It’s Narcissist Friday!
What if your own child is a narcissist? Not much is written about this, but I have received several private notes asking for help with this situation. Frankly, the question is difficult because it brings out so many emotions.
When you read about narcissism, you will almost always find that it begins when the person is young, perhaps very young. Something happens in the life of the child to make him/her afraid. The child learns to hide behind an image that is superior to others. This choice is not genetic or physical. It is not a disease or a mental disorder. It is a learned response to the struggles of life—and that makes parents feel guilty.
Now, you can find that in almost every book and from almost every professional that teaches about narcissism. In general, I agree with that assessment. But that does not mean that we can take the next steps without extreme caution. Before you begin to judge yourselves or your children, consider these things.
First, young children often lean toward narcissism. In the process of finding “self,” a child may go through many personalities. At various points, a single child might be boisterous, quiet, kind, mean, critical, accepting, happy, and sad. That’s normal. Children learn how to deal with life by experimentation. If you happen to catch your child in a narcissistic time, when trying to be superior and uncaring, don’t assume the child is stuck in that stage. I would not diagnose a young person (under 18) as a narcissist even if I was in the role of a professional counselor. In fact, today’s young people might be well into their 30’s before their identity settles down. (That’s another topic for another day.) Please do not be quick to label your son or daughter as a narcissist.
Second, parents are not the only influence in a child’s life. While I believe distant or over-bearing parents can trigger narcissistic behavior, it may not always be parents that are the direct cause. How many parents have learned years later of the pains and fears their child had in school or even church? Children may be afraid to talk with parents, even good parents. Grandparents may also influence children, as can other siblings. Parents are often unaware of the real struggles of their kids.
It seems sad to me that good parents blame themselves when they see their child exhibiting a narcissistic personality. The more they read, the stronger they feel the shame and blame. They forget that they could not control all the influences in their kids’ lives. Yes, some parents are to blame. Not all.
Third, children raised in the same homes by the same parents grow up to be different. Each person is complex. It is arrogant and foolish for any parent to think that they could raise their children to all be the same. It simply doesn’t work that way. If one grows up to be narcissistic, but the two others do not, how do we understand that? The only answer I know is that children are different from the beginning. Some are sensitive. Some are loud. Some make friends easily. Others are quiet. While parents may try to be fair and still treat each child according to his or her uniqueness, the job is far more complex than we usually understand. No one can always say or do the right thing, especially under the pressures of parenting. And no one can be fully responsible for the choices of another, even when that is your own child.
Fourth, children make many choices as they grow. Some of those choices are made many times until they become habitual or internal. I have been convinced that narcissistic behavior is a choice. It comes naturally to a person only after many other such choices have produced successful or acceptable results. Professionals are still not sure what to call narcissism. It doesn’t even fit well in the category of a personality disorder. Instead, narcissism seems to be a pragmatic lifestyle choice. It doesn’t pay for the narcissist to care, so she doesn’t. It doesn’t make a difference if the narcissist is kind, so he isn’t. The only way to get ahead in this world, the narcissist thinks, is to take what you want and let others suffer the consequences.
It does seem to be true that narcissists lack empathy and don’t know how to love, but even those seem to be choices, choices made almost unconsciously after long habit. We know that narcissists can be kind, attentive, generous, sensitive—when they want to be—but they are able to turn that behavior on and off. This is why it is sometimes long into a relationship before a victim discovers the truth. But, again, parents are only a small part of the influences that have touched those choices.
One more thing: parents will not be able to fix narcissistic children. It is a normal part of parenting to struggle with the negative things you see in your kids and the desire you have to change them. Sometimes just a good talk can help one of them make better choices. But not a narcissist. If your child is a narcissist, back away. Love from a distance. Pray and let the Lord do His work. That may be the only choice you have available.