How Children Become Narcissists

Boy wearing bow tie.
Photo: Jose Luis Peleaz/Image Source/Corbis

What makes people narcissistic? Psychologists aren’t sure, but they think parental behavior is likely a big part of the story. At the moment, there are a couple of theories on this front: Social-learning theory posits that people are more likely to become narcissistic when their parents lavish them with praise and teach them, implicitly or explicitly, that they are better than others. Psychoanalytic theory goes in the opposite direction: It argues that when parents don’t provide enough warmth, kids develop heightened narcissism as a defense mechanism of sorts — something like, “Well, I couldn’t get my parents to love me, so I’m going to make everyone else love me instead!”

In a new study in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, a team led by Eddie Brummelman of the University of Amsterdam decided to look at some data to see which story is better supported. Specifically, they examined a set of 565 kids between ages 7 and 12 in the Netherlands who, along with their parents, were asked questions designed to help gauge the levels of “child narcissism, child self-esteem, parental overvaluation, and parental warmth” in the household every six months for a year and a half.

The results, the researchers write, “support social learning theory and contradict psychoanalytic theory: Narcissism was predicted by parental overvaluation, not by lack of parental warmth.” (That’s not to say that a lack of warmth won’t cause other problems or is a recommended parenting style, of course — just that in this sample it didn’t seem to lead to narcissism.)

The researchers believe this is the first such longitudinal study of youthful narcissism (that is, a study tracking changes to a group over time), and given that the trait is associated with all sorts of nasty behavior, some of it violent, the authors hope their finding could lead to effective interventions that might nip narcissism in the bud:

As of yet, proof-effective interventions to prevent or reduce narcissism in youth are lacking. A critical step toward such interventions is knowledge about the processes that lead up to narcissism. Given that narcissism is cultivated by parental overvaluation, parent-training interventions might be one effective means to curtail narcissistic development. Such interventions can help parents convey affection and appreciation to children without conveying to children that they are superior to others.

As always, one study doesn’t definitively prove anything, and as almost always, more research is needed. It’s also important to keep in mind that the association between parental overvaluation and narcissism in kids was a “moderate” one — other factors, including some degree of regular ol’ genetic heritability, are also at play here. But still: If you have kids, maybe don’t tell them their macaroni art reminds you of Van Gogh.