Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Narcissism - a parenting concern...

Narcissus by Caravaggio
There was an interesting discussion on Insight last night about Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Apparently, narcissism is a normal phase of human development which peaks in toddler-hood, and then subsides for a while, and has another resurgence in adolescence before finally giving way to understanding of empathy and compassion in adulthood. In some adults, however, it lingers - sometimes only in areas where it is acceptable, such as in business and commerce - sometimes in many areas of the adults life. It is only defined as a disorder when it interferes negatively and destructively with the relationships of the sufferer of the disorder. At it's extreme it transitions in psychopathy. It is considered both a hereditary and environmentally induced trait or disorder.

The term "emotional vampire" was bandied about on the show, and it caused me to smile a wry smile because I thought I'd coined that term several years ago (yes, I probably have narcissistic tendencies myself) when dealing with one or two people who I am fairly certain (nay, 100% certain) suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder as medically defined. Something to keep in mind is that, as master manipulators, narcissists are usually good at feigning empathy for a while (while it represents a means to an ends for them personally), but the veneer of empathy is thin and brittle and doesn't stand up to being challenged. When their fa├žade is challenged they will defend it vehemently and viciously. However, with each challenge they adapt and become better able to account for their lack of compassion (usually blaming other people's ignorance for their own lack of patience) and so, in some circles, treatment is considered counterproductive as it's pads out the narcissistic toolkit.

The specialists who were being consulted on the topic were very concerned that many parenting practices today - while not causing the traits - can encourage narcissism in children. Specifically they spoke about the trend in parenting that describes parents being overly concerned that their children should have high self-esteem.

In attempting to assure this in their children, parents pour a lot of effort into endlessly telling their children that they are special, unique, and entitled to things/their opinion/their feelings being considered first and foremost. A lot of "empty praise" is heaped on children - consisting of meaningless phrases such as "Good girl/boy", "You're so clever!", "You're great!" etcetera. The issue with this kind of praising being that it doesn't inform the child about what it is they are DOING that the other person appreciates so much, or encourage them to being kind or considerate of others needs as well as their own.

There was mention of how children used to receive a trophy for being the best player of a sport in a season, but now the entire team receives a trophy simply for turning up - rendering the achievement meaningless.

There was also mention of how parents can't bear for their children to feel any negative feelings and avoid this at all cost, so children grow up expecting to feel good all the time.

This reminded me of the blog post I wrote several months ago about Chinese parenting practices (according to one writer), and how the Chinese believe self-esteem is built through overcoming difficulties, not through pursuing activities that come effortlessly.

Apparently the antidote to narcissism is teaching our children empathy, compassion and self-lessness. One thing commentators notice was the decline in voluntary work amongst young people. Everyone these days wants something for everything they do - be it (pocket) money, or acclaim, or preferably both because their time is valuable and they are important and unique - just like everyone else!


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Glow said...

You've written this so well. The first thing I think of when I see so many children being awarded for just breathing is the tragic contestants on reality talent shows - they are 100% certain they are fantastic when they can't carry a tune/dance/cook/whatever.

I think we need to try and raise resilient children who learn that life isn't always easy and that we can't always get what we want, but that Mum and Dad will support them if they fall... getting a trophy for putting your footy boots on won't do that.

Good Job!