As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I hear myself saying is this: “You know, children are pretty narcissistic.” In all sincerity, that is not intended as slight toward the child in question. Seriously, it isn’t.
There are a couple of situations where this statement about “narcissistic children” emerges. One situation is when you might be attempting to explain the behavior of a child or adolescent to a parent. But the other situation, and the one that tends to elicit a “lightbulb” moment, is exploring with an adult why they still blame themselves for something that happened to them when they were a child.
We generally think of narcissism as a negative trait, but there is a way in which it is very functional, especially when we are children. While some of us grow up in environments where our needs are generally met, not all of us do. So having some self-centeredness can be a good way of ensuring your survival. This is good.
But that sense of being the “center of the universe” can cut both ways.
An example: Let’s say that two parents are separating. The child in that situation may feel as if they have had some role in the parental conflict. This is where a child’s statements such as “If I’m good will you two stop fighting?!?” begin to make sense. The narcissism of that child leads them to feel that they bear some responsibility for the conflict. This is especially true if one parent has said something along the lines of “If you would just [fill in the blank], then we wouldn’t be arguing right now!”
That narcissistic sense of responsibility also means that in cases of abuse, the child may feel responsible for the abuse.
Many times I have talked with adults who recount the abuse that happened to them as children. There is an overwhelming sense that “if I had been a better kid” or “if I had not woken up and gone to their bedroom” or “if I had not spilled the drink” then the abuse would not have happened.
But the abuse is not their fault; the abuse is not their responsibility. But that child/adult feels that it is.
Understanding the narcissism of children can help us as adults loosen those feelings of responsibility that we carry for events that happened to us, that we did not cause. We feel that we did cause it because the narcissism of a child feels an outsized sense of their ability to act in the world. This ties into the superstitious nature of children where they may believe that if they “step on a crack” then something catastrophic will happen.
Remember that just because it is non-rational does not mean that it is not real to them.
The other time I use this phrase “You know, children are pretty narcissistic” is with parents, generally of adolescents. This is another stage where your child is moving out into a larger world, much as they did when they were toddlers. They learn the word “no”. Actually, adolescents learn a lot of interesting words that they like to try out on their parents, but much of it can be summarized as “no”.
They are saying “I am separate” and “I am different” and “I am not you.”
Let’s go back to the beginning then and remember that there is a functional, good part to this narcissism. We want our children to grow beyond us. I love my children, but I do not want them to be living with me when they are 30. This narcissism helps them push back, to grow, to meet their own needs versus waiting on anyone else to do it for them.
But isn’t narcissism a bad thing?
In the extreme, narcissism is certainly a painful trait. A person with a diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder is a very unhappy soul, constantly worrying about what others think of them. They feel every real or simply perceived injury to their fragile ego. This is an especially difficult trait in a spouse, friend, or family member.
So in our children and adolescents, it is important to balance this inherent narcissism. We must help them learn that the feelings of others do matter. We help them connect to and talk about pain that they may feel; then we assist them in understanding that it is wrong to inflict that pain on someone else. As the adults, it is our job to teach this.
This is a gentle enterprise though . . . as anyone who has worked with or been in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder may attest. If you push a narcissist too hard, they feel more injured, angry, and everything will be your fault.
It is a lot like having an adolescent in your house; their ego is growing, learning, trying to find its way. Our job is to guide and shape, to bend, but not break.
In the end, if you are one of those adults that feels deeply responsible for something that happened to you as a child, remember “Children are pretty narcissistic.” You probably had much less power than you imagined that you did. And if you are raising a child or adolescent in these moments, take a deep breath, and give them a gentle nudge in the right direction. Take heart, most of us do grow up and eventually exit this stage … in time.