It’s only natural that parents think their children are special – but putting them on a pedestal may make them think they’re better than everyone else, researchers say.
There’s a fine line between building a child’s self-esteem and inadvertently making them narcissistic by “overvaluing” them, a study has found.
Researchers who followed 565 Dutch kids over several years say children showered with “too much” praise wind up thinking they are superior to and deserve more than everyone else.
They found that warmth and affection from parents – not constant ego boosting – was the key to building a child’s self-esteem. “It’s good to be a warm parent and a loving parent, but it’s not OK to treat your children as if they are better than others,” senior study author Brad Bushman tells CBS News.
Lead author Eddie Brummelman, a University of Amsterdam psychologist, and his team asked children whether they agreed with statements such as “kids like me deserve something extra”.
Separately, parents were asked questions to measure whether they overvalued their kids, such as whether they were “more special than other children”. They also asked parents how smart their children were, then tested the children’s actual IQs.
“What we found was that parents who overvalue, they think their child is very smart but in reality, the child isn’t smarter than others,” Dr Brummelman tells CNN.
Dr Brummelman argues that if children are seen by their parents as being more special than other kids, they may internalise that view and become narcissistic.
He says that can lead to bigger problems. “Narcissistic children… feel more entitled than others and they want to be admired by others,” he tells CNN. “When they feel they don’t get the admiration they want, when they are humiliated or when they are rejected, they tend to lash out aggressively, so it predicts provoked aggression.”
But authors of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, say mollycoddling is probably not the only cause of narcissism. “Like other personality traits, narcissism is moderately heritable and partly rooted in early emerging temperamental traits,” they write.
UNSW child psychology researcher Mark Dadds tells The Age parents shouldn’t stop praising their kids altogether. “Parents should value their children, and praise and let them know of their positive worth,” he says.
Dr Brummelman says future studies should examine whether narcissism levels in children can be reduced, but self-esteem levels increased, by “teaching parents to be warm and affectionate without telling children they are better than others and without conveying to children that they are more entitled than others”.
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