Narcissism has been much in the news during this past week. I heard about it from the media in full detail three times.
Narcissus was a mythological figure known for his beauty who, it is said, looked into a pool, saw a reflection of himself, and fell in love with what he saw.
So Narcissism is the term used of people who are self-absorbed and pre-occupied with their own imagined superiority. They may come across as strong and self-assured but when that self assurance isn’t honored as they expect they are likely to react in a surge of punishing anger or even violence. The so-called big ego turns out to be amazingly fragile.
Narcissism has been on the rise in western youth in recent years. It often is manifested by a strong sense of entitlement. “I’m special and I deserve special treatment.” “I’ll not take just any job.” So why is this in the news especially this week?
A study on Narcissism has been released that gives a fresh understanding of the cause of this dominating state of mind. Co-authored by Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, the study surveyed 565 children ages 7 through 11 and 415 mothers and 290 fathers.
Narcissism, the study shows, can be traced to parents who “overvalue” their children during the developmental stage of their lives. Children between 6 and 8 are especially sensitive to parental influence. This inflated self-image of the Narcissist can be buried deep in the psyche.
If during those years children are told in one way or another they are superior, they are more than special, they do things better than others, and they are thus put on a pedestal, they internalize an undeserved view of their superiority. And other people come not to matter.
It used to be believed that Narcissism shows itself in children who are shown little parental warmth. The new insight from this study pointing to “overvaluing” supplants that understanding.
One might assume from the findings of the study that the condition is planted by parents who have a need to reach some personal star achievement of their own in their children. “My child can do no wrong; my child is unusual in every respect; my child deserves special attention from kindergarten on.” These can be damaging assumptions.
The felt need to foster self-esteem in their child is an entirely different matter. Self-esteem develops when children are helped to internalize within themselves the sense that they are valuable individuals but not superior to the extent that they can do no wrong. In the raising of them they will get the appropriate amount of teaching, correcting, disciplining, and such otherwise character-shaping treatment as needed, all within the context of warm adult parental love. It is “overvaluing” that does the damage.
Christian parents may foster Narcissism in their children if they adopt certain cultural modes of parenting rather than taking their teaching from the Scriptures and Judeo-Christian understandings of humanity.
Christian parents believe that children are not a possession; they are a trust from God and must be raised with that in mind. Valuable as we are to God and one another we are all flawed and that fact should be kept in sight as we raise children.
We should not be surprised when we catch a child in the first lie, or see the first tantrum, or discover the first amazing deception. Dealing with these with love and firmness is important.
Christian parents will affirm their children’s achievements to a degree appropriate to their ages and commensurate with the actual achievement. When a four-year-old makes his bed or a seven-year-old sets the table they are thanked, but not raved over as if that was the most amazing thing anyone had ever done. And when they do wrong, the call to account should be real.
Christian parents pray daily with their children and in this setting where the Christian view of human nature is shared children can be helped to face their failures as well as their successes. The early teaching of a developing child to worship God who is majestic and holy and far above them, is a first line against the development of Narcissism.