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Teaching Children With Narcissistic Behavior

by Scott Thompson

If children weren't narcissistic to some extent, they wouldn't be children. A baby is in no position to offer empathy or support toward others. In fact, its survival depends on getting its own needs met regardless of what else is going on. However, some children never seem to evolve from this early focus on themselves. Parents of narcissistic children can make a difference by focusing on empathy.

Healthy Narcissism

Most children love to be the center of attention occasionally. You don't have to worry that showing your child how much you love him will turn him into a narcissist. According to an article on "Psychiatric Annals Online," the healthy narcissism of childhood is not harmful by itself. Even though all kids can be narcissistic sometimes, most of them also have the ability to think about and care about how other people feel. They might want to feel special, but they want their friends to feel special, too. When your child does something mildly narcissistic, just talk to her about your values and how you expect her to treat others.

Unhealthy Narcissism

Unhealthy narcissism looks different from the normal childhood tendency to be a little self-centered. While any child might get upset if another kid does better in a contest or gets a present when he doesn't, a narcissistic child can't tolerate the idea of anyone else being praised or getting attention -- ever. According to the "Psychiatric Annals Online" article, narcissistic children have an unrealistic yet fragile self-image. A narcissistic child thinks of herself as the most important person in the world, yet demands constant reassurance from others. If anyone else becomes the center of attention, the narcissistic child might become explosively angry. Teaching a narcissistic child to change his approach to relationships requires substantial effort.

Empathy and Accountability

If a narcissistic child accidentally hurts another child by doing something careless, he won't seem to feel bad about it and he won't tolerate any criticism about it. Instead, he'll blame the child who got hurt. According to family therapist Karyl McBride in "Psychology Today," this pattern can be reversed only by emphasizing empathy and accountability. Hold your child consistently responsible for her own actions and praise her or reward her in some way when she accepts responsibility for her own actions. Demonstrate empathy in every possible circumstance, and praise or reward your child when he shows signs of empathy.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Most mental health counselors are reluctant to diagnose children as having a personality disorder because the personality is not completely formed until adulthood. However, without intervention, a childhood pattern of self-centered behavior can develop into narcissistic personality disorder in adulthood. Risk factors for NPD include being overindulged by parents, being discouraged from expressing emotion, lack of affection in the family, divorce and other family issues. According to McBride, children of narcissistic parents often pass on the same behaviors to their own children. In cases of NPD, the Mayo Clinic recommends family therapy to address the underlying causes of the problem.

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