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When Does High Self-Esteem Become Narcissism?

With so much talk of making sure our children develop self-esteem, it is easy to forget that not all self-esteem is healthy. Sure, we want our children to feel loved, confident, and valuable. Yet, sometimes we as parents unwittingly develop narcissistic tendencies in our children. Research has shown that narcissism is on the rise. People want to be seen and admired. They want to share every detail of their lives through social media. Is this really high self-esteem or something else?

Narcissistic people tend to have low empathy for others and a sense of entitlement. They have problems in their relationships because they lack self-awareness and struggle with taking responsibility for their issues. However, they can learn new ways of relating to others if they are motivated to change.

So how do we prevent our children from becoming narcissists? Research suggests that genetics and childhood experiences contribute to the development of personality disorders, of which narcissism is one.  In other words, like so many other mental health disorders, it probably develops through a combination of heredity and environment.  As parents, we can help by providing a loving home where children are valued but not put on a pedestal. They are part of the family unit but not more important than their parents or siblings. Their needs are considered and met but not consistently at the expense of others’ needs. Obviously, not everyone’s needs can be met equally all the time, but one person’s needs should not dominate the family’s resources.

Another way to develop healthy self-esteem is by encouraging volunteerism. Serving others through volunteer work takes the focus off self-absorption. It also helps children develop empathy for others and an appreciation for their own situation. Find a cause that your children are interested in so they will be eager to help. Family volunteering together is even better! The other aspect of curbing a budding narcissist is helping him/her identify and express emotions appropriately. Narcissists tend to hide insecurities through arrogance. Parents can build their children’s emotional intelligence and deflate the ego bubble by naming and suitably displaying their own emotions. Then challenge your older children to do the same. For example, if your son comes home from baseball practice in an angry mood, help him identify what emotion he is feeling and why.  Is he angry because he struck out? Is it really embarrassment or frustration that he is feeling? What can he do about these normal emotions?

Many of the narcissistic patients I work with in my practice developed these tendencies early on in life and have a difficult time acknowledging wrongdoing, accepting responsibility, and being vulnerable in relationships. They are so self-absorbed that they have very little insight into their problems. Being married to a narcissist can be very challenging, frustrating and at times abusive. The good news is that people can learn to identify emotions, regulate their emotions, and express their feelings constructively. Whether you are concerned about raising a narcissist or married to one, there is hope for change.

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