How to Not Raise a Fragile Narcissist
Self-obsession is common, but some narcissists feel bad about themselves.
Posted May 23, 2019
There is a lot of narcissism in the modern world. It was not created by Facebook or Instagram, but such sites can be a medium for expressing it. Does helicopter parenting make children less self-reliant and more dependent on social approval?
If narcissism is more common today than in past decades, perhaps it makes sense for parents to raise narcissists to match a narcissistic world just as they would raise self-reliant children in times of economic difficulty and civil unrest. Do they? If so, how?
Controversy continues about whether narcissism is a personality disorder, or a simply a personality variant. Most psychologists would agree that some level of narcissism is healthy whereas extremes are dysfunctional.
Many people have a distorted perception of their own merits. We consider ourselves to be better drivers than most others, and more intelligent, and better looking, than average. This better-than-average effect is pervasive and affects most people (1).
Narcissism can help people to succeed in some careers, including politics and acting, and it increases a person's attractiveness to the opposite sex. Like other personality traits, it is genetically heritable and may have been favored by natural selection because it boosts sexual attractiveness (2,3).
Narcissism is not just a product of individual biology. It is also shaped by rearing experiences, including parental behavior and the activities of elite schools who pride themselves on turning out leaders.
While reasonably high self-esteem may be healthy, most clinical narcissists have a grossly inflated perception of their own importance in the world and end up alienating others by boasting about their own merits and accomplishments while denigrating those of potential rivals.
All narcissists crave attention and adulation. Yet, they vary in how confident they are about what others think of them. Fragile narcissists worry that they are not quite as good as others. While they are obsessed with what others think of them, they avoid the excessive boasting of the more familiar grandiose narcissists in the mold of many dictators from Fidel Castro to Saddam Hussein.
For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as fragile narcissists, closet narcissists, or compensatory narcissists.
Although there is a gray area in distinguishing between narcissism as a personality trait and narcissism as a personality disorder, one can argue (a) that fragile narcissists are probably quite common if less visible, and (b) are increasing in numbers due (c) to how modern parents raise their children.
If people are becoming more narcissistic, it cannot be explained in terms of biology and points to rearing experiences whether in homes, or in schools, or via social media.
Social media encourages a relentless focus on physical appearance, lifestyle, affluence, and popularity. This might help generate the odd contradiction of individuals who are desperately unhappy, insecure, or lonely, developing a social media presence that incites envy on the part of others.
Schools play their part with the relentless measurement of academic performance and constant evaluation of children in ways that invite comparisons among peers. Attempts are made to avoid stigmatizing low scorers on tests by staging fairly meaningless award ceremonies where everyone receives certificates or prizes. It is doubtful that these moves fool anyone about the real academic pecking order that colors relations between teachers and students and between students and their parents.
Many parents pay close attention to their children's grades as an avenue to future economic success. They realize that admission to high-profile colleges is highly competitive and make the mistake of seeing the push for placement as an all-or-nothing proposition. This push can be all-encompassing, involving sports competition, extracurricular activities, and assembling a resume of life experiences.
In this climate, students with less than perfect grades and mediocre sport skills can only feel inadequate.
When children are raised to compete in an academic rat race, they cannot help but focus excessively on where they rank whether this brings pride of achievement or insecurity about not making the mark.
How to Raise Children who are not Fragile Narcissists
When parents take great pains to promote their children's GPA, they may encourage too much emphasis on measures that are used to compare children with one another. This could feasibly promote competitiveness, narcissism, and fragility.
It makes much more sense to encourage children to pursue areas of individual strength and to develop preferences in reading, hobbies, or sports. If this is done, children can develop academic capacities without being aware that this is happening.
The best antidote to narcissism is concern for other people. One of the best ways for children to acquire concern for others is to be given responsibilities, whether they are tidying a room, doing yard work, or helping to prepare food.
Pushing children to succeed may or may not work, but the downside is that they may spend too much time comparing themselves to others, and too little time developing social skills and self-reliance. These strengths inoculate against fragility and narcissism.
1 Brown, J. D. (2012). Understanding the better than average effect: Motives (still)matter. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 209-219.
2 Dufner, M., Rauchman, J. F., Czarna, A. Z., et al.,(2013)Are narcissisista sexy? Zeroing in in the effects of narcissism on short-term mate appeal. Personality and Social Pshychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10-1177/0146167213483580
3 Holtzman, S., and Strube, M. (2012). The intertwined evolution of narcissism and short-term mating: an emerging hypothesis. Https//doi.org/10.1002/9781118093108.ch19