Teens, as part of their natural behavior, seek attention as they are trying to find their way in the world. They are discovering their skills and talents, and when they find something that they are good at, they often want to share it with others. On top of increasing independence that parents are offering to teens in this on anywhere environment, teens are developing certain personality characteristics that are alarming, to say the least. It seems that in the United States, we are experiencing a seismic shift in our nation’s cultural norm towards self-admiration. In many cases, this intense presence of narcissism is being diagnosed as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
The causes of NPD
Unfortunately, the causes of narcissistic personality disorder are not yet well-understood. Genetic, biological, environmental factors and early life experiences are all thought to contribute to the development of narcissism. Risk factors that often present themselves in early childhood can include:
- Insensitive parenting
- Over-praising and excessive pampering
- Unpredictable or negligent care
- Excessive criticism
- Presence of abuse whether it be physical or verbal
- The occurrence of a traumatic experience
- Extremely high expectations
- Narcissistic parents
In addition to these risk factors, it is possible that there are gene abnormalities that affect the connection between the brain and resulting behaviors. Many of these risk factors, as one can see, tie back to parenting approaches. In today’s environment where there are no losers, and everybody wins, children are more often praised than provided with constructive criticism.
A divide has been forming over the last couple of decades between parents and experts that believe no child should ever be put in the position of losing. In these cases, it means that everyone is in the position of winning. And thus, no one ever loses. Letting kids win, or avoiding declaring a winner at all, often sets these children up for disappointment later on because they are not provided with coping skills, and perhaps more importantly, they are not given the guidance they need to either improve their skills or seek out something where their talents may better align.
As children are praised repeatedly, and especially when they are not provided with appropriately communicated constructive criticism, a natural outcome will be for these children to think they are better than others. As children start to converse with their peers and find that they are praised and told they are good at everything, they can start to develop a persona where they demonstrate behaviors of superiority.
The link between abuse and narcissism
While the presence of NPD is often associated with excessive exposure to praise without an appropriate balance of constructive guidance and feedback, abuse can also lead to narcissism. This may seem rather counter-intuitive as abuse also leads to feelings of failure, a lack of worth, etc., and is also linked to high occurrences of self-harm, and suicide. But childhood abuse does indeed increase the risk of developing vulnerable narcissism by damaging the self, and thus amplifying shame.
So what is vulnerable narcissism? Those who experience vulnerable narcissism, the lesser known subtype, are often defensive, and demonstrate insecurity. They are bitter that others do not treat them respectfully. These sufferers are marked by self-consciousness, shame, and a sense of helplessness. Those with grandiose narcissism, the form that most are more familiar with, are aggressive and domineering. They often show no modesty and view themselves as superior to others.
When a narcissistic parent is in the mix, the prevalence of the teen developing NPD is much higher, especially in the below scenarios:
- The home culture revolved around the values of a dominant narcissistic parent.
- The parents or guardians did not show unconditional love towards the child.
- The child excessively devalued or idealized
- The child lacked experiencing emotional empathy from the parents
- Excessive value was placed on status and achievement
- The parents were hierarchical in their thinking and indicated that everyone they met was ranked as either above or below them.
- To teach obedience, the parents used shame and public humiliation.
- The child was frequently compared to someone else and comments were made that the child should be more like the other.
- Being average was considered an insult.
The symptoms of NPD
For your teen to be diagnosed with NPD, they must present with at least five of the following symptoms:
- Continues to demonstrate an imposing sense of self-importance
- Exaggerates successes and talents
- Appears preoccupied with illusions of success, brilliance, influence, good looks, or the ability to attract the perfect mate
- Believes that they are superior and unique compared to others, and can only be understood by other people that are superior and unique
- Seeks constant and excessive admiration
- Holds a strong sense of entitlement including unreasonable demands for favorable treatment
- Takes advantage of others to get what they want
- Lacks empathy, is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them
- Regularly shows boastful and pretentious behaviors or attitudes
- Takes over conversations and belittles or looks down on people they perceive as secondary to them
- Insists on having the best of everything
If your teen demonstrates at least five of the above-mentioned symptoms, it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible. And assuming that you as a parent are not a narcissist and did not contribute to the development of these traits in your child, you can best help your child by supporting them through their treatment.
What parents need to know when their teen is being treated for NPD
Seeing a therapist can be very helpful for you and your teen, but you must find someone who is familiar with narcissism. A therapist who is not properly trained in the pathology of narcissism can be invalidating and give dangerously bad advice. A therapist who is not familiar in the treatment of narcissism can inadvertently reactivate past traumas, or can actually reinjure the teen. So, when seeking support for your narcissistic teen, look for therapists who are familiar with NPD.
While you or your teen may feel defensive about the need for treatment, it is important to:
- Keep an open mind about the therapy process
- Stick to your treatment plan – Your teen will not be magically healed overnight. There will be setbacks, and in some cases, it may feel that the situation is getting worse before it begins to get better. Understand that this is all part of the process.
- Get help for additional mental health concerns or addictions – In many cases, NPD goes hand in hand with other afflictions. Your teen’s addictions, anxiety, stress, and depression can all feed off each other. This can lead to a cycle of emotional pain and unhealthy behavior.
- Stay focused – Your teen will need to receive reminders from you, and their therapist, and from themselves that they are cable of developing positive and rewarding relationships with others.
In addition to finding the right support for teen, parents too need to demonstrate behaviors that will be as supportive as possible to their children. The first step to helping your teen is to understand if you as a parent are demonstrating narcissistic traits too. If a parent is afflicted with narcissism, it is far more likely that the narcissism will present itself in your teen. Recognize that families with narcissistic parents operate under an unspoken set of rules that can be very confusing and can lead to long-term detrimental effects in children.
- Narcissistic families tend to hold secrets, putting on a show to others that everything within the family is fine.
- These families always put on an image and work hard to hide what is happening inside, for fear of what others will think.
- Children of narcissistic parents are often given negative messages that they will never be good enough.
- Children in these situations are often expected to fend for themselves, as parents are not present or engaged in typical parental duties.
- These parents do not engage emotionally with their children and are often incapable of showing empathy or unconditional love. Rather, they tend to express criticism and judgment.
- These families do not communicate well. In fact, family members often exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors and talk negatively about other members of the family behind their backs.
- Narcissistic parents lack boundaries and often invade the private spaces of their children. They may get too involved in friendships, and may even read the teen’s private journal or diary without permission.
- Siblings are often compared to one another, with one sibling being perfect, and the other siblings expected to be more like the perfect one. This creates scapegoats in the non-perfect children.
- Feelings are often brushed aside or invalidated. Narcissistic parents are typically not in touch with their own feelings, and thus this creates projection onto their children. This causes a lack of accountability and honesty, in addition to other psychological disorders.
If your family, or you as a parent, sounds like any of the above, family treatment or multiple methods of talk therapy are likely in order. If you’ve ever seen the 1981 film Mommie Dearest, which was based on a book written by Christina Crawford about her mother, Joan Crawford, then you may have noticed some horrifying similarities in the above scenarios. And, if you have recognized that your parenting and your family hold those similarities, it is far more likely that you will be able to work through your own behaviors, and thus be able to provide a better family environment for you and your teen.
Treatment for NPD
Treatment for narcissistic personality disorder will focus on psychotherapy (talk therapy). Participating in psychotherapy will help your teen to better relate with others. The goal is to help these relationships become more intimate, enjoyable, and rewarding with time. Talk therapy will also help your teen to understand the drivers and causes of their emotions and their need to compete or set themselves above others. Areas of focus for your teen will be:
- Accepting and maintaining real personal relationships and collaboration with friends, peers, and other family members
- Recognition and acceptance of their actual competencies and potential so that they can learn to accept and tolerate criticisms or failures
- Increasing their ability to understand and regulate their feelings
- Understanding and tolerating the impact of issues related to their self-esteem
- Releasing their desire for unattainable goals and ideal conditions
- Gaining an acceptance of what’s attainable and what they can realistically accomplish
Therapy can be short term to help your teen manage through times of stress or crisis. In some situations, long-term therapy may be suggested if your teen needs additional support to achieve or maintain their goals.
There are no medications currently used to treat narcissistic personality disorder directly. However, as is the case in many situations, if your teen also exhibits symptoms of depression or anxiety, medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs may be prescribed.
Moving forward after narcissism therapy and treatment
While narcissism is a part of normal teen development, if your teen exhibited extreme narcissism for whatever reason, and has successfully completed treatment, it does not mean that you can simply move on and go back to the lifestyle that you had before treatment. There are a variety of activities and behaviors that you can encourage for you and your teen to help you move forward.
- Focus on developing empathy. Seek out opportunities to interpret how other people might feel in certain situations and when you do certain things. Listen and accept feedback.
- Volunteer together. Volunteering is an excellent activity to pursue together and will help both of you learn to be better givers than takers.
- Get out and experience the world together. Look for unique ways to appreciate the world around you, such as going camping and gazing up at the stars, visiting a museum, or attending a play.
- Be a good role model. Help others in need, and work to correct and redirect your own behaviors to be in service to others, instead of expecting others to be in service to you.
- Celebrate accomplishments, but do not reward them with physical gifts. Look for activities that your teen has demonstrated an interest in, and celebrate by going out to dinner or participating in that activity together.
- Limit the use of electronics. Teens spend an excessive amount of time on their electronic devices and on social media, which hinders their abilities to develop live communication skills.
- Assign chores. Provide your teen with a set of responsibilities that they must handle within the household. Make sure that you do not assign all chores to your children, and that you take on some of the visible household responsibilities as well. This will help demonstrate to your child that all family members play a role in managing the household and maintaining the home.
When you accept your own shortcomings as a parent and work to develop empathy and positive behaviors in yourself, you will naturally become a better role model for your child. Be sure to get support for yourself as a parent, even if you do not believe that you are a narcissist. A professional counselor can provide you with your own coping mechanisms to help you move forward and make the appropriate adjustments to your lifestyle.