The origins of narcissism: Children more likely to be self-centred if they are praised too much

It can be a vicious cycle as narcissistic kids are likely to have narcissistic parents

Lamiat Sabin
Tuesday 10 March 2015 15:57 GMT
Too much praise can be detrimental to children's developmental progress
Too much praise can be detrimental to children's developmental progress (Rex)

Praising children too often and telling them they are more special than others contributes to a higher likelihood of developing narcissistic traits, a new study has shown.

Narcissism – overrating or excessive interest in oneself – has apparently become more prevalent among young people in the Western world and a scientific experiment was set up to determine what actually causes this pandemic.

Psychologists have long flip-flopped between two theories that narcissistic behaviour can be either a product of social conditioning through an overabundance of praise, or by a lack of parental love that triggers an overwhelming need for affirmation.

Classic narcissistic behaviour includes problems sustaining deep relationships, difficulties in empathising with others, bragging, hypersensitivity, ingratitude, bullying and the strong desire to be admired.

A study in the Netherlands of 565 children between the ages of seven and 12, and their parents, found that narcissism was more likely to manifest when a child is “overvalued” during their key developmental stage.

However, this does not mean that strong parent-child bonds and expressions of love are likely to cause narcissism as it is specifically the idea that a child believes itself to be more special than others that can bring on egotistical behaviour.

Those children whose parents told them that are loved but are as “special” and “good” as other people were likely to exhibit less narcissistic traits. They were also found to be more confident and secure with their identities.

All the children were studied over four different periods, which each lasted six months. Kids who exhibited signs of narcissism were found to have internalised their parents inflated view of them, and parents who over-valued their offspring were likely to be narcissistic too.

Narcissistic parents are likely to project their beliefs onto their children
Narcissistic parents are likely to project their beliefs onto their children (Rex Features)

The subjects were asked if they agreed with statements such as whether they were “more special than other children” and if they “deserve something extra in life” answering with numbers 0-3 (with 0 being “not at all true” and 3 being “completely true”).

They were also asked the rather chilling question, “I am very good at making other people believe what I want them to believe.” Parents were also asked if they would be disappointed if their child grew up to be a “regular” person.

The children also took self-esteem tests, and their folks were asked to take a parental warmth test. The researchers found that the more parents overvalued their offspring, the more narcissistic their responses became six months later.

Parental love and support are associated with high self-esteem in kids, but overvaluation is not found to be associated with high self-esteem.

“Of course, parental overvaluation is not the sole origin of narcissism,” wrote researchers Brad Bushman of Ohio State University and Eddie Brummelman of University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University.

They added: “Like other personality traits, narcissism is moderately heritable and partly rooted in early-emerging temperamental traits.

“Some children, due to their temperamental traits, might be more likely than others to become narcissistic when exposed to parental overvaluation.”

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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