Do Parents Nurture Narcissists By Pouring On The Praise?

Do Parents Nurture Narcissists By Pouring On The Praise?

9:16am Mar 10, 2015

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."

And not in a good way.

"Narcissism is a somewhat toxic personality trait," Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic and psychology professor at San Diego State University, tells Shots. Narcissists tend to overestimate their abilities, take too many risks and mess up their relationships, she says. Some people see narcissists hurting the people and society around them, but they hurt themselves, too. "In the long term it tends to lead to failure," Twenge says.

While narcissists tend to have high self-esteem, not all people with high self-esteem are narcissists. Bushman needed to separate the two. So he asked children ages 7 to 12 years old how they felt about statements like "Some kids like the kind of person they are," or "Kids like me deserve something extra." The first statement measures self-esteem; the second, narcissism.

Bushman made sure to focus on children between 7 and 12 years old, so that by the time the study finished all of them would be older than 8. "You can't measure narcissism in children before age 8, because every child is a narcissist," he says. If you ask younger kids in a classroom if they are good at math or good at baseball, Bushman says all the kids will raise their hands.

Then he surveyed the children's parents, asking them to respond to statements to determine whether they overvalued their children. For example, "I would not be surprised to learn that my child has extraordinary talents and abilities," or "Without my child, his/her class would be much less fun." And he asked how they expressed warmth toward their child by measuring how strongly they agreed with statements like "I let my child know I love him/her."

When he analyzed the results from the surveys, Bushman found that the more narcissistic children had parents who consistently overvalued their accomplishments. He ran additional tests to make sure that the parents weren't narcissists, too — after all, it's possible that the children could be mirroring narcissistic behavior. But statistically, the children of narcissists aren't more likely to be narcissists themselves.

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."

Have a child age 8 to 12? Find your own "Parental Overvaluation" score here.

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."

UPDATED March 11, 2013: Bushman writes in an email to Shots that there are many ways to deflate praise. Parents can read more about his guidance in his writing for Psychology Today.

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Brad Bushman has spent decades studying the causes of human aggression and violence, and he's concluded that in Western society at least one of the sources is narcissism. He co-authored a new study that defines narcissists as those who feel superior to others and believe they deserve special treatment. And according to this study, the origins of narcissism in children can be traced to parents who overvalue their kids. Brad Bushman joins me from the Ohio State University in Columbus where he's a professor of communication and psychology. Welcome to the program.

BRAD BUSHMAN: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And we should clarify, you're talking about everyday narcissism, not the extreme form narcissistic personality disorder.

BUSHMAN: That's correct.

BLOCK: OK. Well, this was a study of 565 children in the Netherlands, ages 7 to 12, and their parents. What kinds of questions were you asking them to try to figure out if the kids were narcissistic?

BUSHMAN: Well, we used the childhood narcissism scale that we developed. It has 10 items. Some sample items are I'm a very special person. I'm a great example for other kids to follow. Kids like me deserve something extra. Without me, our class would be way-less fun - items like that.

BLOCK: And those are answers that, if answered in the positive, you would say indicate narcissism, not just healthy sense of self - self-esteem.

BUSHMAN: That's right. Self-esteem means you think you're as good as other people, whereas narcissism means you think you're better than other people.

BLOCK: Along with questioning the children, you did question the parents. What kinds of things were you asking them?

BUSHMAN: Yeah, we also developed a parental overvaluation scale. It has items like my child deserves special treatment. I would not be surprised to learn that my child has extraordinary talents and abilities. My child is a great example for other children to follow. And we asked parents to estimate how familiar their children were with different historical events and historical figures. Some of these items were actual, like the French Revolution for a historical event. But some were events that we made up, like the Beijing Revolution. And for historical figures, like Winston Churchill is an actual historical figure, but Queen Alberta is not. And parents who tend to overvalue their children claim that their children know about these bogus historical events and historical figures even though they don't exist.

BLOCK: So if they're asking about it, of course my kid must know about it because he or she knows everything, right?

BUSHMAN: That's right.

BLOCK: OK. Well, if you're a parent and you want your kid to feel good about him or herself, have a healthy sense of self-esteem, where do parents go wrong here do you think?

BUSHMAN: Well, I think it's really important for parents to show warmth and love and affection to their children, but it's not helpful to convey the idea that their children are superior to other children.

BLOCK: Not above average like the children of Lake Wobegon.

BUSHMAN: That's right.

BLOCK: OK. What made you decide to study this in the first place?

BUSHMAN: Well, we've done other research showing that the level of narcissism, at least in college students, in increasing steadily over the past 30 years, whereas other research has shown that the level of empathy in college students has been decreasing steadily over the past 30 years. Empathy involves putting yourself in the shoes of another person and narcissists don't do that. They only think about themselves, but empathy is one of the best predictors of prosocial behavior. So narcissism is not good for society because narcissists aren't very empathic. They're also more aggressive than other people. Narcissists think they're special people who deserve special treatment. And when they don't get the special treatment they think they deserve, they become very angry and aggressive and they lash out against others. So we're really interested in how narcissism develops in the first place. And I think our study is encouraging because it suggests that you're not just born a narcissist and there's nothing you can do about it, but rather parents can have an influence on how narcissistic their children become.

BLOCK: That's Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University and co-author of a new study on the origins of narcissism in children. It's published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Professor Bushman, thanks so much.

BUSHMAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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