It seems almost intuitive to think that there would be a relationship between narcissism and bullying, but are narcissists the bully or the bullying victim? Narcissism results from low self-esteem that happens when a child is unable to fully develop a healthy sense of self.
As a result, the child buries their true self and then creates a false self onto which they impose grandiose ideas about themselves. The relationship between certain parenting styles and the development of narcissism is well-known, but of course, parents are not the only people who interact with a child. It makes sense that other types of interactions can also serve to cause self-esteem problems in a child.
Research has shown a relationship between narcissism and membership in both ‘bully’ and ‘bully victim’ groups. The exact relationship is complex, but narcissism usually develops before bullying becomes a problem. It is possible, however, that bullying can exacerbate developing narcissism.
It’s important to examine the nuances in the relationship between bullying and NPD to really understand which happens first and what concerned parents might be able to do to help their children develop a healthy self-image.
What is the Evidence for the Relationship Between Bullying and Narcissism?
It may seem obvious that many bullies are narcissists, and it is true that both bullies and narcissists follow similar psychological trajectories. Both tend to engage in binary thinking and see the world as containing two types of people: winners and losers.
For narcissists, it’s important to be able to identify losers in order to claim the identity of winner by comparison. But the narcissist has a lot of hidden shame, and this is also true of the bully. Bullies have similar strategies as the narcissist for building up and defending their identity. These similarities make it easy to understand why many bullies are narcissists, and at least one study has shown this to be the case.
In that study, the researchers found that narcissistic children pursue bullying tactics in order to gain social dominance. They also found that while narcissistic boys were successful in that regard, girls were not. Furthermore, they found that many boys who were bullies didn’t actually rate high on the narcissism scale, and thus, it seems that not all bullies are necessarily narcissists.
Another study conducted on over 1,400 Greek adolescents showed that narcissists can be victims of bullying as well. The researchers found in this case that narcissism was what predicted membership into these groups rather than the other way around.
It may also be the case that as a child begins to develop their personality, their parents are the first to make an impression on that process. We know that extreme deviations in what is considered normal parenting can result in pathological narcissism. While that process may be underway when the child encounters bullying in school, it seems likely the bullying could contribute to the problems the child has in developing a healthy self-esteem.
Do Narcissists Bully Themselves?
You might recall back to the early days of your childhood when you were first going to school. You learn very early in life that there is a pecking order and your identity is based very much on how you are viewed by your peers.
As with adults, social rejection is something that you don’t want to have happen to you, but that is a particularly motivating factor for developing narcissists. As the research we discussed indicates, narcissistic boys who bully are rewarded more with social dominance, so the strategy works for them. At that young age, most narcissists don’t have enough self-awareness to understand the motives behind their behavior and they view social acceptance as necessary for survival.
As neurodiversity advocate Michelle Contreras Ewens points out, “In the animal kingdom, mammals bully one another to establish their role in the group. The pecking order is a way to assert dominance and establish a higher status that will assist in having all of your needs met for optimal health and survival.”
As a narcissist develops more self-awareness, however, they tend to increasingly bully themselves. Their parents have conditioned them to see themselves as inadequate, and as they grow into adulthood with those beliefs internalized, they begin to bully themselves more and more. As they do, their fear of losing social acceptance grows. Without an inner sense of who they are, they are dependent upon external sources, and social rejection would deny them their narcissistic supply.
Do Covert and Grandiose Narcissists Differ Relative to Bullying?
There actually isn’t a lot of research into covert narcissism with regard to interpersonal violence. Most studies have focused more on overt narcissists and their aggressive tendencies. Those studies that have looked at covert narcissism have shown a relationship between NPD and relational aggression, particularly in adolescents.
Covert narcissists tend to suppress their anger and hostility more, but there is evidence for a weak positive association between covert narcissism and aggression. One study examined the specific relationship between internalized shame and emotional dysregulation in covert narcissism and maladaptive emotional management responses.
The researchers found that the internalized shame that is a strong characteristic in covert narcissists does lead to anger rumination, and that in turn, leads to aggressive behaviors including bullying.
What Kind of Characteristics Do Narcissistic Bullies Have?
There are several characteristics that narcissistic children demonstrate that contribute to bullying. Several are behaviors that are also common in narcissists in general. Like an adult narcissist, the child with NPD will work hard to make everyone around them think they are a good child. As soon as the adults in the room aren’t looking, however, they act quite differently toward their peers.
Also, the narcissistic child needs to always be right, and even if someone presents them with evidence they are not correct, they will never admit it. They are very rigid in their thinking since being wrong means they are vulnerable to criticism.
These children will also brag about themselves in the same way an adult narcissist does, and they will blame others for any mistakes they make. Additionally, they are prone to tyrannical temper tantrums, often multiple times each day.
Finally, a child who is a narcissistic bully can also be incredibly mean. They feel entitled to whatever they want in any given moment, and they will stop at nothing to get it. Because they are narcissistic, they lack the ability to understand how their actions affect other people.
There is a definite connection between narcissism and bullying. Many bullies are narcissists who are simply devaluing and criticizing the people around them, but this is not true of all bullies. Though the relationship between bullying and narcissism is nuanced, it appears most children are at least developing into narcissists before they are either the perpetrator or the victim of a bully.Parents who are concerned their child might develop into a narcissist should seek to hold the child accountable for their actions while still honoring their feelings.
They should also correct bad behavior and validate the child when they try to do good things. They enforce boundaries with clear and consistent consequences, but they should also help their child when they are worried or anxious. They should also seek to teach the child empathy so that they can understand how their actions affect other people. These tactics can mitigate the effects of bullying on children with low self-esteem and reduce any bullying behavior on the part of the child.
When you’re dealing with a narcissistic child who is a bully or the victim of a bully, a free copy of my “Narcissistic Rejection Guide” can help. It will help you learn how to teach your child to say no and push back against the bully’s abusive tactics, and it can help you to push back against a narcissistic child’s bad behavior. Just click on the link and I’ll send it directly to your inbox for free!
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