It is possible to build children’s self-esteem without turning them into narcissists, but it requires thought and care.
With individualism so highly prized in Western countries, parents have become increasingly concerned about raising children’s self-esteem. And although self-esteem is important, parents’ ideas about how to instill it may be misguided. In particular, well-intentioned parents may overdo it with lavish praise, which can inflate a child’s narcissism: a sense of one’s importance and entitlement. Somewhere between 4% and 15% of children with narcissistic traits go on to develop Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Narcissism is not just an exaggerated form of self-esteem; the two are quite distinct. Researchers have defined three key differences: illusion v. realism, superiority v. growth and fragility v. robustness.
Illusion / realism
Narcissistic children hold unrealistically positive views about themselves (‘illusion’). For example, an 11-year-old narcissistic boy “unhesitatingly shared his certainty of becoming president of the United States as soon as he graduated from college with degrees in nuclear physics and brain surgery.” In one piece of research, narcissistic children still believed they had performed extraordinarily well even after failing to complete a challenging puzzle. Adult narcissists can see themselves as geniuses even if their IQ scores are average, think they are superb leaders even if they disrupt group performance, and believe they are attractive even if others disagree.
By contrast, children with high self-esteem have positive but realistic self-views (‘realism’). These children do not over-estimate their performance as much as narcissistic children.
Tips for parents
- Give children realistic Even if children prefer positive over negative feedback, moderately positive feedback is better than inflated praise. In one test, children who received realistic praise from their parents had fewer depressive symptoms later.
- Offer inflated praise, such as using the words “incredible” and “amazing” when describing the child or his/her actions – e.g., “You did incredibly well!” In one study, children whose parents offered them inflated praise were more likely to show narcissistic traits six, 12 and 18 months later.
Superiority / growth
Narcissistic children strive to be better than others, looking down on them (‘superiority’). They may feel little care, concern or empathy for others.
By contrast, children with high self-esteem are likely to be more interested in improving themselves than in outperforming others (‘growth’).
Tips for parents
- Praise children’s efforts and strategies (e.g., “You found a good way to do it!”)
- If children fail, discuss with them what they could learn from the experience and how they might consider asking for help.
- Pressure children to stand out from others.
- Push children to strive for popularity (e.g., show approval of more likes/friends on social media, or show disapproval of fewer likes/friends).
Fragility / robustness
Narcissistic children display emotional fragility. Experiments show that when such children receive negative feedback ,they feel disappointed in themselves and can manifest shame (e.g., blushing). They may respond to this angrily or aggressively and, over time, shame can spiral into anxiety and depression.
By contrast, children with high self-esteem display more emotional robustness. They can still feel worthy in the face of failure.
Tips for parents
- Show unconditional regard for children – accept them even when they fail. In one experiment, children were invited to reflect on times when they were accepted and valued by others unconditionally. When these children received a school report card shortly afterwards, they were less likely to feel shame at poor results.
- If children misbehave, correct their behavior but be warm and accepting at the same time.
- Show particular pride when children stand out or be disappointed or hostile when they perform averagely. Children whose parents do this are more likely to show narcissistic traits, such as self-aggrandizement after success and self-devaluation after failure.
All these differences in traits are tendencies – narcissistic children are more or less likely to do some things than children with high self-esteem. The differences do not describe every individual child. For example, some children might strive for both growth and superiority, and others might strive for neither.
The researchers recommend that programs be developed and tested to specifically help parents raise children’s self-esteem and not encourage narcissism. No programs have so far attempted this.
Header photo: Tauno Tõhk. Creative Commons.