NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, November 14, 2016

How Narcissism Develops at an Early Age

In a previous article, I wrote about people who have narcissistic personalities (see my article: Narcissism: An Emotional Seesaw Between Grandiosity and Shame).

How Narcissism Develops at an Early Age

In this article, I'm focusing on how narcissism develops in childhood.

No one is born with a narcissistic personality, although some children seem to be more vulnerable than others.

Children who develop a narcissistic personality are usually overvalued by their parents.

Rather than the parents expressing warmth and love, they tell their children that they're "perfect" or "the best" or "the most attractive" and so on.

This overvaluation is beyond just average complimenting or praising of a child.  It's usually ongoing, over-the-top and exaggerated praise about how special the child is compared to other children.

This exaggerated praise usually comes from parents who are themselves narcissistic and who want to feel that their child is "special."  Having a "special" child reflects on their own specialness.

Narcissistic personality isn't a monolithic diagnosis.  Individual children and adults can have varying degrees of narcissism.  Some are more grandiose with an inflated sense of themselves and others are more narcissistically vulnerable and easily wounded.

Like narcissistic adults, children who have narcissistic personalities are often charming, intelligent and creative.  They can be a lot fun--as long as they're getting their way.

They often have problems when they interact with other children when things don't go their way.  Having been raised to feel that they're entitled to special treatment, they can become enraged when they don't get it.

Since they're raised with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and, often, without a sense of empathy for others, they usually insist on having their way, even when it's to the detriment of other children.

The following scenario is a fictionalized vignette that illustrates the problems that children with narcissistic personality often have:

Anne was raised as an only child who was raised primarily by her mother.

Anne's parents were divorced shortly after she was born.  The father moved to the West Coast to take a job and only saw Anne when he visited NYC every few months.

Anne began having problems in school soon after she began Kindergarten.  Although she was intelligent, outgoing and charming, she often got into arguments with other children when they were playing.

How Narcissism Develops at an Early Age

Anne insisted on dominating the other children during playtime, and she would have temper tantrums when she didn't get her way or if she couldn't be the center of attention.

Anne's teacher, Sally, had a meeting with Anne's mother, Joyce, to talk to her about Anne's behavior.

Before Sally could explain the problem, Joyce began telling her how "special" Anne is and that it was important for Sally and the other children to recognize this.

When Sally tried to explain to Joyce that Anne wasn't learning how to interact with the other children because she was so insistent on having her way, Joyce had a hard time understanding why this was a problem, "Why not just let Anne have her way?"

By the end of the conversation, Joyce was angry and told Sally that Sally wasn't perceptive enough to see how special Anne is and Sally shouldn't be a teacher.

Soon after that, Joyce removed Anne from the school and decided to home school her.

Anne made some friends in the neighborhood, but she had a hard time keeping friends.  If she didn't get her way, Anne would argue or hit the other children until she alienated them.

Even though Anne spent much of her time alone and lonely, her mother continued to tell her how special she was and that if other people couldn't see that she was entitled to special treatment, it was their problem.

When Anne was 10, Joyce was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She died within nine months of her diagnosis and Anne had to go live with her father, his second wife and their children.

Sad, angry and resentful, Anne didn't respond well to the boundaries and limit setting imposed on her by her father and stepmother.

When she was asked to do household chores, like the other children, she refused and got into power struggles with her father and stepmother.  She also showed disdain for her step siblings.

Her father and stepmother could see that Anne was suffering and that, despite her air of superiority, she was really a vulnerable, insecure child.

They decided to take her to see a child therapist, which also enraged Anne.

Initially, Anne refused to participate in play therapy but, after a few weeks, she allowed the child therapist to engage her.

Through play therapy, after several months, Anne began to learn to have empathy for others.  She also developed better social skills.

Her father and stepmother also met with the child therapist once a month to learn how to cope with Anne and how to enhance the skills that Anne was learning in therapy.

As Anne began to feel more comfortable in therapy, she looked forward to attending her sessions.  She also grieved for the loss of her mother.

At that point, Anne was back in school and attempting to negotiate relationships with other children, which was very difficult for her.

Her father, stepmother and child therapist knew that Anne had turned a corner when Anne found out that one of her classmates lost her father and Anne felt genuine concern for this classmate.  She went out of her way to spend time with her and comfort her.

Anne was also getting along better with her half siblings at home and accepting her share of responsibilities in the house.

By then, Anne was also making friends with other children in her school.  She still had to fight off the feeling that she should be the center of attention all the time and get her way.  But she was making progress and her father and stepmother felt hopeful for her.

Narcissism often develops at an early age as a result of one or both parents overindulging a child and giving that child an exaggerated sense of entitlement.

Narcissism isn't always apparent immediately because these children are often charming, intelligent and engaging--until they don't get their way or until someone disagrees with them.

A lack of empathy is the hallmark of narcissism, and if a parent raises a child to only think or him or herself to the exclusion of others, this child will have difficulty in interpersonal relationships.

With help, young children can change and develop empathy and a more realistic view of themselves and others.

Usually, the older the child, the harder it will be for the child to overcome narcissism, although for most children there can be improvement.

It's very important for parents of narcissistic children to, at least, participate monthly in their children's therapy.  Ideally, they would benefit from participating in their own therapy to understand their own narcissism and their need to overvalue their children as a way of inflating their own sense of self.

Getting Help in Therapy
It is much easier for a child with narcissistic traits to get help in therapy than it is for an adult with narcissistic traits.

Most adults with narcissistic traits don't ever come to therapy because they lack the self awareness to see that they're having problems.  They often assume that the people around them are the ones who have problems.

However, some adults with narcissistic traits come to therapy after they have sustained serious multiple losses, like the end of a marriage or the loss of close friends.

If you recognize yourself or your child from the fictionalized scenario above, therapy can be helpful, especially if you see a therapist who specializes in working with narcissism.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also see my article:  
A Romantic Relationship With a Narcissistic Partner Can Be Damaging to Your Self Esteem