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Narcissism in adults characterized by excessive self-centeredness. an exaggerated sense of superiority that may conceal deep feelings of inferiority. and a persistent lack of empathy for others is often due to early childhood parenting, especially during ages one to three.
To raise a child with healthy self-esteem and the ability to relate well with others, parents need to keep in mind the different characteristics of healthy parenting that will not lead to them becoming narcissistic adults who become attached to partners who excessively adore them.
This adoration is commonly described as a narcissistic supply that the mother gives the child during the early years. If she doesn’t provide this, the danger of raising a narcissist arises. To that end, we will step back to look at the advances in a child’s development during those early years.
Early Childhood Development
There is a stage of child development called separation-individuation during the first three years of life. This is when the child must work out his need to feel close to an admiring mother, while also developing a healthy separation where he can tolerate that he is not omnipotent and grandiose—as he once believed as a toddler.
During these years, it is required by the mother to help her son experience moments of inner separation where he realistically ensures that she is not one with him.
Although the mother may have shown delight at his experience of being grandiose and powerful, he must learn to temper and regulate these feelings and to wait and delay gratification; because, in the healthy development of the child, he must come to know that they (mother and child) are emotionally and physically separate beings.
Parents often wonder how to set limits on their children and why this is so important. Internal separation between mother and child refers to the development of such limits and the experience of differentiation between the infant and the mother.
When limits are set early on regarding a child’s behavior, the child experiences an inner process of mental separation from the mother. For example, when a mother tells her two-year-old, “Use your words, not your hands. Hitting isn’t allowed,” the child knows his mother has a separate vision of how he should behave. They are separate individuals.
This cements the clarification the child needs that he can’t do whatever he wants; he has a mother who is different from him and who may restrict his actions. If she fails to do so, he will feel too powerful and omnipotent, leading to the potential for the development of pathological narcissism as an adult.
Children don’t want to feel more powerful than their parents. In fact, it’s scary for a young child to feel more powerful than his mother. The child needs her to set limits, so that he knows how to relate to others in a way that is acceptable. If he is too powerful, he expects that he is entitled to more than a child should have.
If, for example, the child isn’t stopped from hitting his sibling, he feels more powerful than he should and doesn’t know how to limit his impulses to express his frustrations and anger. This is a child who could grow up into a narcissistic adult man who feels that he has power and control over others under unreasonable circumstances. He learns to manipulate and coerce others unrealistically when it serves his ambitions.
Individuation, on the other hand, refers to the development of the infant’s ego, his sense of identity and cognitive abilities. It refers to a developing concept of the self.
Although interrelated, it is possible for separation or individuation to develop more fully than the other in this stage of development—largely depending on the mother’s attitude towards the child.
When this period of development does not proceed normally, the young boy becomes fixated, leaving him mentally stuck at the time when he needed great adoration. He does not proceed to the realization that he is differentiated from his mother and cannot expect her to always affirm his sense of infant-like greatness.
When this failure to develop occurs during these early years, a man never successfully overcomes these needs for affirmation and adoration. These needs come to characterize his personality, and if he is indeed endowed with a superior intelligence that is applauded too much by his parents, he may be overindulged inappropriately and develop an overestimated sense of entitlement.
Thus, these first three years contain critical formative events between mother and child. Limit setting as well as comforting, soothing moments of mother-child unity—while they may be brief—take on a great deal of importance in the little boy’s personality development.
Moments when he magnifies his expectation for maternal relations can impair his recognition of his early identity, leading him to believe he is a person who is not indeed as exceptional as he may have wished to be viewed.
This developmental phase is crucial for a child’s later acceptance (as an adult) of his realistic< power and control over himself and others. He must learn that he is not as extraordinary as he may wish to believe in his interactions with others.
Each time he fails to get the recognition he longs for, he may feel very ashamed and vulnerable. This is his plight, his Achilles’ heel, his flawed sense of self that can lead to a significant drop in self-esteem and even depression. These early experiences greatly impact an individual’s lifelong lines of development, and I will continue to clarify their importance.
Through observations of children and their mothers, psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler discovered that there are an inborn capacity for the infant and child to get interpersonal and intrapsychic (inner psychological) needs from the mother.
In other words, the child unfolds within the environment of the mother-infant unity, setting the stage for enduring patterns that—as we will come to see—become essential to normal or pathological narcissism.
The child works back and forth from infancy with his desires to be both parts of the mother, undifferentiated so to speak, as well as autonomous. This back and forth processes during separation-individuation has a major impact on his development.
How to Meet Your Child’s Needs Without Overindulgence
As we see, having early childhood needs for dependence and independence is normal. When met in a timely, developmentally appropriate, empathic manner the child learns his needs are understood and respected.
He develops regard for others and the ability to wait a reasonable amount of time for what is desired. He feels safe and secure with loving parents.
If children are excessively focused on by parents so that they are overindulged almost always getting what they may want when they want it without regard for others, they may feel more powerful than they can manage. They may also develop a sense of entitlement that does not teach reasonable expectations.
As noted above, too much power over parents actually can scare a child. Parents are helping children feel secure when they empathize and meet their needs in a caring, timely, reasonable, realistic way.
An example of frequent over-indulgence is with a child prodigy or precocious child. This unusually gifted child’s abilities may be overly focused on, minimizing or ignoring other positive characteristics of the whole child, because these particular gifts enhance parents’ feelings about themselves. That is, they believe they are raising an exceptional child who enhances their own self-worth and maternal/paternal satisfaction.
Such a child, while excessively admired, may come to believe they are worthwhile only because of their gifts. This is unfortunate, of course, because the child doesn’t feel a more loving, general unconditional positive regard for him or herself where both strengths and weaknesses are respected and accepted.
The child does not learn to integrate their unusual abilities with their other attributes and traits. The child’s identity is skewed by his or her parents’ overfocus on these particular unusual abilities.
This child, like other youngsters, yearns for and needs parental approval, so the child cannot gradually develop their own sense of self but instead feel they must mold themselves to their parents’ needs and expectations. As they grow older, they may say, “I don’t know who I am” and consequently feel anxious or depressed.
This confused sense of identity leads the child to feel they are indeed more special than others and are more entitled than others. They do not learn to share or relate and engage well with their peers who see them as always wanting to boss other kids around and only enjoy playing with others as the leader, the chief, the central member of any social group.
Such children are not well-liked by others in due time because they do not consider other kids’ needs and interests, only their own.
This can result in deep feelings, ironically, of inferiority hidden under their outer cover of superiority. They feel solitary and alone, often friendless, relating more easily with adults who admire their gifts rather than with peers who want to play according to everyone’s rules, not only the rules set by this unempathic though a gifted child who feels special and grandiose, and omnipotent.
When such children do not get what they want, they may be prone to tantrums for brief or long periods of time. Instead of their parents helping them find other ways to cope, they end the tantrum by giving in to this child they view as exceptional.
Mothers and fathers may clash over their beliefs about how to handle tantrums, one being too indulgent, the other being too punitive, increasing the child’s anxiety because he is caught in his parents’ struggle about how to care for him well.
Related: How to Help Your Child with Anxiety
How to Meet a Child’s Need for Admiration and Praise
Early childhood is a time of reaching many milestones that children need their parents to accurately applaud. It’s normal for young children to want admiring parents who show they enjoy their children and recognize their accomplishments.
To neglect a child’s needs for reasonable admiration and specific praise that builds their self-esteem can result in an unending yearning for such recognition in the future.
Consider the normal development of a two- or three-year-old who has become agile, independent, and attained a substantial vocabulary to express him or herself.
They may begin to have attributes that reveal perseverance, the capacity for healthy concentration and organization as well as particular skills that merit specific praise for their accomplishments.
Should this child not receive reasonable recognition for their achievements which may be in either or both the intellectual or social spheres, they feel unnoticed, underestimated, unable to receive approval no matter what they do, alone and even frightened because they don’t feel they are able to figure out how to be loved and accepted for themselves.
This child can start to feel inferior, anxious, and depressed because their milestones and normal development are ignored.
General Parenting Tips
- Promote the child’s growing identity and self-image as separate from the parent.
- Set reasonable limits on your child’s behavior with empathic explanations.
- Praise and admire your child’s specific, earned achievements, not globally saying he is always great and special.
- Teach your child right from wrong so he develops a reasonable conscience.
- Understand that all young children experience feelings of power and omnipotence naturally but that these feelings can be moderated over time in realistic ways.
- Help your child modulate or regulate his emotions so he can feel and express them without being overwhelmed by them.
- Help your child tolerate frustrations, disappointments, and realistic delays in meeting his needs.
- Encourage your child to find pleasure and satisfaction in independent functioning.
- Help your child recognize other people’s viewpoints.
- Value character traits such as honesty and kindness toward others.
- Recognize and discourage entitled attitudes and actions.
- Discuss greed and selfishness by teaching sharing with others.
- Discourage false blame of others for one’s own errors and failures.
- Avoid insisting on perfection and always being the winner or the best so normal failures are accepted with resilience and a desire to learn from mistakes.