Having a narcissistic parent doesn’t mean you’re going to turn out that way, too.
– Poncie Putsch
(The following excerpt from Do Parents Nurture Narcissists By Pouring On Praise? by Poncie Rutsch recently appeared on npr.org. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
When a kid does something amazing, you want to tell her so. You might tell her that she’s very smart. You might tell her that she’s a very special kid. Or you might say that she must have worked really hard.
On the surface, they all sound like the same compliments. But according to Brad Bushman, a communications and psychology professor at Ohio State University, the first two increase the child’s chances of becoming a narcissist. Only the last one raises the child’s self-esteem and keeps her ego in check.
Bushman and a group of collaborators surveyed parents to see how they show warmth and value their child’s accomplishments. They then compared those findings to the children’s levels of self-esteem and narcissism. The results were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Of course, self-esteem and narcissism are two very different things. The difference has to do with how you value yourself compared to other people. “Self-esteem basically means you’re a person of worth equal with other people,” Bushman tells Shots. “Narcissism means you think you’re better than other people.”
The research team continued to survey the same group of 565 children and their parents for a year and a half. They watched the children develop, and they could link each child’s tendency toward self-esteem or narcissism back to what the parents had told them six months earlier.
“We’re not just measuring their narcissism at time one; we’re using these measures to predict the behavior a year and a half later,” says Bushman. “Parental warmth doesn’t predict it. Parental narcissism alone doesn’t predict it. But parental overvaluation alone does predict it.”
Bushman is particularly worried about narcissism because both he and other researchers have linked it to aggressive and violent behavior. He thinks it’s partly because narcissists are less likely to feel empathy toward others.
“Empathy involves putting yourselves in other people’s shoes, but narcissists have a very difficult time putting themselves in other people’s shoes,” Bushman says. Plus he says that narcissists respond poorly when they don’t get special treatment. “Whenever people have this sense of superiority, then they lash out at others in an aggressive way.”
Of course, someone who appears more narcissistic at age 10 isn’t necessarily going to grow up to be a narcissistic adult, let alone aggressive. And the results of this study hinge on a handful of short surveys – no extensive personality testing here.
“There are definitely going to be things that influence the personality after that stage,” says Twenge. “Those [narcissistic] tendencies may start to show up around then, but will continue to be influenced by parenting and environment throughout adolescence.”
But this study has Bushman thinking about the way he praises his own children. “It’s a lot better to say ‘You worked really hard’ than ‘You must be really smart,’ ” he says, “because if you tell the kid that they’re smart and then if they fail they think ‘Oh I’m stupid.’ ” If the praise relates to effort, a child who fails will work harder next time.
Bushman is also trying to cultivate self-esteem in his children, because people with high self-esteem tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression over time. Based on Bushman’s research, parents can raise their children’s self-esteem just by expressing more warmth.
Both researchers agree that voicing the connection you feel to your children really helps. “If you want to look for a substitute for ‘You’re special,’ just say ‘I love you,’ ” says Twenge. “It’s what you mean, and it’s a much better message.”