I am a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders who has worked with people with disabilities and mental illnesses for over 10 years.
Narcissism is such a debilitating problem that knowing how to prevent it would be immensely helpful. The best advice is to be emotionally available and offer support to the child. However, the truth is, nobody knows exactly how because each child is different. What works for one child may not work for another. The most effective prevention requires understanding each child individually. In this article, we will examine how narcissism carries over into adulthood and some ways in which this can be prevented.
Understanding How Narcissism Develops
While it's true that abuse creates most pathologically narcissistic people, it's also true that many people can endure abuse and won't become pathologically narcissistic. The difference probably lies in each person's individual makeup. Researchers are studying our genetic structures to hopefully, one day, get a more conclusive answer.
Not All Narcissists Are the Same
Individual makeup is probably a greater influential factor than people may realize. For all their similarities, narcissists are still different people—they are still individual human beings. They are not all the same. People often ask, "What would a narcissist do in this situation?" or "What will the narcissist do if I do this?" No one can know the answer to that question if they don't know that person. Some narcissists cheat. Others do not. Some narcissists become murderers. Others have never physically hurt anyone. Some narcissists are successful at their jobs. Others can't even hold one. Some narcissists brag, boast and bluster. Others whine, cry and cling. They are all different, and when it comes to predicting behavior, it might come down to individuality more than anything.
This might be another important factor: Some children are just born needing more. They need more attention and more support, and they are more sensitive and more fragile. These children may be the ones that are more likely to become narcissistic adults when their core needs are not met. Actions (or inactions) may affect them more. They may internalize hurt more deeply. The things that are sufficient for other children may not be enough for them. The right approach with one child may be the wrong one with another child. There are so many variations of the human creature that it is impossible to guess or address them all.
How Does Abuse Contribute to Narcissism?
There is one thing we do know: abuse certainly seems to play a role in creating narcissistic people. The word "abuse" can be misleading in some ways. While it's true that the more recognized forms of abuse are all represented in this equation—such as emotional, physical, sexual, and verbal abuse—it's also true that overindulgence and spoiling are often left out. These behaviors also constitute abuse in this context. They reinforce narcissistic traits in a child. Neglecting a child is also abuse, and it isn't just physical neglect like not bathing or feeding a child. There is emotional neglect as well, and that may be the primary type of abuse we see in the backgrounds of pathologically narcissistic adults.
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Most kinds of abuse involve the caregiver or parent doing something. They are actions such as hitting and cursing. Neglect is inaction. It is abuse caused by the parent or caregiver not doing something. Emotional neglect, therefore, is the failure to correctly care for and validate the child's feelings. It bears mentioning that emotional neglect can be inadvertent on the parent's part. They may not realize that they are hurting the child. Too often, as adults, people forget how fragile and sensitive children really are. This can also answer the question of how narcissistic people exist who seem to have had non-abusive childhoods. Emotional neglect is not an event or an incident. It is the pervasive lack of something, which means it's impossible to see. You can't see what isn't there.
Remember, children are narcissistic. In others articles, we've talked about how, because they suffer from arrested development, narcissistic adults still see other people as mirrors reflecting their own image back to them because they don't have one of their own. In the case of children, the parent or caregiver is the mirror that reflects the child's image back to them so that they can learn to develop self-esteem, self-worth, and become a well-adjusted person. The reflection of a child's self-image from an emotionally neglectful parent is, in fact, no image at all. Although it is not the negative self-image reflected back by more blatant types of abuse, it may be just as damaging, if not more so.
While emotional neglect is often combined with other types of abuse, it can also occur by itself. When children are not validated, they can become insecure, anxious, and depressed. They may feel rejected, unloved, unseen, unheard, unwanted, and unable to actually be their own person. More than anything, they don't believe they matter. Because what is reflected back to them about themselves is essentially nothing, they have a hard time creating an identity, trusting their perceptions or emotions, and they are often unable to acknowledge their own emotions. Depending on how early the neglect starts, they could end up with attachment disorders and more. When emotional neglect is also combined with other problems or other types of abuse, the effects will be much worse.
How Do You Stop Your Child From Becoming a Narcissist?
Love isn't just about what you don't do. It's also about what you do do. If people want to prevent narcissism, the best thing they can do is discipline consistently and fairly and listen to their children. Listen to their feelings. Validate them and show them that their feelings are important, even when you're busy or it seems silly. Watch them play video games and revel in their victories. Hang their paintings on the fridge and tell them it's the best damn horsie you ever saw. Watch that funny cat video with them for the 600th time, and laugh like it's the first time it ever happened. Children of all ages want their parent's attention and validation—even teenagers. You're the most important person in the world to them, no matter what they say. Show them they are valued, that they are wanted, that they are seen, and that they are loved. Show them that they matter. No one should just assume that what they're doing is enough because, as we have seen, so often, it isn't.
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.