Self-Esteem and Narcissism in Children

From a young age, self-esteem promotes mental health. Narcissism can harm it.

Posted Sep 27, 2018

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Praise is necessary in the best of relationships, Tolstoy once noted, “just as grease is necessary to keep wheels turning.” In their day-to-day interactions, people around the world often find themselves offering and receiving praise. And they perform their social waltz in astoundingly different ways. Some might scurry in search of wood to knock on at the first mention of good words in their address. Others might muster an aloof nod. Others, with red faces and shaking heads, might vehemently turn down compliments. While others might embrace every last word of acknowledgment with pride and eagerness. 

At first glance, praise and parenting seem like an infallible coupling: Parents praise their kids with the good intentions of raising their self-esteem, providing encouragement, and showing affection, while kids flourish from their parents’ devoted approval. But research is showing that all is not so straightforward, and that the plaudits that parents so lavishly (and sincerely) impart on their children can, in fact, backfire. 

University of Amsterdam researcher Eddie Brummelman investigates the complex relationship between praise and narcissism — and what it really takes for children to cultivate a healthy self-esteem. 

Here is Dr. Brummelman in his own words.

What has been one of the most interesting insights from your research?

When I started studying narcissism, I used to think that it was almost like self-esteem, and that narcissists were people with extremely high self-esteem. One of the most important things my research has shown is that narcissism and self-esteem are very different. While self-esteem contributes to mental health (for example, by reducing anxiety and depression, helping to maintain healthy relationships, etc.), narcissism can harm mental health from a young age.

CC0/Pixabay
Source: CC0/Pixabay

How is narcissism different from self-esteem? 

In psychoanalytic literature from the 1970s, narcissism was often defined as inflated, exaggerated, excessive self-esteem: self-esteem on steroids. But if you look closely, narcissism revolves around the idea that you are superior to other people, and others are inferior to you. Relationships tend to be competitive and a zero-sum game — there can be only one winner, and that’s me. Self-esteem, on the other hand, revolves around the idea of being worthy of who you are as a person and not necessarily feeling superior to others. In fact, you see others as equals. Relationships tend to be horizontal and a non-zero-sum game — we can both get what we want.

Is narcissism a character trait that one is born with, or is it acquired through socialization? How much of it is nature, and how much of it is nurture?

Narcissism, like every other personality trait, has a genetic component. Already at a preschool age, children predisposed to later narcissism are active, want to be at the center of attention, are emotionally unstable, and get angry and upset when they don't get what they want.

But whenever we say that something has a genetic component, we automatically assume that it’s fixed and set in stone. That’s a misunderstanding. Narcissism is shaped by socialization experiences. Our research has shown that children develop more narcissistic traits when they are overvalued by their parents — when their parents see them as unique and extraordinary individuals who deserve special treatment. Overvaluing parents tend to overestimate, overclaim, and overpraise children’s abilities, and pressure children to stand out from others. Over time, in such an environment, children may infer that they are indeed better and more deserving than others.

And as narcissists grow older, they tend to be drawn to settings that emphasize competition over cooperation, that enable them to stand out, be praised and admired by others — they select settings that reinforce their narcissistic traits.

How can you recognize when a child is overly self-confident versus narcissistic? 

Narcissism first emerges around the age of 7. That's when kids acquire the ability to make global self-evaluations through social comparisons. If you ask a young child to describe themself, they would typically say: “I am a nice brother/sister,” or “I can play soccer really well.” These are domain-specific self-evaluations that lack social comparison. Narcissism is a global self-evaluation that does involve social comparison: “I’m better than others.”

Some kids are extremely self-confident, and their self-evaluations may be unrealistically positive, but the key characteristic of narcissism is this belief that you are better and more deserving than others. When a child says, “I’m such a good drawer, and I can play soccer really well,” it doesn’t mean it's a narcissistic thing to do. But when a child believes in their own superiority and says something like, “I’m more special than others,” and “Other people get the praise that I actually deserve,” that can be narcissistic. 

There seems to be an implicit theory in Western society that we need a dose of narcissism to be successful. The underlying assumption is that if you are not claiming your superiority, and if you are not taking what you think you are entitled to, other people will take your place. That's a belief that we reinforce, and which might actually be harmful. If you think you are superior to others, you are more likely to derogate others and to respond defensively or even aggressively to criticism. Narcissism prevents you from objectively evaluating criticism and learning from criticism to improve yourself. 

What is the praise paradox? How exactly does inflated praise lead to negative outcomes? 

The paradox is that our praise is well-intended, yet sometimes has undesired consequences. When we notice that a child has low self-esteem, we feel a strong urge to help them feel better about themselves. And we have this lay theory that praise is going to do the job. Parents give more inflated praise (“You did incredibly well!”) to kids with low self-esteem, probably in an attempt to raise their self-esteem. What our research shows is that such inflated praise might have unexpected consequences. For example, in one study we observed parent-child interactions and coded how often parents praised and then followed the development of self-esteem and narcissism over time. We found that kids with low self-esteem received a lot of inflated praise. But the more inflated praise they got, the lower their self-esteem, and for some, the higher their narcissism levels were later on. Imagine somebody tells you as a child, “You made an amazing drawing!” Maybe for a while you feel like, “Oh yes, I am amazing!” But then you start to think, “This sets a very high standard. Will I be able to live up to that standard in the future? Will I continue to be amazing? I am not sure….” There will be setbacks and struggles, especially in childhood, and there will be times when you think, “I didn't do so well, and I’m not living up to other people’s expectations of me,” which makes you feel bad about yourself. 

What is a right way to praise?

Try to focus praise on behavior rather than on character. Otherwise, kids might get the impression that what they do and how they do (for instance, in school) changes how you think about their character. You want to praise them for something that they can actually control and change about themselves. Let’s say a child gets a really high grade. It’s much more effective to say, “This is really great, because I know you studied very hard,” because children can connect success to a process and the work that they put into this process. I also tell parents to try not to praise in inflated ways, because you might unintentionally set very high standards that are hard to live up to.

I think it’s always good to be aware of the implicit messages you are sending to your child; even well-intended praise can contain messages that you don’t intend to convey. On the other hand, keep in mind that things can always change, and that personality is not set in stone. Even when children are older, there are many experiences that can reduce or increase certain traits.

CC0/Unsplash
Source: CC0/Unsplash

What advice would you have for parents for raising children with healthy self-esteem and to help them flourish?

Maybe the most important takeaway is to realize that you can be warm and affectionate with your child and raise their self-esteem without putting the child on a pedestal. You can spend time with the child, making them feel like you appreciate their company, play games together that are based on reciprocity, touch, hugs, cuddling. There are things that make them feel like you appreciate them for who they are as a person, and that you cherish your connection with them, without actually telling them, “I think you are special and outstanding and much better than your classmates, and you deserve special treatment.”

When you know that your child has narcissistic traits, you don't have to panic. It’s pretty common. But it’s important to recognize the beliefs that underlie the narcissistic self-image. Try to find out — does your child like themself for who they are? Or is their self-image more fragile? Think about the messages that you or the environment are sending them which might be contributing to these beliefs. Talk about the values that are important in life and how human beings in essence are equal and how nobody actually deserves special treatment.  

Many thanks to Eddie Brummelman, Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam, for his time and insights.

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