I am a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders who has worked with people with disabilities and mental illnesses for over 10 years.
Are Children Narcissists?
In this day and age, many have this question. The short answer is yes. Technically, children are already narcissistic. Many people may take offense to this notion, but that might be because they misunderstand what narcissism actually is.
Narcissism is not simply cruelty and abuse. It's self-focus to the point where everything else is excluded. This results from the failure to distinguish the self from external objects. This is something that we usually only see in young children. It's a normal part of development, so to say that children are narcissistic, on some level, is not an insult or an indictment—it's just a fact. The problem comes when someone is much older but still has not matured out of these behaviors.
Usually, when people ask if children can be narcissistic, they mean pathologically narcissistic, the way that adults are. It is not really responsible to label a child as pathologically narcissistic. The way that people develop and how long it takes them to mature is widely variable. Many people who are extremely selfish or manipulative when they are young eventually grow out of that type of behavior.
What Makes a Child Narcissistic?
We all know that children can be mean. They can, in fact, be quite cruel, and this is usually because they don't understand the full impact of their actions. They are doing what makes them feel good or feel better, regardless of the consequences to other people. Sounds like narcissism, right? Even older children and teenagers will tease and torment each other relentlessly, oblivious to the fact that they are truly hurting each other—sometimes badly. Most people have something in their childhood that they feel guilty about as adults. Maybe they were mean to a classmate or a sibling. Maybe they were careless with or cruel to an animal. This is because they did not realize the damage they were doing. They were not mature enough to appreciate or understand the true impact of their behavior. That only comes with time.
Now, this is not to say that when narcissistic behaviors are displayed by children of any age, we should not address them. We absolutely should. If we see a young child poking a puppy in the eye, we should stop them. We let them know that it hurts the puppy just like it would hurt them if someone did that to them. We explain that the things that can hurt us also hurt others. We explain that hurting living things is wrong. This is a way to encourage and nurture empathy, which is necessary for a child's psychological development. And it's not a one time lesson. Children must be continually taught this over and over to create a framework they can develop around once they are mature enough to actually internalize and understand it.
Narcissistic behavior in children is normal and expected. It's when it carries over into adulthood that we should be concerned.
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What Happens If Narcissistic Behaviors Aren't Dealt With From an Early Age?
Pathologically narcissistic adults never matured to the point of being able to empathize. Many never will. This is why childhood abuse can cause narcissism. It stops a person from maturing and developing the way they are supposed to. It traps a person in the emotional mindset of a child, where everything is a threat because they're helpless, with no ability to look back and see how they were wrong or why.
It is important that children learn how to acknowledge and control their emotions. Young children have no ability to regulate or control their emotional responses. They rage. They cry over everything. They are very sensitive. This is why when someone is upset over something that seems silly, we say they are acting like a baby. These skills come with maturity. You wouldn't expect a two-year-old to be able to control their emotions or regulate their level of upset. They aren't capable of doing that. Again, it's up to us to teach them these things. We show the child that it's OK to feel upset, but it will pass, and it's not as bad as they think it is. We teach them to soothe themselves. We teach them realistic understanding of how bad a problem is and what an appropriate level of reaction would be. We do this both by example and by direct instruction. This is why giving into a toddler's temper tantrums is a very bad idea. This teaches the child that their hysteria and rage is an appropriate reaction. It's the exact opposite of what they need to learn.
Narcissism in Children vs. Adults
Emotional Immaturity in Adults
Pathologically narcissistic adults often deny their emotions completely, which gives their emotions enormous power. The more you deny something, the more power you give it. This is in addition to the fact that many of them are unable to regulate or control their emotions, so the emotions are already very powerful, to begin with. This is why they throw temper tantrums just like toddlers. There's no control here. It's just emotions free wheeling inside a person who is unable and unwilling to acknowledge them. It's a recipe for disaster.
Emotional Immaturity in Children
So, to answer the question of whether children can be narcissistic or not, the answer is yes, they already are. However, we should really hesitate before labeling a child this way, because children are not adults. They don't behave like adults and they don't think like adults. The things that are normal for children are not normal for adults. This is why narcissistic behavior is not considered to be a problem in children. It is, however, a problem in adults. People generally grow out of these mindsets and behaviors. The problem arises when people don't. This is why the age of the person plays a huge part in judging behavior. If someone says they have an 8-year-old child that throws tantrums and is very selfish and manipulative, that's one thing. If someone says they have an 18-year-old who is doing that, that's more of a concern. If a 28-year-old is doing it, there's a major problem.
Other Cases of Narcissistic Behavior in Childhood
There is a phenomenon sometimes called "cold children"—children who seem to be born psychopathic. Their behavior far exceeds anything that could be considered normal childhood selfishness or manipulation, and they are often violent and terribly cruel. However, the phenomenon is relatively rare and usually doesn't stem from the factors discussed in this article.
There are other disorders that often have narcissistic elements as well, such as reactive attachment disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, childhood schizophrenia, sexual abuse, to name a few. If you believe your child is having a great deal of difficulty with these behaviors, seek medical attention to get it addressed. Regardless of age, anytime these behaviors become problematic. Other disorders besides narcissism should be ruled out first. There are physical and neurological problems that can also cause the same types of behaviors.
If you see behavior that concerns you in your young child, address it. Monitor it and seek help if needed. Try not to borrow trouble. Most of us are not the same person we were as a child. Most of us are not even the same person we were 10 years ago. Children are changing and growing all the time. Just because they are selfish, manipulative, or temperamental now doesn't mean they always will be. We all go through these phases, and the vast majority of us learn healthier ways to get our needs met.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.