Recent research suggests, in an effort to make children feel special and valued, parents are creating an endemic of narcissistic children, where they have a heightened sense of self importance along with a lack of empathy and understanding towards others.
Don’t like the person you see in the mirror? If you’re only mildly miffed as you stare in open-mouthed horror, you’re more or less normal. But if your own reflection sparks waves of revulsion and nausea or, worse, makes you actually throw up, you may need psychiatric treatment for a very real medical condition called dysmorphic disorder.
Some unfortunate victims even feel sick when they glimpse their own reflections while walking past shop windows. And, recent reports suggest, aggressive American cosmetic surgeons target sufferers by promising dramatic “cures”: surgery making women and men happier with the way they look. (Both sexes suffer from dysmorphic disorder, with women a big majority.)
While, on reflection, changing one’s adult appearance may be a good thing, kids have an opposite problem: some are too pleased with themselves, particularly with the way they look.
Let’s not mince words here: society is battling an epidemic of childhood narcissism. Experts contend it’s getting worse. Self-important and self-satisfied children are obsessed with how they look – and believe they look great. What’s more, many parents make the situation worse by failing to recognise these problems even exist.
Permissive parenting, without limit-setting and focusing instead on rewards for no achievement – for instance, all children winning prizes after birthday party games – contributes to an alarming situation.
As Dr Ross King puts it: “Permissive and over-indulgent parenting has certainly played a big part in an upward swing in narcissism.” Dr King, 55, has studied the subject in detail. He’s Associate Professor of Psychology at Deakin University. With experience honed over a quarter-century, he teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University’s Geelong Waterfront campus.
The prestigious Psychology Board of Australia has endorsed Dr King as a clinical psychologist. And, on the question of narcissism and children, he concedes that the most detailed research was done outside Australia by Drs W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge who are based at universities in the United States.
These two authorities consider permissive parenting, without limit-setting and focusing instead on rewards for no achievement – for instance, all children winning prizes after birthday party games – contributes to an alarming situation. Dr King says the two researchers “place this in a broader socio-cultural perspective, linking it to the rise of social media and the Internet – and on media focused on celebrity.”
“Parents want to raise children with good self-esteem,” he continues. But, he adds, there’s a downside: “a rise in narcissism in children – a belief that they’re special, talented, don’t have to abide by rules and that their needs are more important than those of others.”
Drs Twenge and Campbell report not only a rise in narcissism in recent years, but also a fall in empathy along with reduced capacity to understand others’ perspectives and feelings.
“We don’t need to keep focusing on self-esteem classes but should instead concentrate on empathy building.”
Studies, he reveals, have looked at the role of parenting behaviour in the development of narcissism. One study concluded that children whose parents showed high degrees of positive reinforcement and parental involvement displayed exaggerated senses of self-worth and a sense of superiority – characteristics of what’s defined as grandiose narcissism. Another frightening study of seven-year-olds found parents over-using the my-child-is-special argument spark development of childhood grandiose narcissism.
Twenge and Campbell suggest that we don’t need to keep focusing on self-esteem classes but should instead concentrate on empathy building, Dr King summarises. The two American researchers’ own studies confirm there are increases in quests for fame and celebrity status in storylines in books and on television. Also, their analyses indicate a much greater emphasis these days on individuals rather than the community. Pop songs use the words “I” and “me” far more commonly than they did when today’s young adults were children. Empathy and a sense of community are rarely featured.
How well you’re doing in life is now often based on social media likes and followers – and call-outs for positive affirmations, Dr King maintains. In this age of self-entitlement, parents struggle to find a balance between nurturing healthy self esteem and breeding puffed-up self-importance.
It’s not easy to find a line between keeping children happy and confident – and raising narcissists. Parents should avoid telling their children they’re the best at everything or that they’re the only ones who can do something. This leads to disappointment later on.
Pop songs use the words “I” and “me” far more commonly than they did when today’s young adults were children. Empathy and a sense of community are rarely featured.
A common thread running through advice from child psychology experts is that we shouldn’t treat kids like royalty. Kids may bring joy to our lives – but that’s nothing special in itself. Other people’s children are simultaneously bringing similar joy to other people’s lives.
Pithy advice from Dr Twenge: Kiss the princess stuff goodbye. Further, she adds: Even though little girls are seemingly hard-wired to fall in love with all things princess, be cautious. Don’t buy rhinestone-embellished shirts that say Little Princess or Diva, she warns. If your daughter is a princess, it won’t mean you’re a queen. Rather, you become her subject, obeying her every wish.
Softening her blow, she notes, however, that dress-up is fine because it encourages imagination – but try to avoid taking this a step further and treating your daughter or son as royalty.
HOW TO RAISE WELL-ADJUSTED KIDS
• Make children aware of their abilities – tell them they’re great at this but not so good at that.
• Build ability to accept criticism as well as praise.
• Encourage self-esteem – but couple this with highlighting the importance of compassion and ensuring children understand they should balance their needs with the needs and rights of others.
• While boosting compassion and empathy, foster a sense of community by getting children involved in doing charity work and chores at home. Make such activities seem a normal part of growing up.