"Help! I Think My Kid Is a Narcissist"

Narcissism is not the same as neurodiversity. Here's how to tell the difference.

Posted Nov 22, 2019

Narcissism is a trigger topic for so many of us. The first time we meet a narcissistic person, the experience is so overwhelming, so threatening to our sense of self, and so crazy-making, that we have to make sense of it. We research it, we discuss it, we read about it, and we keep analyzing it. It’s not surprising that narcissism is one of the most searched topics here on Psychology Today. It didn’t surprise me when a mother referenced in one of my Targeted Parenting classes. (Click here to learn more about Targeted Parenting)

"I’m so worried that Stephen is growing up to be a narcissist." As soon as Corinne said that, everyone in the group perked up. I asked if this is a fear that many parents in the group share, and almost every hand went up. Corinne went on to share her story.

We were at a faculty party for my husband’s job. Stephen did fine job talking to all the adults in the room, but when he had to talk to peers, he kept turning the conversation around to himself, the science fair he recently won, his interest in Nicholas Tesla and the problems of sustainable energy. He couldn’t reciprocate interest in the other kids. All he wanted to do was brag and bring the conversation around to himself.

Stephen is a young adult with high functioning Autism, as well as social anxiety. It’s amazing that he talked to teenagers his own age at the party at all! That hadn’t been in his skill set, until recently. I asked the other parents in the group if they see signs of narcissism in their own neurodiverse children. Many raised their hands. Then I asked the parents to share experiences they have had with narcissistic people.

So many parents had difficult stories to share, from narcissistic bosses who destroyed their self-esteem, to narcissistic romantic partners or parents. It’s not surprising that narcissism is a worry for parents, because when we experience something painful, we tend to be on guard against it after that. It’s the “burned hand fears the fire” effect.

Corinne had once dated a narcissistic man who completely shredded her sense of self. It took years of therapy, and a lot of support from friends and family to help her recover. It’s not surprising that she’s terrified by what she perceives as narcissistic qualities in Stephen.

Does your neurodiverse child come across as narcissistic? It's more likely tunnel vision. Here's how to tell the difference.
Source: sangoiri/123RF

Tunnel Vision vs. Narcissism:

Corinne is mistaking Stephen’s tunnel vision for narcissism. Stephen is uncomfortable in social situations. He is highly intelligent, and aware of his lack of natural skill in “mind-reading”, or intersubjective thought. While Stephen can explain complicated theories about engineering at a graduate level, the complexities of small talk are almost completely beyond him. Talking to adults is easy – he likes to discuss adult topics. He’s happy debating the merits of various forms of higher education, he is curious about minute details regarding people’s work, and he loves to learn about new topics.

Kids his own age scare him, though. So, he does what most people do when they’re scared and in over their heads. He retreats to a place of safety, an area of competence. He’s not showing off in a narcissistic fashion – “Look at me. Look how smart I am.” He’s making sure to keep the conversation on a plane where he feels safe. He’s not staring blindly at himself in a mirror. He’s trapped in a tunnel of his own anxiety.

Occasionally, neurodiverse children do come across as bragging. Stephen might mention his multiple science fair awards or his gigantic Lego collection. But what’s the function of the behavior? (To learn more about functional behavior analysis, click here.)  Is it to elicit admiration, or to beg other people for acceptance? Stephen feels so uncomfortable in social situations, he thinks the only way to “bribe” other people into being interested in him is to mention his accomplishments.

I use the acronym NARC to help people screen for narcissism in others. (Click here to learn more about NARC.) Let’s examine Stephen’s behavior with this checklist. A person is probably not narcissistic if the following are true:

  • Not Focused on Status
  • Accepts Feedback
  • Respects Boundaries
  • Compassionate, Not Contemptuous.

According to this checklist, Stephen is pretty misleading.

Not Focused on Status:

Stephen is focused on status, but that’s because his tunnel vision makes him focus on his social anxiety. He uses status as a way of trying to gain acceptance into the group, not to make others feel bad by comparison.

Accepts Feedback:

This is a big one. Stephen doesn’t just accept feedback; he begs for it. He has an ABA therapist who teaches social skills, and Stephen religiously attempts to follow her recommendations. He is aware of his social skills deficits, and desperately wants to fix them. He can’t always act on feedback immediately, but he accepts its validity, and attempts to adjust accordingly.

Respects Boundaries:

Stephen doesn’t always understand boundaries and what should and should not be commented on. His therapist is helping with that. He doesn’t violate boundaries because he thinks he’s the world’s expert on everything. He violates boundaries because he doesn’t know they’re there.

Compassionate, not Contemptuous:

Stephen is defensive with other people, especially those who intimidate him, and that can come across as contempt. But he is so intimidated by other humans, it is their contempt he fears.

It’s understandable that a mom who experienced narcissistic abuse would be on the lookout for it in her child. But understanding her son’s unique neurobiology can help Corinne, and moms like her, understand the nuances and differences between High-Functioning Autism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2019


Ashton C. Southard, Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Jennifer K. Vrabel, Gillian A. McCabe. 2018. How Do Narcissists Really Feel About Themselves? The Complex Connections Between Narcissism and Self-Esteem. Handbook of Trait Narcissism, pages 243-253.

Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.

Does your neurodiverse child come across as narcissistic? It's more likely tunnel vision. Here's how to tell the difference. Source: sangoiri/123RF