauma or family influences that can leave a person emotionally stuck at a young age.

Adult narcissists use sophisticated versions of childlike responses. When seen in this light, the often mystifying and maddening actions of narcissists begin to make sense.

For example, a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar after being told to wait until after dinner will respond in one or more of a baker's dozen of predictable ways, as follows:

  1. Blame someone else. “But I didn’t know you were watching, so it’s not my fault.”
  2. Say they had no choice. “But I was starving!”
  3. Pretend they don’t know what you are talking about.“What cookies?”
  4. Recite good things they have done. “But I looked at them for a really long time before taking one.”
  5. Cry or act like a victim. “I always get caught. It’s not fair.”
  6. Deny they did anything wrong. “I was just looking for later, I wasn’t going to eat it now.”
  7. Get mad at you. “You're a mean Mommy.”
  8. Change the subject. “Can I go play now?”
  9. Try to charm you. “But I love you so much, Mommy.”
  10. Minimize. “But I don’t even like that kind of cookie.”
  11. Hide or run away.
  12. Ignore you.
  13. Throw a tantrum. In looking over the above examples, do any seem similar to how a narcissist you know responds when feeling stressed, slighted, or thwarted?

These childlike responses bear an uncanny resemblance to the tactics narcissists use to avoid responsibility and manipulate others:

  • Blaming
  • Making excuses
  • Pretending
  • Seeking credit 
  • Playing the victim
  • Denying
  • Attacking
  • Distracting
  • Charming
  • Minimizing
  • Withdrawing
  • Stonewalling
  • Acting out

Coping with narcissists can be maddening. The next time you feel mystified or on the defensive by a narcissist’s behavior, envision him or her as a 2-year-old in an adult body. They are seeking to avoid blame and shame.

Of course, adult narcissists have more power than children. Given that, you have to choose your responses wisely.

Here are some strategies that can help:

Give them choices. If you take your child to a crowded restaurant when you’re in a hurry, you give the child choices. Instead of asking what they want to eat, you say “Do you want mac and cheese or a PBJ?” Similarly, suggesting options to an acting-out narcissist may let them feel in control.

Don’t personalize their behavior. You don’t take a child’s pouting personally. They are in the throes of emotions they haven’t yet learned to contain. Most children learn to self-soothe over time.

Narcissists, however, cannot self-soothe. Their feelings when they are embarrassed or disappointed overwhelm them, and they will act out those feelings. Expecting adult behavior from a 2-year-old — of any age — will just leave you frustrated.

Fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

Recognize the alternative realities of narcissists.

Like my friend's 5-year-old I mentioned at the beginning of this post, narcissists change facts to suit them.

Narcissists dwell in alternative realities constructed out of their sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and drive to get what they want at any cost.

Such inconsistent behavior needs to be recognized for what it is — a childlike, fantasy-world approach to manipulating others.

Copyright © 2020 Dan Neuharth PhD MFT

An earlier version of this post appeared on Psychcentral.com