Good Parenting can be a daunting task and the first few years of life is a child’s most critical period of growth and development. We all have a general idea of Narcissism and NPD and and how narcissists can wreck havoc in the lives of those around them. Narcissism can be a genetic trait, but, more often than not, it is developed overtime in relation to two specific parenting styles: The Deflating and Inflating Parenting Styles. To fathom how these parenting styles impact a child, it is crucial to understand what’s happening in the brain of a child as he feels accepted and connected, or rejected and isolated by caregivers, primarily parents.
The Neuroscience of Attachment
A human being’s sense of self evolves and develops through our earliest relationships with our primary care givers. This, in most cultures, is usually the mother in a child’s formative years, and secondarily the father, or both parents as in most modern nuclear families where the responsibility of child rearing is shared. Therefore, if narcissism is a pathological condition of self, it follows naturally that something had gone utterly wrong in the person’s attachment experience in childhood.
Attachment is a brain-driven biological compulsion to form a secure bond with our primary caregivers. It is so vital that its hardwired in the brain to ensure that an infant gets its primary needs met for survival. Unlike any other organ, the human brain is also a social organ, which is shaped and pruned by interactions with other brains, primarily those of early caregivers (Cozolino, 2006).
Besides getting the right nutrients, the human brain craves stimulation and connection to be able to survive and thrive. There is nature – a human child is genetically programmed to crawl, walk, talk, and distinguish an “I” from “you” on a developmental timeline. And then there’s nurture – the stimulation and development of a child’s brain that is kindled by interactions with caregivers in a child’s primary social matrix.
Good parenting involving close supportive interactions foster positive emotions, triggers brain plasticity and stimulates learning. On the other hand, a child who grows in an environment devoid of warmth and affection and who gets no spontaneous play opportunities with care givers, inherits profound deficits in brain development.
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For babies, it’s an evolutionary imperative to be self-serving, and naturally narcissistic at birth. There is the entitlement and egocentrism of narcissism, and the bottomless appetite for attention that all manifest in a baby’s behavior from birth. The difference is this – babies are not driven by greed and guile but by the primal motivation to live to the next day–a pretty good reason to behave selfishly to get their survival needs met. Psychologists’ growing understanding of the roots of narcissism in childhood and why some individuals never grow out of it, is providing insights on how to wean the healthily narcissistic baby out of narcissism into a normal adulthood.
Good parenting protects against narcissism by way of a parent’s sense of awe and wonder, and an attitude of unconditional positive regard towards the child . The messaging to the baby is delivered through the fundamental parental expression:
“I really can’t wait to know you, to meet you, to watch you grow, to see you fulfil your dreams and aspirations and to support and love you while at the same time establishing appropriate boundaries and limitations without losing that unconditional positive regard.”
For narcissism to take seed and reinforce itself in the child, there has to be significant violations to, and deviation from this optimal parenting style.
How does Narcissistic Parenting look like?
In this deeply flawed parenting style, the child is viewed as an extension of the parent. What that means is that the child is never acknowledged for his unique self, but only seen for what he can do for the parent; how he can fulfill his parent’s dreams, how he can comfort the parent, how he can help the parents regulate their own emotions. So the child’s natural self expression is stifled in exchange for what the parent demands or wants of the child.
There are two main Parenting Styles that are detrimental and give rise to the emergence of narcissism in children :
Good Parenting Tip #1 – Avoid the Deflating Parenting Style
The first main way is when the child is persistently smothered in his expression of self. His feelings, sensitivities and vulnerabilities are systematically crushed through an ongoing process of humiliation. He is regularly ignored and invalidated to the point that he is deprived of any accurate mirroring or echoing of his internal emotional state. The messaging to the child is delivered through the key parental expression:
“What you think, what you feel, and all your vulnerabilities are unimportant to me. They distress me, they make me feel anxious, and they upset me, so quit behaving in that needy helpless manner, and do as I command.”
This level of abusive behavior, steeped in rejection and shame-making, conveys a “Don’t Exist” injunction to the child (Goulding and Goulding, 1976). It inflicts a wound so deep and discouraging to the emerging self in the child. It culminates in the forsaken child’s tragic and desperate tryst with his emotionally unavailable parent. To survive he denies his authentic feelings and needs in exchange for the cultivation of a carefully constructed false self that is designed for the approval of his parents.
In order to earn parental acceptance, he has to peddle hard to be this wonderful, perfect and unique individual after his parents’ heart. He wears his false self like a safe cloak in his bid to desperately cling on to some semblance of attachment to his withholding parent.
Such children become highly attuned to their parents’ moods, and begin to magnify aspects of their selves that gain their parents’ approval, while rejecting the parts of themselves that interfere with that false attachment. However, these rejected parts which are intolerable to the parent – those parts that express our vulnerabilities, our disappointment and tears, those parts that help us regulate our emotions when we take a fall or experience profound loss, are the very parts we need to grow in order to be emotionally whole and healthy human beings.
Good Parenting Tip #2 – Avoid the Inflating Parenting Style
The second parenting style that predisposes a child to narcissism involves the parental overvaluation of the child by putting him on a pedestal, idealizing him and showering him with excessive praise and accolades. The article “Praise Can Damage” warns that excessive praise can backfire. Loving your child is healthy and good, but thinking your child is inherently better than other children can lead to narcissism, and there is nothing healthy about narcissism (Brummelman et al, 2015). When parents see their children as being more special, and more entitled than other children, the child internalizes the view that they are superior individuals, deserving of special privileges, a view that is at the core of narcissism.
Overvaluation shapes not only how parents think about their child, but also how they treat and raise their child. Overvaluing parents want their child to stand out from the crowd and be able bask in the glory of their children’s achievements. Helicopter parents fall in these ranks. The term “helicopter parent” was first used in Dr. Haim Ginott’s 1969 book Parents & Teenagers by teens who said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter; the term became popular enough to become a dictionary entry in 2011.
In toddlerhood, a helicopter parent might constantly shadow the child, hovering over him and always directing his behavior and allowing him no time or space for self exploration. In primary school, helicopter parenting can be revealed through a parent’s insistence on ensuring a child has a certain teacher or coach, selecting the child’s friends and activities, or providing disproportionate assistance for homework and school projects. They are driven by competition in many aspects of their child’s life – constantly pitching their children against their peers in the spheres of academia, sports, or the performing arts. They are a familiar presence at competitive events – baby shows, the grandstands, and beauty pageants, rooting intensely for their children, and the messaging to the child is delivered through the key parental expression:
“You’re better than they are.”
The overvaluing parent selectively chooses attributes of the child to groom, mould and shape them, and the process feeds into the parent’s own needs for self-aggrandizement or greatness. The parts of the child that aren’t so great in the parent’s eyes – the vulnerability, the tears, the tantrums, the disappointments and failures that children sometimes go through, are dealt with either very harshly or ignored under the cloak of shame.
Therefore in both of these combinations of parenting styles, the child learns that:
“In order for me to get my parents affection, I have to cultivate these parent-approved attributes to please and appease them. Only then will I get some sort of semblance of love and belonging.”
Depending on which of the 2 parenting styles dominates and taking into consideration that one parent may be doing the inflating and the other deflating, the child’s experience can becoming incredibly complex and this can lead to various manifestations of narcissism into adulthood.
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Cozolino, Louis (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain. New York: Norton & Co
Heathcote, Ann (2006). Applying Transactional Analysis to the Understanding of Narcissism. Transactional Analysis Journal 36:3 July 228-234.
Goulding, R. & Goulding, M. (1976). Injunctions, Decisions and Redecisions. Transactional Analysis Journal 6:1 January 41-48.
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S.A., Orobio de Castro, B. Overbeek, G. & Bushman, B.J. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 :12