Narcissistic personality traits seem to have risen as quickly as obesity in recent years. Entitlement has become a defining characteristic of millennials, and everything from selfies to the everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality has been implicated in increased narcissism. Yet in and among all of the social commentary and scientific research about narcissism, one important question remains unanswered: What happens when a generation of narcissists becomes parents?
Narcissism is a personality pattern characterized by a lack of empathy, increased levels of grandiosity and entitlement, and a chronic seeking of admiration and validation. In her book, Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist, Ramani Durvasula details 30 character traits of narcissism, but she says superficiality, greed and vanity make up its central core.
“It’s like all of the deadly sins rolled up into one person,” Durvasula says.
Everyone is a little bit narcissistic. Narcissism is part of being human, and it’s a standard developmental stage for adolescents and young adults. When narcissism begins to interfere with how a person functions at home and work, though, it becomes problematic and can even veer into the realm of a personality disorder. Narcissists genuinely believe they are unique and entitled to special treatment, and they have a chronic need for admiration and validation — at any cost.
“Most of us grow out of thinking we are Superman at 6 years old,” says Durvasula. “We shouldn’t be running around like that at 41.”
Children don’t offer the type of continuous positive feedback narcissists crave, and narcissistic parents tend to react in one of two ways. Durvasula and W. Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at University of Georgia and an expert on narcissism, say some lose interest in their children entirely and look for other sources of validation. Others view their children as a reflection of themselves and become hyper-involved and controlling. In both cases, disconnection is the key; even the overly involved narcissistic parent is emotionally detached and lacks warmth.
The impact of being raised by a narcissist isn’t well documented on an individual level, and it’s been even less studied on a societal scale. Campbell has written more than 100 scientific articles and three books about the narcissism epidemic, but he admits parenting is a gaping hole in our understanding of narcissism. “We very rarely study the parents’ narcissism and then predict what will happen to the kids,” says Campbell.
This lack of formal research doesn’t mean experts such as Campbell don’t have theories, however.
“One thing you would see with narcissistic parents is using their kids as a route to self-advancement,” he says. “As a narcissistic parent, you look good and feel good because of the success of your kid. The same way that a narcissist can have a trophy spouse, you can have a trophy kid.”
Narcissistic parents have high expectations of their children — and plenty of them. They push their kids to excel in sports, do well in school, attend elite universities, and work in high-status careers. Narcissistic parents believe their children are special and deserving of special opportunities and privileges, and they refuse to tolerate anything less than perfection. They view their children as a part of themselves — “like their arm or their leg,” Durvasula says — and when their children aren’t achieving, they withdraw their affection and become disconnected.
Children aren’t equipped to handle that disconnection from their primary caregivers. They need parents who are consistent, available and unconditionally approving to form secure attachments. As adults, we rely on these secure attachments formed in childhood to dictate how we relate to others, view ourselves, and even cope with stress. When the formation of that secure attachment is disrupted, the impacts can last a lifetime.
Jennifer Doig knows the pain of having a narcissistic parent. Her mother was a classic narcissist, alternately abandoning her and expecting her to hold the household together. Now an adult with children of her own, Doig still struggles to carve a path separate from her mother’s expectations. “I feel like I’ve worn a mask my entire life” she says. “I need to be who I am and I don’t even know who that is. That’s a hard place to be when you’re 41 years old.”
Sara Shaugh was also raised by a narcissist. She says her mother focused on her appearance and weight intensely, and groomed her from early childhood to marry a rich man. When Shaugh was in the hospital with a brain injury and a broken neck and back after being hit by a car, her mother’s top priority was Shaugh’s appearance.
“One of the first things she did was call my hairdresser because my hair was a mess,” Shaugh recalls. “This was before they even knew if I was going to live or die. But what was really sick about the whole thing was the whole time I was thinking, ‘Maybe now my mother will love me because she almost lost me.’ ”
These stories aren’t unique. “Narcissistic parents beget kids with a whole host of psychological problems,” Durvasula says. These problems include higher than average rates of depression and anxiety, lack of self-regulation, eating disorders, low self-esteem, an impaired sense of self, substance abuse and perfectionism.
And we don’t exist in a vacuum. The narcissism of other parents creeps into how the rest of us raise our children. Narcissists’ relentless focus on their children’s accomplishments creates competition among children and between parents. Even the “mommy wars” have their root in narcissistic parenting, Campbell says.
Most people who get caught up in competitive parenting aren’t narcissists. Durvasula points out that we live in a competitive culture where success is measured by good grades, elite colleges, wealth and status rather than someone’s levels of empathy and compassion. “We have created a world where it’s almost impossible to get ahead unless you’re a narcissist,” Durvasula says.
Even parents with the best intentions get pulled into this cycle. Most parents who lobby to get their children into elite schools, hire college application coaches or push kids to get straight A’s sincerely want to help them advance in a society with limited options and a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. But this focus can instill narcissistic traits in children unless parents balance competition with empathy and compassion.
Another danger is how the focus on materialism and status shifts the parenting barometer for everyone. When narcissistic parents buy their tweens expensive smartphones and throw their teenagers elaborate sweet 16 parties, their overblown displays of affection become desirable to other kids. Parents don’t want to disappoint their kids, so they give in and buy their children the same things. Pretty soon, it becomes abnormal for tweens not to have smartphones, and narcissistic parents have to find even more elaborate ways to show their affection.
Millennials aren’t to blame for the growth in narcissism (despite all of the flack they get). It has its roots in the dawn of the individualism movement in the 1800s, but technology has taken hold of that growing trend toward individualism and made it a way of life. Now, consumers expect an online shopping experience tailored to their preferences and television customized to their viewing habits. Every aspect of the online world is centered around the individual, and growing numbers of Americans spend the bulk of their waking hours online.
“Even in places like Starbucks without computers, there are 30,000 ways to have your coffee,” Campbell says. “It makes us feel like individuals, and we feel special.”
This belief in being special is at the root of narcissism, and it’s where healthy self-esteem and narcissism diverge. When researchers at Princeton University studied the roots of narcissism in children, they found that it was predicted by parental overvaluation of their children. Children became narcissistic, at least in part, by internalizing their parents’ inflated ideas of them — and narcissistic parents are notorious for doing exactly that.
There’s no simple formula for predicting who will become a narcissist, or how a child will react to being raised by one. Upbringing matters, but genetics and a child’s personality traits factor in. Fewer than half of the children of narcissists in Durvasula’s practice became narcissists, but there’s no large data pool of adult children of narcissists to study — for now. Durvasula expects this generation to give psychologists plenty of research fodder.
“One thing I can guarantee you is [children of narcissists] will be plagued by doubt and insecurity the rest of their lives,” she says. “The question is how that is going to manifest.”
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