Mommy and Daddy’s little superstar, princess, or angel may grow up to be quite the narcissist. Overpraising a child and actively ranking her above peers or siblings is reinforcing an egotistical and entitled mindset, according to a new Ohio State University study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers revealed how parents could be raising little narcissists with each building compliment.
“Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others,” said the study’s coauthor Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, in a press release. “That may not be good for them or for society. Rather than raising self-esteem, overvaluing practices may inadvertently raise levels of narcissism.”
Researchers searched for the origins of narcissism by studying 565 children between the ages of 7 to 11, along with their parents over the course over two years. Those who reported in the survey that they verbally reinforced to their child they were “more special than other children” or “deserve something extra in life” were considered to be overvaluing parents. Each child’s response was measured and compared to their parents’ surveys in order to pinpoint exactly why and when narcissistic behaviors developed.
“People with high self-esteem think they’re as good as others, whereas narcissists think they’re better than others,” Bushman said. “Overvaluation predicted narcissism, not self-esteem, whereas warmth predicted self-esteem, not narcissism. Some children may be more likely than others to become narcissistic when their parents overvalue them.”
A child’s self-esteem manifests throughout her upbringing differently than narcissism, which is why a parent’s compliments are key to shaping her impressionable personality. The researchers said there’s a common misconception that narcissism is just an overinflated version of self-esteem, when in fact that’s not true. Narcissists believe their own importance is ranked higher than others, have a severe need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others, according to Mayo Clinic. The only “cure” is undergoing psychotherapy to try and undo all of the damage overvaluing has done during childhood.
In the study, parents were even asked if their child was familiar with madeup items such as “Queen Alberta” and “The Tale of Benson Bunny” to see if they exhibited an overvaluation of their child’s abilities. Some claimed they actually knew the terms, while other parents were more realistic about their child’s knowledge of being familiar, for example, with “Neil Armstrong” and the book Animal Farm.
What researchers intended to highlight was that parents should make sure their children understand it’s OK to not know those terms because that allows them to grow and realize they need to work in order to become familiar with them. Learning how to lose and not be the best also encourages self-realization and growth, the researchers wrote. If parents stop telling their child she’s better than other students, they’ll stop creating a false sense of ranking. That doesn’t mean, however, they can’t improve their child’s sense of self and foster a healthy self-esteem by simply rewording certain phrases to express warmth.
“When I first started doing this research in the 1990s, I used to think my children should be treated like they were extra-special. I’m careful not to do that now,” Bushman said. “It is important to express warmth to your children because that may promote self-esteem, but overvaluing them may promote higher narcissism. Parent training interventions can, for example, teach parents to express affection and appreciation toward children without telling children that they are superior to others or entitled to privileges. Future studies should test whether this can work.”