Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Narcissistic Men and Their Mothers

Why selfish mothers tend to raise selfish sons.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Narcissism is a genuine problem in today's society.* People largely make choices on the basis of their own interests and well being. Doing so makes sense in some cases but not others. Choosing a career on the basis of your preferences and likes and dislikes is much better than choosing a career on the basis of your parents' preferences and likes and dislikes. But there are also cases where narcissism is not backed up by any good reasons. Choosing to go to a movie rather than paying your grandmother who is in hospice care one last visit is selfish and ungrounded.

Although people of all genders become increasingly more narcissistic, there is a form of narcissism that seems to afflict men more than women. This is a form of narcissism that stems from a very close and unhealthy mother-son attachment relationship. Data indicate that men who were raised by narcissistic mothers have a slightly greater risk of becoming narcissistic themselves than men raised by non-narcissistic mothers.

This may not come as a surprise. We often end up being just like the parents we once despised and swore we would never become. But in the case of the sons of narcissistic mothers, this tendency is even stronger—although there are also many cases in which the child of a narcissistic mother becomes co-dependent rather than truly narcissistic.

The narcissistic mother will often start out by idealizing her son and putting him on a pedestal—almost like a display object. This will bolster the young child's ego. But unless he continues to please his mother, which is unlikely in adolescence, the mother begins to resent him, which in turn creates resentment in the young boy. The only way he can avoid feeling emotionally castrated is by building up his ego to an even greater extent.

This creates young men who always put themselves first, who feel entitled and who are dismissive of others. Their feeling of grandiosity is a facade that covers deep insecurity and existential angst.

The reason that sons of narcissistic mothers are more likely than daughters to become narcissistic themselves is that mother-son relationships are fundamentally different from mother-daughter relationships. As several prominent authors have argued, raising a boy as a woman is not the same as raising a girl. There comes a time when the boy will come across to the mother as a mysterious and dangerous testosterone-filled creature that almost appears to belong to an entirely different species. It is this failure to identify with the adolescent male that makes the relationship more likely to go sour, forcing the boy to find his own path in life and build up a grandiose appearance that isn't easily threatened by the mother's huge ego.

Of course, a lot of the research done on mother-son relationships were completed at a time when the mother was more likely than the father to be the primary caregiver. Perhaps the persistent increase in narcissism in our society is in part due to the fact that the father often plays a greater role in his children's lives than a couple of decades ago. Narcissistic fathers then are likely to foster narcissistic children as well.

Can we break the trend and teach people to become more altruistic? If narcissism is grounded in a childhood attachment patterns, this is going to be difficult. But there may be ways to teach emotional intelligence to children outside of the home, for instance, as an obligatory component of elementary school. We teach children math, science and English in order to develop their brains. We include physical education to ensure healthy bodies. It would only be natural to teach children to become emotionally intelligent adults as well.

Source: Oxford University Press, used with permission.

* By 'narcissism' I don't mean just Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is a disorder in DSM IV and V, but also milder forms of narcissism.

More from Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D
More from Psychology Today