How Parents Turn Their Kids Into Raging Narcissists

Research suggests that too much affirmation for a child could lead to narcissistic adults. Sharyn Morrow

Parents who consider their kid to be "more special than other children" and feel that they "deserve something extra in life" may now be characterized not only as annoying, but also as responsible for bringing one more self-important narcissist into society.

New research out of the Netherlands published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that children who were overvalued by their parents scored higher on tests to identify narcissism than their peers.

"Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others. That may not be good for them or for society," Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and an Ohio State University professor, said in a statement.

Eddie Brummelman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and another author on the study, noted that parents often think telling children how special they are relative to their peers will boost their self-confidence. But narcissism is not just a more extreme form of self-confidence; people with high-esteem do not think they're better than others. According to his research, the more narcissistic children did not necessarily express more self-confidence.

"Rather than raising self-esteem, overvaluing practices may inadvertently raise levels of narcissism," Brummelman said.

Over two years, the team evaluated 565 children in the Netherlands who were between the ages of 7 and 11 years old when the study began. They asked parents how much they agreed with statements like, "My child is a great example for other children to follow," and whether or not they believed their children would have knowledge of various historical and cultural figures and topics, like "Neil Armstrong." Eventually, the researchers began including entirely fictional figures and topics, "Queen Alberta." The parents raising little narcissists would often fall for it.

"Overvaluing parents tended to claim that their child had knowledge of many different topics—even these nonexistent ones," Brummelman said.

While parental "overvaluing" was associated with narcissistic offspring, parental warmth was not. Children of parents who expressed warmth by telling their children they loved them, but who did not engage in "overvaluing" behavior, were more likely to agree with statements that suggested they were "happy with themselves as a person and liked the kind of person they were." In short, parental warmth appears to be closely linked to self-confident kids, not narcissistic kids. The researchers conclude that expressing warmth is key to promoting healthy self-confidence in children.

Bushman, who is a father of three children, said his research has made him rethink his own parenting style.

"When I first started doing this research in the 1990s, I used to think my children should be treated like they were extra-special. I'm careful not to do that now," he said.