There is so much interest in narcissism in recent years that people can’t help but wonder why that is. It seems like we keep hearing about more and more narcissism in our culture, but what is causing that trend? Is there a difference in parenting styles that is creating more narcissists? What role does genetics play? How about culture? Is that a factor, and does the type of narcissism and gender of the narcissist make a difference?
There is evidence that certain parenting styles can work in conjunction with genetic predispositions to create narcissism. Interestingly, both overprotective and abusive parental styles can result in narcissism. Spoiling, leniency, and overvaluation are other styles that create a narcissist.
It’s important to recognize the variety of factors that can influence the creation of a narcissist since this may affect treatment protocols. It’s also important if you’re the child or the spouse of a narcissist to understand how parenting styles may be important for you or your child’s mental health. Let’s explore the myriad factors that can affect the development of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Parenting Styles that Can Cause Narcissism
While you might be thinking that abusive parents can cause narcissism, there are actually several different parenting styles that can result in this personality disorder. You might find some of them surprising.
Overparenting/Overprotection is One Parenting Style Associated with NPD
It might be obvious to understand how an abusive environment could cause narcissism, but in fact, parents who are too overprotective can also create a narcissistic child. This video has some more information about how narcissism develops. But it’s more complicated than it appears.
In fact, researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia found overprotection and overparenting (commonly known as helicopter parents) to be higher risk factors for narcissism than even mistreatment.
The mechanism at work here is that such overparenting and overprotection interfere with the ability of a child to learn lessons from their experiences that would normally act to correct grandiose view of the self.
The children of such parents are not allowed to try and fail and learn to try again. Instead, their parents, likely with good intentions, want to make them feel valued by preventing painful experiences. Many parents don’t want their children to “make the same mistakes” they did, so they don’t let their children try things for themselves, or they pick up the pieces when the child fails, which prevents them from learning how to overcome failure.
It also has the effect of making them more reliant on guidance and feedback from other people. They find it difficult to make decisions for themselves because they have never really been allowed to do so.
Instead, they constantly seek the feedback of others to validate their own ideas. This prevents them from learning to be autonomous individuals, which is an important developmental stage that occurs early in life.
The overprotective parent is arriving at the same place as the abusive parent; it’s just that they’re using a different route to get there. The child still isn’t able to develop a strong sense of identity, and narcissism is the coping mechanism they use.
Spoiling a Child Can Cause Narcissism
Another parenting style that the researchers in the Australian study found to be associated with the development of narcissism is spoiling a child. The child of parents who spoil them never learns to appreciate what they have, nor do they learn how to try and fail and try again to get what they want in life.
Instead, they get a message of entitlement. They learn that things will be given to them when they want them, and that teaches them that they should never have to try or work for what they want.
Effectively, they never learn to rely on the self to meet their own needs. They look outward for validation from other people, and they come to expect that other people will cater to them as they desire.
Another friend of mine had an experience with this in her own childhood. When she was 8 years old and her sister was 1 year old, their older brother was in a terrible accident. At the same time, their grandfather fell ill with a terminal disease.
The result was that their parents were focused on the older brother and their grandfather over the course of the next several years of their lives. The parents felt bad about being unable to give them a normal childhood, particularly the younger sister. They felt my friend was old enough to understand the situation, but the younger child was not.
They proceeded to spoil the younger child to make up for what they had been unable to give her as a toddler. Their intention was good, but the result was that my friend’s younger sister developed both narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Lack of Warmth is a Type of Trauma Associated with Narcissism
Parenting styles in which one or both parents are indifferent or cold to the child have been found to hamper the development of an adaptive self-view. Typically, as children grow, they are very narcissistic because their early life is normally composed of expressing needs to their parents and getting those needs met (in healthy families, anyway).
As the child gets older, they begin to both try things and fail, and they begin to learn their place in the world. That usually causes their grandiose self-image to be replaced with a more realistic self-concept. They learn there are other people in the world with needs too, and they must be considerate of those other people.
When a child doesn’t get that because of a cold parent who doesn’t mirror loving emotions, it interferes with the normal developmental process. Too much mirroring can also be problematic in that it can serve to reinforce those grandiose ideas.
Basically, healthy parents allow their children to learn from their experiences which results in a realistic self-image. Cold, aloof parents or overly protective parents prevent the child from doing that, and it’s possible for narcissism to be the result.
Leniency Can Create NPD
Leniency can also create a problem for the normal development of a child’s self-image. When parents are overly lenient with their children, the child doesn’t learn from their mistakes. As a result, they don’t self-correct.
They also can develop a sense of entitlement if their parents are overly lenient. This is particularly true if the parenting style involves a combination of overvaluation and leniency. In that instance, the child is told how special they are, and they never have to face any real consequences for their failures.
This also illustrates how combinations of parenting styles can produce narcissism. It may not be just one type of parenting style that causes the problem. It goes to show how complicated narcissistic personality disorder really is, and that is an important factor when considering possible treatments.
Overvaluation and the Golden Child are Other Toxic Parenting Styles
It is typical of narcissistic parents to choose a ‘golden child.’ This is the child upon whom they dote. They praise them and continuously tell them that they are part of a special family.
They discourage them from doing anything on their own by telling them that there are other people who should do those things for them. They prevent the child from experimenting and taking chances in life, all while telling them how special they are.
As a result, the child develops an entitled attitude as well as a grandiose self-image. Despite that, however, they come to see themselves as flawed. They secretly fear that’s why their parents won’t let them do anything for themselves; because they can’t.
This, in combination with the feeling that they can’t do anything, fills them with shame and self-loathing in the same way their narcissistic parents were when they were young.
It’s also possible for this to happen even if the parents are not themselves narcissists. Any parenting style that involves the overvaluation of a child in combination with overprotective parenting can produce a narcissist.
As the child grows, the world shows them just how incapable they are, and it also teaches them – sometimes in very harsh terms – that they are not, in fact, special. The parents who are treating their child as a special individual who shouldn’t have to do anything for themselves are not doing that child any favors.
It’s critical to let a child explore, experiment, and fail so that they can ultimately succeed and become an independent, healthy adult.
Childhood Maltreatment is Associated with Grandiose Narcissism
Childhood abuse is another parenting style that produces narcissistic personality disorder in some children. Despite all appearances to the contrary, narcissists are full of shame and self-loathing.
At some point in their childhood, they came to believe they were hopelessly flawed. They felt their true self was worthless, so they buried it deep inside and created a better self with which to interact with the world. This is their false self-image, but it lacks the substantive nature of a true ego, and thus, it can’t prop up the child’s identity.
That’s why the narcissist needs to manipulate and control other people, so they can get the almost constant flow of adoration they require to feel good about themselves. When parents are constantly abusing their child, either physically or emotionally, they cause that child to see themselves as worthless and flawed.
The development of this false self is essentially a coping mechanism for that kind of mistreatment. It’s how they push back against the feeling that they are flawed, the feeling that their abusive parents have instilled in them.
The researchers in Australia mentioned previously found that childhood maltreatment was particularly associated with vulnerable narcissism as opposed to grandiose narcissism though they note that other studies found different results.
They conclude that the situation with childhood maltreatment may be more nuanced given that it is a risk factor for other personality disorders as well as narcissism. Thus, it may be more difficult to tease apart the specifics that would lean toward one disorder versus another.
Narcissism and Erikson’s Stages of Human Psychosocial Development
The following table presents Erik Erikson’s stages of human psychosocial development and the ages at which each occurs:
|Trust vs. Mistrust
|0 – 1½
|Autonomy vs. Shame
|1½ – 3
|Initiative vs. Guilt
|3 – 5
|Industry vs. Inferiority
|5 – 12
|Identity vs. Role Confusion
|12 – 18
|Intimacy vs. Isolation
|18 – 40
|Generativity vs. Stagnation
|40 – 65
|Ego Integrity vs. Despair
When considering a narcissist, you can understand how they landed on each stage of development. At an early age, they learned mistrust which affects their attachment style later in life. It keeps them distanced from other people because they develop an insecure or avoidant attachment style.
As they get a little older, they become filled with shame as opposed to developing a strong sense of autonomy and agency. This is why they blame other people for their mistakes and hide behind the bravado of arrogance.
They are also filled with guilt because they believe themselves to be flawed, and they think that is their fault. This strips them of genuine initiative because they are hyperfocused on maintaining their false self-image.
As a result of these early developmental problems, the narcissist feels inferior and experiences role confusion, they become effectively isolated even from their closest friends and family. They never let anyone get close.
That ultimately results in stagnation and despair because they are not able to achieve ego integrity. While it might be easy to understand how abuse can cause these problems, the same is true of cold parenting styles. The other styles cause the same problems by preventing the child from experimenting with life.
Is There a Difference Between Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissists?
The most obvious parenting style that affected the development of grandiose versus vulnerable narcissism was overvaluation. Parenting styles that involved overvaluation typically produced grandiose narcissists.
Researchers believe that overvaluation stimulates unrealistically positive self-views. This causes the child to fear failure and to use negative tactics like avoidance and cheating to maintain their positive self-view. They become hypervigilant to any threats to that self-view, and that produces the defensive reactions associated with grandiose narcissism.
The Australian researchers also noted that invalidating a child’s needs was associated with higher levels of both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. They hypothesized that it may be the combination of overvaluation with an invalidation of the child’s needs that produces an elevated risk for narcissism.
Maltreatment and leniency, on the other hand, were more strongly associated with vulnerable narcissism. The vulnerable narcissist feels the same way inside as the grandiose narcissist does, but instead of extolling their many virtues, they get their narcissistic supply by doing good things to garner praise.
Mistreatment and leniency send a specific message of inferiority and prohibit the child from using the spotlight to get the praise they so desperately need. Instead, they hide behind their good works.
The problem is that they are doing those good deeds for all the wrong reasons. As opposed to genuinely caring about what they’re doing, they really want other people to notice them and prop up their self-esteem.
It can go to such an extreme that they will neglect their own families as they go about trying to get praise for their actions.
Is There a Difference Between Maternal and Paternal Parenting Styles?
The researchers in the Australian study found that maternal parenting is more strongly associated with narcissism. This may be related to the fact that mothers are more often the primary caregivers in the family.
Mothers are more involved in all parenting domains than fathers are, and that may be why the mother’s behavior has a stronger effect on the child. Fathers may have a more indirect effect on the development of something like narcissism.
The parenting style involved may also make a difference, given that both the mother and father’s overprotection had a direct effect on the child. Overvaluation and leniency, on the hand, showed differential effects if the parent in question was the mother or the father.
The researchers concluded that it is possible that maternal parenting is more strongly associated with the development of narcissism in the child. The paternal parenting style is only associated with narcissism under certain specific circumstances, namely those involving overvaluation in combination with either low levels of care or high levels of leniency.
What is the Role of Genetics?
As with most behaviors, there is a combination of nature and nurture that serve to produce a specific outcome. Narcissism has been shown in research studies conducted by psychologists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the psychology department at the University of Oklahoma to be moderately heritable.
The researchers found that 23% – 35% of the variation in the expression of narcissistic personality disorder could be explained by genetics. The rest is explained by environmental factors like parenting styles.
Essentially, you might have the genes that would predispose you to become a narcissist, but if you are raised in a healthy family where you can explore and learn from the world, you won’t develop narcissism. On the other hand, if you are raised with the parenting styles we’ve been discussing, then you are more likely to develop NPD.
There still may be other individual factors that influence the outcome of narcissism. It is a complicated disorder, the causes of which are likely multifactorial. This video has some more information about whether people are born narcissists or if narcissism is created by their environment.
Does Our Culture Encourage Narcissistic Behavior?
A study conducted by researchers in Germany on both pre-unification population samples from East Germany and West Germany and post-unification population samples from a united Germany found that there are sociocultural factors that affect the expression of narcissism.
Specifically, psychologists from several universities in Germany looked at people who had grown up in a divided Germany and compared them with those who grew up after Germany was reunited. The results show that West Germans had higher levels of grandiose narcissism and lower levels of self-esteem.
The individuals who grew up in a unified Germany showed no differences in the expression of narcissism. So what gives?
The researchers posit that in individualistic cultures, such as West Germany at the time of the division, social status is based on individual merit. You have to earn recognition for what you have done. This differs from collectivist cultures, as represented by East Germany in this study, where there is more of an emphasis on the community effort as opposed to the individual.
Therefore, if you screw up in a collectivist culture, you are less likely to be blamed as an individual, which helps you maintain a more positive self-esteem. Moreover, the emphasis on merit-based recognition in individualistic cultures creates an environment that encourages traits associated with grandiose narcissism, like bragging about your accomplishments.
Moreover, children raised in individualistic cultures feel as though their self-esteem is constantly under threat. They live in a culture where comparison is inevitable. Since there will always be someone better, stronger, more beautiful, or more intelligent who will eventually come along, they must adopt a defensive pose.
There was no difference in the unified German population samples since both sociopolitical styles were united. Thus individuals in the youngest age cohort showed no differences in the expression of pathological narcissism.
Parenting styles can definitely affect the development of narcissistic personality disorder. Children need to be allowed to experiment and fail as well as succeed. When they are not allowed to do so, either because of mistreatment or overprotection, it can interfere with their normal psychosocial development. They become emotionally wounded, and narcissism becomes a kind of defense mechanism they use to cope with that wounding.
You can help a child understand, recognize, and heal their emotional wounds by working with them on their emotional triggers. My 5 Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers can help with that. It’s a free guide that helps you recognize, defuse, and even heal emotional triggers and the original wounds that caused them. It can help a child who might be showing signs of narcissistic personality disorder, and it will definitely help someone being abused by a narcissist. To receive a free copy directly to your inbox, simply click on this link.
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