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Dangerous self-assertion - narcissism in children

Dangerous self-assertion - narcissism in children, picture: 5732103
Dangerous self-assertion - narcissism in children | ©: Mohamed Hassan auf Pixabay

Every child is different. Some are shy and reserved, possibly allowing themselves to be bullied at school. Others tend to be more reserved but can still hold their own. Then there are the energetic ones who defend their interests and don't shy away from confrontation. And then there are the "Leaders.†Those kids who like to be called as such and are seen as leaders. But not all of them are as strong as they seem. A relatively small percentage of about 0.4% must be attributed to narcissists, and it is not always easy to recognize them.

It must also be mentioned that there are too few studies to give an exact scientific name to narcissism and its development. For Siegmund Freud, narcissism was something that belonged to the normal development of a human being.

What is narcissism?

A little self-love is not pathological. On the contrary, it can prevent us from being taken advantage of and help us achieve our goals, even if we have to outdo others in the process. In sports and professional careers, a certain amount of assertiveness is essential. The limit, however, lies in respect. Suppose respect is lacking or someone even harms others to achieve their goals. In that case, this no longer has anything to do with healthy ambition. Lack of empathy can be a reason, and precisely this is a first significant indication of a narcissist.

How does someone become a narcissist?

Narcissism always shows up in childhood - or adolescence. Male narcissists are somewhat more common than females. However, the female narcissist is not easy to recognize because they are less likely to put their personality above others but sometimes use different strategies. In their behavior, they are often more introverted and less explosive. But the underlying disorder is the same. So are the consequences.

How does narcissism develop?

Children who experience a special warm affection from their parents show stronger self-esteem.
Children who experience a special warm affection from their parents
show stronger self-esteem | ©:

A study on the cause of narcissism in children was conducted at the University of Amsterdam.

In this study, 565 children and their parents were interviewed several times separately for 18 months. Questions were mainly asked about self-image or how the parents see their child.

For example, the children had to indicate how strongly they felt that their parents made the child feel loved. The parents were asked how strongly they let their children feel that they love them.

Another example; the child must indicate how they see themselves compared to the other children in the class: smarter, or how important they see themselves within the class community. Parents should tell how smart their child is compared to the others or what role model the child is in the class.

The study found that children who experienced particularly warm affection from their parents had stronger self-esteem. In the absence of this, the study found that those children who showed more narcissistic symptoms did not have strong self-esteem. The parents thought their children were smarter, more outstanding, and more important than other children. When children take on a task and subsequently are put on a pedestal, they will expect the same praise in the future. If it does not get this attention and is not seen as special by others, they might force it.

Presumably, these parents mean well with the child and want to strengthen the child's self-esteem through praise. Who doesn't like to hear praise themselves and feel appreciated and validated? Parents should not skimp on praise and recognition but convey this to the child in a way that the child does not take it as "admiration" and later expects this "admiration" from others.

There is no indisputable explanation of how narcissism develops. For example, experts argue whether the narcissist develops his tyrannical behavior through external influences because he has not developed a healthy personality and critical faculties. After all, rebukes for misbehavior failed to materialize in youth. It is assumed to be equally probable that precisely the opposite is the reason. Then psychological injuries and belittling could have caused the disorder. The narcissistic behavior then becomes a protective wall for his vulnerability.

In the link tip at the end of the article, you can find a scientific paper. Various attempts at explanation are described there.

  • The crisis of self-esteem is due to emotionless, indifferent, or aggressive parents. The child protects itself by anger and trying to be valued by the parents and school achievements, creating the grandiose self.

  • The other side is parents that react with disappointment when their child is not perfect. That might lead to an attitude by the child, where it will try to please their parents and gain admiration this way.

  • These children want the confirmation, the admiration of the parents to experience a revaluation. The parents do not even notice how their "overprotection" harms the child and develops narcissistic behaviors.

  • Every child has a temporary and transient narcissistic self-image. It wants to be admired and sometimes develops fantasies of greatness. The parents are also idealized. If the resolution of normal (childlike) narcissism is missing due to a lack of emotional support, or if their limits (those of the parents) are not pointed out, narcissistic traits remain.

  • True narcissism is a severe personality disorder but not easy to diagnose. That would require the narcissist to face the examination and, if necessary, to undergo therapy. But he sees no reason to do so. There is nothing wrong with him; something is wrong with the others. This is also an indication of a narcissistic personality disorder.

What are the identifying characteristics of a narcissistic personality disorder?

In the literature, the manual "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR: Text Revision" summarized this roughly as follows. At least five of the nine criteria must be met so that narcissism can be suspected.

Narcissists think they are great and important, even when their achievements are not so outstanding.

  • Narcissists live in the fantasy of boundless success, power, influence, beauty, love.

  • The narcissist considers himself unique and thinks that he can only be understood by and/or associated with others who are also exceptional, highly respected.

  • Narcissists have a strong desire for admiration.

  • Narcissists claim preferential treatment for themselves.

  • Narcissists take advantage of others to achieve their own goals and needs ("to become even more brilliant").

  • Narcissists have an intense empathy deficiency, i.e., they see only themselves and have difficulty recognizing the needs and feelings of others, leave alone empathizing with them.

  • Narcissists are obsessed with envy or, conversely, believe that others are envious of them.

  • Narcissists appear exceedingly arrogant by their behavior in contact with others.

The mere fact that 5 of these 9 characteristics must be true shows how difficult it is to make a "diagnosis." Presumably, it will be the case that in a school class of children, there may be 1, 2, or 3 children with narcissistic traits, but no child will have the same symptoms. How much narcissist is in one? One child thinks he is brilliant and unsurpassed; the other child doesn't think much of himself. However, it needs a facade (a big mouth and strong demeanor) so that no one notices how little the child thinks of himself.

It would also be wrong to label a child as a narcissist because one or two characteristics fit well.

The exploiter

Narcissists almost always have only their advantage in mind. In doing so, they go to great lengths and are not afraid to use other people for their purposes and to manipulate them. Narcissists are usually clever and skilled at it. They twist facts to shift possible blame onto others so skillfully that they eventually believe it themselves.

The Self-Promoter

Narcissists like to put themselves in the limelight. They want to be the center of attention and tolerate no one else there. Instead, they turn to other groups and try again there to put themselves at the top.

The rule breaker

Children with narcissistic structures find it very difficult to stick to team sports rules and accept failure. The interests of others are irrelevant to the narcissist.

The Dazzler

Narcissists quickly succeed in hiding a lack of skills they would like to have. Should they be exposed, they put the alleged lack of interest in the foreground. At the same time, they are often incredibly charming, so that they quickly succeed in winning others over. This admiration is immensely important for him, and he demands it if he does not receive it.

The Insecure

Narcissists are anything but self-confident. They suffer from a considerable deficit in their self-esteem and compensate for the lack instead with restraint, with energetic, reckless behavior. This can have a destructive effect on their environment if they put close people under pressure. They are masters at taking advantage of others. Conversely, they are incapable of accepting criticism. However, if someone is superior to them, this leads to deep mortification and can plunge them into a deep crisis of the soul, in which, at worst, they become a danger to themselves or others. The narcissist resembles a powder keg in his behavior when things get out of his control.

Problems in dealing with narcissists

Helping narcissists is difficult. This can only succeed if they reflect on their behavior and/or the pressure to suffer arises. Conversely, other children and adolescents must be protected from narcissistic personalities. This alone is a challenge because narcissists often have a group of admirers around them.

What to do?

Narcissists are socially incompatible, uncompromising, and thus difficult to reach for therapeutic approaches. Nevertheless, treatments are possible, which belong in the hands of an experienced psychotherapist. Therapy can be successful if the person affected recognizes his excessive demands due to a severe crisis and is possibly willing to accept help. He must then relearn his self-perception, as well as how to control his impulses. Learning to treat others with respect is also an arduous process for him. There is no single valid approach, as it must be based on the patient's readiness. This also includes allowing the therapist to be close to one's weakness. For narcissists, this isn’t easy to endure. The dropout rate of therapies is correspondingly high. Moreover, as soon as the narcissist has recovered from the crisis, there is a high probability that he will fall back into old behaviors to which he feels entitled.

Narcissistic children in the youth group

Indeed, a child with highly negative behavioral problems can join the youth group or participate in a summer camp. I would be cautious about whether it is always a "narcissist." There are specific overlapping behavior patterns.

It can be that such a child provokes and the other children distance themselves. To criticize a child with narcissistic behaviors requires remarkable tact because anything perceived as a provocation will cause resistance. With incredible empathy, communication can succeed even when criticism is offered. Praise at the beginning of the conversation can "mellow" the child and make him more receptive to the request to refrain from doing something or to do it differently. If the narcissist recognizes that he must respect a person to succeed in a group, and if the person is socially stable and calm, and predictable to the narcissistic child, such communication can succeed.

Confronting with him will cause the opposite, a "fight" that the narcissist will almost certainly win or increase the damage. If an actual conflict occurs, for example, between a socially "normal" child and a narcissist, the adult must intervene. Groups must be sensitive without stigmatizing the child with behavioral problems.

Ultimately, such a vacation retreat can also be an opportunity for a child with narcissistic behavior. During childhood, most children have temporary narcissistic behaviors, sometimes more or less pronounced. So there is a chance that the child will change its self-image for the better through the group, through experiencing one or the other program point (challenge), and through reflection or feedback. Many children have already gained self-confidence and self-esteem through a well-functioning group and attentive youth leaders.

Other helpful or appropriate articles

The publication “Narcissistic Personality Disorder†treats this topic scientifically yet also describes this disorder relatively easily. From the article, it can be read that research still has to clarify some questions concerning symptoms, causes, and therapy approaches.

In german language: Vater, A., Roepke, S., Ritter, K. et al. Narzisstische Persönlichkeitsstörung. Psychotherapeut 58, 599–615 (2013).

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