Parents Make Nasty Little Narcissists?

Nothing worse than a vain, self-involved, mega-ego in your face, is there? Hot off the press is research that implies the Earth may have a few less narcissistic, self-centered personalities populating it if parents ditch overvaluing their child’s super-awesomeness to prevent them from potentially growing up into pedestal loving, manipulative, selfie-obsessed, nasty little narcissists.

Eddie Brummelman, lead authorWith previous papers entitled, “That’s Not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful!” and “My Child Is God’s Gift to Humanity”, today’s interviewee, Eddie Brummelman, PhD, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam and lead author of the new research, aptly describes what research now suggests is NOT useful — if you want to avoid your kids developing more narcissistic tendencies that is.

“So what!” you might be thinking “not everyone in the world is all sharey, carey, nicey, nicey.” Some days, with some things, anyone can be a bit narcissistic, it’s a normal personality trait right? Well even if we put aside the world’s pressing need (in my opinion that is) for selflessness, kindness and modesty, to one side, Brummelman reminds us of narcissism’s pathological presentation:

… in extreme form, narcissism may develop into Narcissistic Personality Disorder: “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy”. The disorder is rarely diagnosed in childhood.

Moreover, narcissists are also at increased risk for mental health problems, including drug addiction, depression, and anxiety, and the study points out that generally:

Narcissism levels have been increasing among Western youth, and contribute to societal problems such as aggression and violence.

Also, another study published this month indicates that high narcissism is even a risk factor for becoming a bully in boys, but not in girls.

With that said, let’s get to the research itself…

The study revolved around the statistical analysis of questionnaires completed by child, mother and father. The questionnaire presented to the 565 seven to eleven year old kids tested has been proven to validly and reliably reveal grandiose sense of self, inflated sense of superiority and entitlement and exploitative interpersonal attitudes (aka narcissism).

Meanwhile, the study evaluated the fathers and mother’s responses to questions known to uncover their levels of child overvaluation (e.g., “my child is more special than other children” and “my child deserves special treatment”). Both children and parents were asked questions that indicate the level of warmth the child received (e.g. parent report: “I let my child know I love him/her”, child report: “my father/mother treats me gently and with kindness”).

The analysis not only suggests that the often hypocritically sneered at yet understandably all too common habit of glorifying one’s own child could be one of the forces that makes some people more narcissistic than others, it also refreshingly signifies how to instill positive traits, namely higher self esteem by displaying parental warmth i.e. simply expressing affection and appreciation toward their child.

As clarified by Brummelman:

Our work shows that narcissism is predicted by parental overvaluation, not by lack of parental warmth. By contrast, self-esteem is predicted by parental warmth, not by parental overvaluation.

On top of revealing links between parenting style and nurturing kindness and inner strength, or selfishness and ego-inflation, the research seems to resolve a longstanding battle between two theories stemming from either social learning theory or psychoanalytic theory.

The results are clearly in favor of narcissism originating from parental overvaluation, as described by social learning theory, and not psychoanalytic theory’s proposal that narcissism is cultivated by lack of parental warmth.

“Hold the phone” the shrewd thinkers amongst you may cry, “it could well be the other way around”. The researchers also similarly supposed that needy narcissistic children, in their craving for admiration from others, might “squeeze out” the admiration from their parents over time. The parents themselves were simply helpless victims! Not the case, Brummelman found that:

Children who were overvalued by their parents become more narcissistic over time. But narcissistic children were not more likely to be overvalued by their parents over time.

On another interesting note, neither mothers or fathers were particularly at fault. The researchers found that parental overvaluation robustly predicted increased narcissism in children, regardless of whether it was from fathers or mothers.

Despite the resoundingly clear link between parent overvaluation and child narcissism, the association was reportedly modest in size, and some children might be at more risk of developing narcissism via overvaluation than others, with other contributing routes to narcissism likely at play.

One thing presents itself rather conclusively, attempting to raise your child’s self-esteem through honoring their unique specialness and lavishing them with (previously presumed) confidence building praise is not the answer to bringing up a kind, well-balanced child. The research suggests that parent-training interventions may be an effective means to kick narcissistic development to the curb, where:

Such interventions can teach parents, for example, to express affection and appreciation to children without conveying to children that they are superior to others. As such, these interventions may raise children’s self-esteem without inadvertently raising their narcissism levels.


Brummelman E, Thomaes S, Nelemans SA, Orobio de Castro B, Overbeek G, Bushman BJ. Origins of narcissism in children. PNAS, March 9, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1420870112

Brummelman E, Thomaes S, Orobio de Castro B, Overbeek G, & Bushman BJ (2014). “That’s not just beautiful–that’s incredibly beautiful!”: the adverse impact of inflated praise on children with low self-esteem. Psychological science, 25 (3), 728-35 PMID: 24434235

Brummelman E, Thomaes S, Nelemans SA, Orobio de Castro B, & Bushman BJ (2014). My Child Is God’s Gift to Humanity: Development and Validation of the Parental Overvaluation Scale (POS). Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 25365035

Reijntjes A, Vermande M, Thomaes S, Goossens F, Olthof T, Aleva L, & Van der Meulen M (2015). Narcissism, Bullying, and Social Dominance in Youth: A Longitudinal Analysis. Journal of abnormal child psychology PMID: 25640909

Millon T (1969) Modern Psychopathology: A Biosocial Approach to Maladaptive. Learning and Functioning (Saunders, Philadelphia).

Kernberg OF (1975) Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (Jason Aronson, New York).

Image via Drop of Light / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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