A longstanding theory in psychoanalytic theory contends that cold and unloving parents contribute to the rise of narcissistic tendencies in their children. A new study is now throwing this idea on its head by suggesting too much praise is the problem.
According to the prevailing theory, children who lack warmth and attention from their parents often try to place themselves on a pedestal in an attempt to obtain from others the approval and affirmation they didn't get from their parents. But according to social learning theory, children are more likely to be narcissistic when their parents overvalue them — when their parents perceive them and lavish them as being more special and more entitled than other children.
To put these two theories to the test, University of Amsterdam psychologist Eddie Brummelman and colleagues evaluated 565 children between the ages of 7 to 12. Over the course of 18 months, the researchers assessed the participants for child narcissism, child self-esteem, parental overvaluation, and parental warmth. The questionnaire contained such items as, "My child is more special than others," "My child is a great example for others to follow," and so on. The children also had their IQ measured, the results of which were compared to parental expectations.
Statistical modeling of the results showed — just barely — that social theory trumps the old psychoanalytic theory.
"Narcissism was predicted by parental overvaluation, not by lack of parental warmth," concluded the researchers in their study, which now appears at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, adding that "children come to see themselves as they believe to be seen by significant others, as if they learn to see themselves through others' eyes."
By contrast, parental warmth predicted high self-esteem in children (which differs from narcissism in that a child with high self-esteem does not feel superior to others). Brummelman says parents should still express warmth to their children as a way to promote self-esteem.
"It's good for parents to know that they don't run the risk of creating a narcissist overnight," noted Brummelman in an ABC Science article, "It's a very modest association, but it does show that over time, overvaluation can make an important contribution to the development of narcissism, but... it's not the only cause."
Indeed, the association is slight. What's more, narcissism has been shown to be moderately heritable and linked to early emerging temperamental traits. As always, the "blame your parents" excuse needs to be taken with a hefty grain of salt.
What's more, the psychoanalytic theory still has its adherents. New Scientist cites the work of Peter Fonagy, a psychoanalyst University of College London who contends that narcissism in children would correlate stronger with colder parents who consistently undervalue their children — a facet the new study did not take into consideration.
Top image: Taken from the SNL skit "You Can Do Anything."