Children of parents who "overvalue" them are much more likely to become narcissistic ― a trait linked to aggression and violence, new research shows.
The first longitudinal to study examine the origins of narcissism shows that parental overvaluation of children increased the risk of their becoming narcissistic. This supports the social learning theory rather than the psychoanalytic theory of the origins of narcissism.
"It's important to note that children aren't born narcissists, in which case there's nothing you can do about it. Rather, how their parents treat them is important," study author Brad J. Bushman, PhD, professor of communication and psychology, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, told Medscape Medical News.
The study was published online March 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Narcissism is linked to low levels of empathy and high levels of aggression and violence, said Dr Bushman.
"When narcissists don't get the special treatment they think they're entitled to, they become angry and aggressive; they lash out at others in an aggressive manner."
Convicted thieves, rapists, and murderers have some of the highest levels of narcissism, he said.
Previous research has shown that levels of narcissism tend to be somewhat higher in boys than girls, that narcissism levels decrease with age, and that narcissism levels are higher in Western societies, which tend to focus on individualism, than in Eastern countries, which focus on collectivism.
Although much is known about the negative effects of narcissism, little is known about how people become narcissistic, said Dr Bushman.
The researchers wanted to determine which major theory best explains the cause of narcissism ― the social learning theory, which holds that children are likely to grow up to be narcissistic when their parents overvalue them, or the psychoanalytic theory, in which children are likely to grow up to be narcissistic when their parents are not warm toward them.
The study included 565 children aged 7 to 11 years. This is a key age in terms of development, according to Dr Bushman.
"It's when kids start to compare themselves with other kids. Before about age 7, all kids are narcissists; they all think they're great, they all think they're wonderful on any domain you can imagine ― music, sports, math, etc."
Children in the study answered questions that measured narcissism, self-esteem, and parental warmth.
The study also included 415 of the children's mothers and 290 of their fathers. These parents were asked about overvaluation of their children and the level of warmth they showed toward their children. They also answered questions about their own level of narcissism.
The participants completed the questions in four waves at 6-month intervals.
The study showed that overvaluation either by mothers (P = .003) or fathers (P = .021) predicted child narcissism one wave later. But child narcissism was not predictive of parental overvaluation one wave later (for mothers, P = .166; for fathers, P = .496).
"This means that the direction goes from the parent to the child and not from the child to the parent," said Dr Bushman.
Paternal or maternal overvaluation did not predict child self-esteem over time, nor did child self-esteem predict paternal or maternal overvaluation.
According to Dr Bushman, the difference between self-esteem and narcissism is that with the former, individuals believe they are as good as other people, whereas the latter means individuals believe they are superior to others.
The associations were similar in boys and girls, and there was no difference between younger individuals (age 7 years) and older ones, said Dr Bushman.
The study also showed that lack of parental warmth did not predict narcissism, nor did child narcissism predict child-reported or parent-reported parental warmth. In contrast, parental warmth did predict child self-esteem.
"It's really important for parents to be loving and warm towards their children, and that will help their children develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. It's not healthy to think that you're superior to other children."
The association between parental overvaluation and narcissism in their offspring was significant even after controlling for the overall level of narcissism in the parents.
"So it's not just that narcissistic parents have narcissistic children; rather, how parents treat their children can influence how narcissistic their children become," said Dr Bushman.
Research shows that narcissism levels have been increasing for the past 3 decades, whereas empathy levels have been decreasing, said Dr Bushman. "Empathy involves putting yourself in the shoes of another person, and narcissistic individuals don't do that; they only think about themselves."
Dr Bushman blames this on the rising use of social media ― Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc ― where kids can "broadcast" themselves.
Genes, too, are likely involved. Although the researchers did not look at genetics, they hope in future to assess how much of the transfer of narcissistic characteristics is hereditary.
"Usually a good rule of thumb for human behavior is that about half of it is due to genetic tendencies or biological factors, and about half is due to environmental factors," said Dr Bushman.
If parental overvaluation is a key factor in predicting narcissism levels in children, it might be possible to "target" that behavior, to teach parents not to overvalue their children, said Dr Bushman.
A lot of it has to do with how behavior is rewarded. In American society, parents tend to "have it all backwards" in terms of rewarding good behavior, said Dr Bushman.
"Instead of just using blanket praise and hoping our children will behave well, I think it's better to wait for our children to behave well and then pat them on the back."
A parental overvaluation scale, provided by Dr Bushman, is available online.
Not Black and White
Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Michael Brody, MD, a child psychiatrist in Potomac, Maryland, who has 40 years of experience in clinical practice and is chair of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry media committee, raised some concerns.
For instance, he said, some of the terms the authors used ― such as parental warmth and empathy ― were somewhat unclear.
The authors also make "a big point" that narcissism leads to violence, but it also has other less extreme effects, said Dr Brody. "Narcissism isn't a totally black and white issue."
For example, depression is often associated with narcissism.
"The gap between expectation and reality is often filled with depression" for kids as well as adults, said Dr Brody. "There's such a gap between who they are and who they think they are."
In his practice, Dr Brody said he sees first hand more narcissistic children who at the age of 7 or 8 "don't know their place." He used the example of a couple who divorces, and a few years later the dad gets involved in another relationship. His 8-year-old does not like this new person, so the dad breaks it off.
"That's too much power," said Dr Brody. "Children shouldn't be in that position."
Another example is the high school basketball player whose parents convince him that he's headed for the National Basketball Association.
"He's barely playing high school basketball, and he's constantly switching schools [in his hunt to be noticed], which is detrimental to his social well-being and academic well-being," he said.
More and more, Dr Brody sees parents treating their child as if they were a status symbol. "It matters what school your kid gets into and the grades they're getting; it's becoming what a car or house or a neighborhood used to be."
He chocks this "cultural phenomenon" up to our celebrity worship. "Everyone's a celebrity. On Twitter, everyone should know that you're going into Starbucks right now."
He added that the study could have provided more detail on this cultural phenomenon.
The authors and Dr Brody report no relevant financial relationships.
Proc Natl Acad Sci. Published online March 9, 2015. Abstract
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Cite this: How to Raise a Narcissist - Medscape - Mar 13, 2015.