Paved With Good Intentions: The Effects of Parenting on Narcissistic Personality Disorder
The myth of Narcissus falling in love with his own image in a reflecting pool is woven into our social consciousness. Narcissism is now used to describe benign self-admiration, cockiness, and annoying but generally harmless self-involvement. Currently, there is mild cultural panic about social media creating a narcissistic generation consumed by the need to generate followers and likes. Media sources regularly run general interest pieces on the emergence of technology-fuelled narcissism and trends such as selfie sticks, nicknamed Narcissisticks, increasing our self-obsession. However, two vital components of the ancient tale are often forgotten; Narcissus didn’t merely love himself, he disdained the people who loved him. And, in the end, Narcissus died. According to Greek mythology, he is so filled with despair upon the realization that the object of his love is merely reflection, that he stabs himself. In the Roman version, he refuses to leave the pool, wasting away until he succumbs to starvation and thirst. Narcissus did not suffer from the garden-variety narcissism that leads to the purchase of selfie sticks, but instead from pathological self-admiration and feelings of superiority that drove him from love and, ultimately, toward self-annihilation. The story acts not simply as a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-involvement, but also as a remarkably nuanced account of the devastating presentation of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
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From Self-Esteem to Self-Aggrandizement
The causes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are multi-layered and experts theorize that complex genetic, biochemical, and environmental factors contribute to maladaptive personality formation. For years, researchers have posited that parenting behaviors may have a particularly significant effect on the development of NPD, and a study by academics at Ohio State University and Utrecht University published earlier this year supports that parental overvaluation–believing your child to be more special than others–cultivates narcissistic traits in children. The natural desire for your child to have a positive self-image may lead you to behave in ways that promote a sense of entitlement and superiority that, combined with other factors, leads to pathological self-admiration and disdain for those perceived as lesser. If your child has a predisposition for narcissism, your actions serve to reinforce his distorted self-image and augment the damaging symptoms of NPD. Treating your child as if he has special traits that make him innately better than other people can disrupt his ability to identify, bond, and empathize with others. By placing him on a pedestal, you are inadvertently creating psychological and emotional distance between him and those around him, impeding normal social growth and development. Your child may also believe that your love for him depends on his superiority, and internalize expectations of perfection to an extreme degree, fearful that falling short of your high standards will result in a loss of love.
Narcissism as Self-Defense
On the other end of the parenting spectrum, neglect, abuse, excessive criticism, and lack of secure bonding may also lead to the development of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In response to invalidation and mistreatment, your child can develop an exaggerated sense of importance and superiority as a self-preservation mechanism, fortifying himself against the pain caused by your relationship. Without the nurturing, guidance, and modeling that help children learn how to understand and manage their emotions, they can experience affect dysregulation, or the inability to appropriately recognize and handle strong feelings. At the same time, the absence of meaningful parent-child bonding can also cause children to avoid attachments in adulthood, both due to a lack of ability to form them and to protect themselves from emotional vulnerability while still craving approval, admiration, and attention.
Nurturing Balance and Empathy
How, then, do we raise children who have a healthy sense of self, compassion, and the ability to form meaningful relationships with other people? The researchers at Ohio State and Utrecht found that warm relationships in which parents expressed affection and appreciation toward their children resulted in high levels of healthy self-esteem, without the effects of narcissism. By focusing on forming a solid, loving bond with your child while not elevating her above other people, you can instill in her a sense of security, and the knowledge that your support and admiration do not depend on her superiority to others. Model empathetic behavior and help your child develop an authentic sense of self, tolerate criticism, and form healthy attachments with those around her. You must also accept mistakes; resist expectations of perfection and allow your child the space to make errors. If your notice narcissistic tendencies, don’t reinforce them; guide your child to a more realistic understanding of herself and the world around her while ensuring that she feels supported and loved.
If your child has developed Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it is usually difficult for them to recognize their illness. Encouraging them to seek specialized treatment is one of the most difficult but loving things you can do. The idea that there is something wrong with them may be deeply threatening to their self-image of perfection, and resistance and anger are common reactions to the suggestion of professional intervention. However, compassionate, competent clinical care is the only way for people with NPD to unravel the false beliefs and damaging thoughts that leave them incapable of forming meaningful social relationships and an accurate sense of self. At the same time, it is vital that you find the supports you need to process the painful experience of having a child with NPD, and gain the skills to nurture your child in a way that encourages bonding, healthy self-awareness, and empathy. Bridges to Recovery can connect you to local and national resources to help you and your child move forward and begin to heal; change is possible and you do not have to face this alone.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. By employing the most modern, effective treatments available, we can help you or your loved one create meaningful, lasting change. Contact us for more detailed information about our program.