By Dr. Perry, PhD
There is a well-known statistic that states that up to 6 percent of the US population suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). My math may be slightly incorrect but that is approximately 20 million people. One out of 16 people suffers from NPD. What is extremely interesting is that only 3 percent of those over 65 years of age report having any experience with NPD compared to 10 percent of people in there 20’s. It appears that we are experiencing a substantial increase in NPD in our current society and may see a further increase in the coming years. Currently, we are not able to diagnose someone younger than 18 years of age as having NPD, as some traits that indicate NPD are common in adolescents and may be outgrown. But these statistics and research suggest that parents may be cultivating behavior and raising a generation of narcissists.
Narcissistic traits do not suddenly appear overnight once someone reaches the age of nineteen. These traits can be seen in individuals prior to reaching the age where one can be diagnosed and long before this personality disorder has had a major impact on their lives and the people around them. The essential feature of NPD is a widespread pattern of grandiosity, an excessive need for admiration and the lack of empathy. Unfortunately, these narcissistic traits appear to be the norm in our current celebrity-obsessed culture where constant self-promoting and oversharing sharing is the norm. Many young individuals are exposed daily to the lives of the entitled, self-absorbed individuals who populate the world of social media. This is a world where an out of proportion emphasis is on one’s physical beauty, material possessions and unhealthy narcissism is the norm. Many exposed to this virtual reality world will seek to emulate behavior that they are exposed to and this, in turn, will be reinforced in the “real” world.
Diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder typically is based on a complete psychological evaluation that may include answering questionnaires and meeting criteria established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Further, a physical exam may be conducted to rule out that a physical problem or a persistent substance abuse is not causing the symptoms. It is important that one does not self-diagnose or diagnose others. Some of the features of NPD are similar to those of other personality disorders and it is possible to be diagnosed with more than one personality disorder at the same time. Also, While all of us exhibit narcissistic traits from time to time and may know someone who is extremely obnoxious, this alone is not enough to diagnose someone with NPD.
A person with NPD has an unsupported and universal view that he or she is superior to others. They feel they are unique and understood only by a few special people. They have zero empathy for others and yet they need the admiration of others. This pattern of behavior will present in a variety of contexts as indicated by the following criteria. These traits must be inflexible, persistent and cause significant functional impairment and distress.
According to DSM-5, to be diagnosed with NPD, one must exhibit 5 of these 9 traits throughout their lives and in different areas of their lives.
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance. Will exaggerate achievements and talents and expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with, other special or high-status people
4. Requires excessive admiration
5. Has a sense of entitlement
6. Is interpersonally exploitive
7. Lacks empathy
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of her
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes
There are conflicting theories of how one becomes a narcissist. Some psychologists trace NPD to early childhood wounds, and others blame over-indulgent parents who do not set appropriate boundaries on childhood behavior. I believe NPD can develop in more than one way and here we will look at how our modern culture may be creating a tidal wave of narcissists. In a recent study, it was shown that narcissism is partly rooted in parental overvaluation in early childhood and not lack of parental warmth. Further, the study suggests that early intervention can help reduce narcissistic development.
Here are some ways that you may cultivate your child’s narcissism and how NPD may manifest itself:
1. Putting child on a pedestal
Children seem to acquire narcissism in part by absorbing the inflated views that parents possess. The child will hear over and over how special and unique they are. Any minor accomplishment will be exaggerated and celebrated. Instead of nurturing healthy self-esteem, studies show that this behavior by parents creates in the child feelings of superiority. The child will start believing they are better than other people. Children require healthy and constructive feedback to help them grow into happy self-sufficient adults. Parents should try simply saying “I love you” and ” You are special to me” in order to build healthy self-esteem instead of making distinctions between your child and others. Do not put your child on a pedestal, isolated from others who are unable to meet unrealistic standards learned in childhood.
2. Overexposure to social media
MySpace and Facebook were introduced to the world in 2004. Instagram arrived in 2010 followed by Snapchat in 2012. Social media is everywhere and millennials were the first generation that faced their teenage years with the help of social media. They have been raised believing that it is normal to post every experience whether worthy or not. They have been raised to believe in their own sense of importance and relevance to the world. Encouraged to create a faux self on social media that focuses and exaggerates how perfect their life is they tend to forget that the real world is not perfect. The mundane is made to look fabulous and alluring. People are sharing what they eat or what they are wearing in order to receive “likes” for validation. It is the perfect format to cultivate narcissism. It is a fantasy world that perpetuates the myth of unlimited success, power, and beauty. There is a whole generation of children between 8 yrs and 14 yrs who have never known what is like not to share every thought however banal. It’s a strange world we currently live in. A few generations ago we would never have fathomed that we would have millions of people addicted to their phones following usually a shallow celebrity who is peddling a lifestyle that is out of reach for most. Overexposure to social media perpetuates a need for excessive admiration.
3. Unlimited choices
I recently unintentionally overheard a pair of frustrated parents ask their child what she wanted to do next. They went down the list of activities they had already completed and wanted to know what was next. The child appeared no older than 6 years old and seemed to contemplate what else she wanted to do. A 6-year-old should not be in control of her parents to the extent that she dominates the dynamics if the family. A child should be given limited choices instead of full control. For example, instead of asking what they want to do on Saturday, offer them some choices. By handing over your power you are sending the message and cultivating the idea that they are the center of the universe. Later in adulthood, they will be expecting to be the center of attention for no other reason than that they believe they deserve it!
4. Allowing the child to pit one parent against another
It is important if one parent makes a decision on a matter that involves the child that the other parent stick to it. If there is a disagreement this should be discussed outside the presence of the child. If one parent undermines the other parent in the child’s presence the child can learn that the parental unit is not a united front. The child may soon learn that they can use manipulative behavior to triangulate one parent against another.
5. Lack of empathy
Empathy is an emotion that should be cultivated. It does not come easily to children as they are egocentric and believe the world revolves around them. The child should be exposed to the idea that there are less fortunate children in the world. By learning to understand and share the feelings of others, as adults, they will have an easier time forming mutually healthy friendships and relationships. Springtime cleaning is a great time to start. Have your child donate older or unused toys to those that are less fortunate. Explain to them why they are sharing and praise them for this behavior.
6. Expresses excessive amount of envy of others lives
A child must be taught to appreciate what their parents provide and not feel discontented and resentful because others may have more. Parents need to be mindful not to express their own envy at others they see around them or those they see in movies, television, social media or magazines. By teaching a child to be grateful for what they have you will curb the need to always want something newer and better. We live in an age of excess where things that are still useful are discarded when something better comes along.
This article is not meant for you to self-diagnose or diagnose others. If you believe you or someone you know meets the criteria for NPD please seek the help of a mental health professional. If you would like to share your thoughts and insights please share in the comments section below.
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