Narcissism linked to parents who over-rate their children

Plastic doll with large eyes sitting on grass
Telling our children they are better than others and giving them a skewed view of their worth may not be good for them in the long run

A recent study looking at the causes of narcissism reveals that parents who overvalue their children may be responsible for their increased self-centeredness and self-importance.

It is well known that narcissistic individuals are self-absorbed, consider themselves to be superior to others and tend to lack empathy. They can react with violence or aggression if they feel humiliated or don’t get the special treatment they deserve, according to past research by authors of this study. However, little is known about what causes narcissism.

Published in the journal The Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, this is the first prospective longitudinal study of the development of narcissism, surveying parents and children four times over a one-and-a-half year period. Study participants were 565 children from the Netherlands, aged 7 to 11 years when the study began, and their parents.

Using established psychology research surveys, parents of narcissistic children were found to overvalue their children. They described them as being more special than others, setting a great example for others to follow, and deserving more in life. Emotional warmth shown by parents was also assessed from the level of agreement or disagreement with statements that indicate regular expression of parental love and appreciation.

Researchers found that children of parents who rated their offspring more highly in tests at the start of this study, scored higher in tests for narcissism at the end.

Children were measured for self-esteem as well as narcissism. Bushman expresses that where narcissism is a belief in one’s superiority, self-esteem is a belief in one’s equality with others.

The study found that where parents show emotional warmth to their children, children developed higher self-esteem, but not narcissism, over time. However, parents over-rating their children led to higher narcissism in their children over time, but not higher self-esteem.

Researchers highlighted that overvaluation is the main predictor for narcissism, regardless of whether parents are narcissistic. Well-meaning parents who overvalue their children believing it will boost self-esteem may be inadvertently increasing their narcissistic traits.

This Ohio State University study was led by Eddie Brummelman, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam, with five co-authors including Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.

In a previous study by Brummelman and Bushman that looked at how much parents overvalued their children, some parents were found to lie about their children’s knowledge. Bushman has previously studied the link between narcissism and aggressive and violent behaviour, with narcissists often found to lack empathy.

Researchers noted that narcissism in children is not only caused by parental overvaluation, with genetics and a child’s temperament also indicated. Some children will internalise excessive praise, developing an inflated ego and fearing failure.

Brummelman and Bushman suggest that the study findings can be used to guide parenting styles to prevent or halt narcissism by parents showing affection and appreciation, as well as praising effort rather than perceived ability, to nurture self-esteem in their children. 

Image credit: Eva on Flickr

First published on Science Nutshell April 3, 2015