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Is my teen narcissistic or just a normal self-centered teenager?

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Dr. Markham --
I have been seeing a counselor and she mentioned yesterday that she thought one of my girls was narcissistic. Do you have any advice on this?


It could be upsetting to hear that from a counselor, and I don't think it helps anyone parent better to see their child through the lens of that kind of label. So maybe we should start by talking about what Narcissism means.

Narcissism develops when a child does not feel good enough to please the parent and cause the parent to accept and love them for who they are. The parent may have praised the child, but only for certain traits, with the implication that the child isn't good enough unless they exhibit those traits. To gain admiration from the parent, the child develops a "false self" to cover up their real self, which they think is shameful. This false self may have specific attributes that the child thinks the parent wants, such as being smart. But all narcissists share the need to see themselves as successful winners in every way.

Unfortunately, a false self is by definition very fragile and needs constant "pumping up." So narcissists are preoccupied with proving that they are superior. They exaggerate their achievements and expect others to defer to them. If someone questions their constructed superiority, that person is automatically a threat and the narcissist attacks them. 

This is not a pleasant way to live, but the narcissist desperately clings to their false self, which they think is the only thing protecting them from rejection (and remember, for a child rejection means death.) So the narcissist needs always to put themselves first, and cannot afford to develop empathy. That means they often work hard to be charming, but attack at the slightest hint that you aren't falling for the image they want to project.

The normal setbacks of life that teach most of us that we aren't perfect, and we need to value others, are lessons that a narcissist cannot afford to learn. This limits the development of empathy and also means they often have poor judgment and take surprising risks, because protecting their pumped-up self-image outweighs other concerns.

In fact, some experts think that narcissists are stuck in the toddler stage of development, with limited empathy and poor judgement. It's during the toddler years that humans have to face how small they are, but they learn to love themselves anyway, because their parents love and admire them, without needing them to be anything but who they are. If a toddler doesn't get their developmental needs met, they may develop defenses against that pain -- defenses that can operate for the rest of their lives. So, like toddlers, narcissists have an inflated view of their own capabilities, which is a defense against their secret fear that they're unlovable and worthless. 

So what does this mean for your teen?

All teenagers are in a developmental stage that could be seen as self-centered and insecure. Their work is to develop themselves, which means that they're so focused on themselves that they don't have a lot of mental energy left to notice how they're affecting others, even if they're actually empathic people. They greatly value their peers, so they put peers first, and it is easy for parents to feel like their teen doesn't even notice the parent's feelings. All teens are still figuring out a realistic assessment of their capabilities and where they fit in the world. All of them are still developing good judgment and tend to be in denial about risk.

Therefore, all teens fit the description of narcissism at least somewhat. And they will grow out of it! For that reason, I would discourage any diagnosis of a teen as narcissistic. And I don't think it helps you parent better to see your child as a label of any kind.

Instead, I think all teens need us to empathize, to set limits as necessary, and to stay connected. So if your teen is showing signs of self-centeredness, I recommend:

1. Take a deep breath before you speak to your teen, especially if you're feeling judgmental.

Remind yourself that this is a normal phase that will get better as your teen matures, and that you value this relationship. You're still teaching, but your teen will only learn if they feel safe and loved.

2. Empathize.

Kids develop empathy for others by experiencing our empathy for them.

3. Avoid labeling your teen, which just reinforces her behavior.

Instead, describe her behavior and the way it makes you feel.  

"When you don't call me as we agreed, I feel worried. I also feel hurt. It makes me think you don't value our relationship enough to keep our agreements and you don't care if I am worrying about you." (You should know that some teens unconsciously pull such stunts precisely to worry their parents because they want proof that they are indeed loved.)

Then, empathize and create safety to begin a discussion.

"I know that something must have kept you from calling me, even if it was just getting caught up in what was happening with your friends. I want to understand. Can you tell me about it? I promise I'll keep my mouth shut and listen. 

After your discussion, set a limit and give a choice: "The rule is that you call me when you say you will. I need to feel comfortable to give you the freedom you want, and you calling me when you agree to is what makes me comfortable. Do you want to commit to calling me when you leave  and head to another party, or do you want to stay in this weekend?" 

4. Accept and admire your teen for exactly who they are. 

For all kids, but especially for teens who feel that they need to be something other than what they are, the most important thing is to accept them as they are. Every teen deserves the message that they don't have to be perfect to inspire our love and admiration. They just have to be themselves. 

Remember that to grow and change, your teen has to feel loved, seen, heard, accepted. That's the only place healing can ever begin.

5. Read some good books on teens.

Staying Connected to Your Teenager by Michael Riera is one of my favorite books for parents to better understand and guide their teen.

The Smart Love Parent: The Compassionate Alternative To Discipline is written for parents of all age kids and is one of the best books I have read on how to love kids back to emotional health who seem to be headed down a wrong road.

6. Take care of yourself so you don't resent it if you feel your teen isn't paying attention to your needs.

In other words, treat yourself with love and respect, and then you won't take your child's self-centered behavior personally. 

Whatever the question with kids, love is the answer. If your child isn't extending you basic courtesy and respect, it's an indication that you need to do some repair work on the relationship. Err on the side of love, always. They won't always be this way. They're teenagers!

Dr. Laura

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