Question: I recently read that narcissistic behavior is on the rise, and this seems to confirm my own observations of a culture that seems to be increasingly selfish and entitled. I’m especially concerned about my children growing up with these influences. Is there anything I can do to prevent them from developing these negative traits?
Jim: According to our counselors, though a genetic predisposition to narcissism may exist, it is most commonly understood as a learned behavior.
Renowned psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend identify two parenting factors that can contribute to the development of narcissism: Parents may 1) ignore the bad behavior of their children and 2) fail to limit the grandiose perceptions of their children. Both lead to a child’s unrealistic, over-exaggerated sense of worth that impacts all future relationships.
While the first few years of a child’s life are usually characterized by “narcissistic thinking” (including a lack of awareness of others, an all-knowing attitude, magical thinking, insensitivity and lack of interpersonal boundaries), this should be a temporary state. For the narcissist, however, these traits continue into adulthood if he’s not taught consideration of and empathy toward others, an accurate assessment of his own mistakes, anger management, boundaries and interpersonal skills.
So what can you do to prevent narcissism in your child? Consider the following:
- Avoid anything that suggests to your child he is superior and deserves every advantage in life.
- Allow your child to experience the natural consequences of his actions, while providing clear feedback and helping him maintain his dignity.
- Listen well and provide a safe, respectful home and community environment.
- Provide age-appropriate information and guidance in establishing boundaries.
- Encourage your child to develop his potential, to thoughtfully evaluate choices and to value interpersonal relationships.
- Affirm your child for his consistent positive and selfless behaviors.
Finally, model unconditional love while helping your child come to grips with and take responsibility for wrongdoings — including the need to ask for and accept forgiveness.
Question: We haven’t even digested our turkey from Thanksgiving, and already my son is telling me everything he has to have for Christmas. I’m afraid he’s becoming self-centered and self-indulgent. Should we make an active and intentional effort to teach him the concept of self-denial?
Dr. Greg Smalley, Vice President, Family Ministries: The answer is definitely yes. Not only for you, but for every parent. Discipline is basic to sound parenting, and you can’t discipline your child without teaching self-denial.
Focus on the Family has always believed that the key to effective child discipline is in balancing love and limits. Children cannot thrive without experiencing consistent and unconditional love. But they also need — and actually desire — boundaries and ground rules. There is nothing contradictory about the expression of love and the enforcement of limits. In fact, they are closely related.
Allowing a child to have his way without any restraint is not an expression of love. At the other extreme, harsh, rigid or authoritarian treatment of children isn’t an appropriate way to set limits. Your goal lies in between: to exercise the kind of loving guidance that helps a child grow into the sort of person who is capable of imposing limits on himself. That’s what self-denial is all about.
The application of this principle will expand as your child moves through adolescence and into young adulthood. It will, for instance, directly impact his attitudes toward sexuality and his relationships with the opposite sex. It will also affect the way he views money — how much he spends, how much he saves and how much he gives away.
Denying your son some of the things he wants may not win you any Children’s Choice Awards right now, but someday he (and his own kids) will thank you.
Jim Daly is a husband and father, an author, and president of Focus on the Family and host of the Focus on the Family radio program. Catch up with him at www.jimdalyblog.com or at www.facebook.com/DalyFocus.