There are 2 main areas of concentration when looking at the root cause for NPD, these are Social Conditioning and Parenting.
The modern media (through film, magazines, newspapers, television programmes etc.) bombards us with information on how we should aspire to achieve bigger and greater things in a world where celebrity status is viewed as ideal.
People are encouraged to expect special treatment with little regard for the old values of community and helping their fellow man. It’s no longer considered selfish to consistently get something for nothing and always be on the “look out for number one”.
Over emphasis is placed on physical fitness to promote sexual relationships and self-esteem as opposed to being fit for their medical health. As a result the emphasis on emotional well being has deteriorated and the emotional side of relationships is undermined as people concern themselves with attracting an attractive mate as opposed to one who can share their values and provide emotional support to them and any children they may have together.
The decline of religion in modern society has lead to a general decline in morals and an increase in activities that were once seen as “socially unacceptable” e.g. prostitution, pornography, drug taking, gambling etc. “Niceness” and the strength of moral character are less and less becoming promoted as strong personal qualities. How often is the phrase “Nice guys finish last” used to promote ruthlessness and risk taking? How often does it come from the lips of narcissistic people? A call to join the Dark Side maybe?
Determination, single-mindedness, wealth, status, influence, sexual prowess, these are the qualities that dominate the mass media today. Narcissism gone wrong as can be witnessed regularly on page one of nearly all the national newspapers with stories of celebrities breaking the law or their marriage vows. Is it any wonder that children of today are becoming increasingly narcissistic?
Some Psychologists argue that this kind of social conditioning would not be effective in developing NPD unless unhealthy narcissism had already been well established as part of the personality structure in early development.
It is widely acknowledged that suffers of NPD tend to be brought up in unempathic environments. In such an environment it is the parent’s (or primary carers) wants and desires that are catered to as the child develops, where the child’s real needs are largely ignored. Please see What kind of parenting may lead to NPD?
When does narcissism develop?
Sigmund Freud saw “primary narcissism” as an “auto-erotic” stage of self-love that babies go through in their first year of life. During this stage they are focused only on themselves and their own needs.
“Secondary narcissism” follows this period where the child is not yet able to determine that the primary caregiver (usually the mother) who ministers to their needs is in fact separate to themselves. For example, when the child cries, mother appears to provide soothing. When the child is hungry, mother feeds them. They see the mother as an extension of themselves (that they are in effect looking after/loving themselves), as such the child thinks they are omnipotent and has an inflated perception of their parent(s) – it is a magical time.
Freud and those who carried on his work argue that adult narcissism is as a result of the child not moving from self-love to object love i.e. love for another separate person. Not all Psychologists agree. Lowen (pg. 12) states “I don’t believe in the concept of a primary narcissism. Instead, I regard all narcissism as secondary, stemming from some disturbance in the child-parent relationship”. Newer research shows that babies are able to distinguish between themselves and a parent as being different at an early age but that they are unable to comprehend the parent will have different needs, impediments, interests and expectations of their own. This will lead to frustration of the child when their needs and wants are not met.
In her book Hotchkiss (pg. 35-45) describes “Childhood Narcissism and the Birth of “Me”” as a natural process through which the child is taught to relinquish their primary narcissism when they are ready through the guidance of their primary caregiver in order to develop an independent Self.
She begins by explaining that we are all usually born with senses namely sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste that provide us with sensation and perceptions e.g. pain, comfort, coldness etc. That we all have instincts like the need to search for food or to cry if we are in distress and that we have a “genetic endowment” which is known as our temperament but that we are not all born with a “Self”. This concept of Self is the knowledge that we are distinct (separate) from others and able to determine and manage our own feelings. It is the outcome of the “separation/individuation” process that occurs in early child development.
The stages of early child development Hotchkiss describes are summarised below.
Age: 2 – 4 Months
Child Development: Capable of recognising their primary caregiver as seen through the “preferential” smile. Symbiotic sense of Self as merged with that of the parent.
Age: 5 – 6 months
Child Development: Child begins to notice others are different from mother, they will grab glasses, moustaches, jewellery and look at mother to reference these differences. They haven’t yet worked out that while mother is different to these others she is not part of “Me”.
Age: 7 – 10 months
Child Development: Mobile independence begins (crawling) and the child is able to put physical distance between themselves and their mother. In their mind mother is an extension of them and not yet separate.
Age: 10 – 12 months*
Child Development: Child trials independence but mother is still “The One” vital to their confidence e.g. as the child explores they forget mother for longer periods of time. When the child remembers they will look for her. If someone tries to substitute for mother the child may burst in to tears, becoming joyous only on reunion with her.
Socialisation begins in earnest as mother becomes the “no-no” person. The child experiences euphoria in using their new skills and isn’t aware when they are using them inappropriately. When the child practices “prohibitive behaviour” and mother says “No” the child experiences shame. The child becomes deflated experiencing narcissistic injury. This is a necessary betrayal of their perfect union with mother. The child becomes somber as they are forced to process unpleasant feelings with less help from outside. Shame must be inflicted gently in order to ensure these feelings are not overpowering.
They begin to see themselves as small and vulnerable. Her empathic responses to the child’s mood e.g. toning down overexcitement, allowing gradual increases in emotional tension and giving warm touches, soft looks etc. after telling the child off will aid recovery from the burden of shame, lead to trust and the child’s ability to manage their own feelings later on in life. Child starts to see mother as separate, different to themselves.
Age: 18 months*
Child Development: If all has gone well mother and child can no longer function as a symbiotic us. The child will begin to let go of mother’s omnipotence and recognise her interest doesn’t lie solely with them. They begin to loose their delusions of grandeur and become aware of their vulnerability alternating between preoccupation/anxiety over mothers whereabouts (becoming “clingy”) and angry assertions of their own independence. This “clingy” stage lasts through to their 3rd year, by the age of 4 the child should emerge with a realistic sense of Self and an appreciation for the autonomy of others – Individuation has occurred.
*critical periods of child development between 10 – 12 months and 16 – 18 months when “the part of the brain that regulates emotions is being hardwired for life”.
Hotchkiss then goes on to outline a normal temporary stage of narcissism that occurs during the child’s teenage years. She explains that it is the first few years of child development (the critical periods being 10 – 12 months and 16 – 18 months) and during the teenage years where long term unhealthy narcissism can develop if the child’s real needs are not supported by an empathic environment where they are given a balanced view of themselves in preparation for life in society.
Morrison (pg. 358 – 359) explains Heinz Kohut’s belief that there were two major development stages where the development of a cohesive Self could be thwarted by inadequate parenting. The first being in the early years of development as outlined above where the mother fails to provide “adequate and empathic mirroring in response to the exhibitionistic self; and later (ages 3 – 6), usually with the father, reflecting empathic acceptance of the child’s “voyeuristic” idealization and wish for merger.” That in effect the mother promotes the child’s future ambitions through mirroring during the early exhibitionistic stage and the father promotes the child’s future goals and ideals through their acceptance of the child. Kohut felt that failure at both these stages would result in the child’s inability to form a Self but that success by an empathic parent in at least one of these stages should lead to a “cohesive, non-fragmented nuclear self”.
“Acquired Situational Narcissism” can be experienced in adulthood as a result of success in society (e.g. in relationships with friends, the opposite sex etc.), education and career. Such success usually results in a short term effect on a persons personality but some Psychologists have sought to demonstrate that for some people who are continuously in the limelight for their achievements such as sports stars, film stars, politicians etc., the attention and “special treatment” they experience may lead to long term unhealthy narcissism.
Some Psychologists believe most young adults will get through the teenage narcissistic stage (with the support of their parents) without unhealthy narcissism becoming a permanent fixture in their personality. They feel that any unhealthy narcissism evident in a persons personality in adulthood is a result of problems in earlier development rather than as a result of the teenage development stage or situational narcissism.
What kind of parenting may lead to NPD?
There are two main schools of thought. Children who develop NPD have either been spoilt in childhood by being made to feel they are more “special” than anyone else (in essence abused through being over loved) or they are treated with indifference characteristic of stereotypical abuse which might be verbal, emotional or physical.
Both methods of parenting are usually the work of controlling or manipulative parents who themselves have unresolved narcissistic conflicts. That is to say the parents have their own issues e.g. wanting more success, to be admired, to be in control to be happy etc. and as a result project their frustrations and desires on to their children to get their own needs met.
Let’s take our example of the child who is acting out because they’ve been told “No”. Empathic parents will try to demonstrate (in a loving, understanding but firm manner) that while their child is very important to Mummy and Daddy, not everybody is going to feel that way about them and that there will be times in life when they will be denied the things they want or need. The parents may explain why it’s not possible for them to have something or do what they want in a way the child can understand and give a reassuring cuddle or smile to let the child know their request wasn’t “bad” just not going to be fulfilled. In this way the parents help to build mechanisms to cope with frustrations sensibly in later life.
In an unempathic environment the parents may just cave in and let their child have or do whatever they want either to keep them quiet or because they feel their child is entitled to nothing but the best. This entitlement may stem from the parents themselves being deprived as children and wanting to ensure their children do not go without or because the parents see themselves as entitled to nothing but the best and extend this feeling to their children. It’s not hard to believe that consistent treatment in this manner will lead to feelings of entitlement in an unhealthy narcissistic adult.
Alternatively, the parents might just ignore the child when they act out because it’s too much effort and they are indifferent towards them or they may severely scold the child possibly prematurely emphasising they are a “big girl/boy now” and should do as they are told. In the worse case scenario the parents may become verbally or physically abusive towards them. This may lead to other narcissistic issues in later life.
Children look to their parents to gauge how they are perceived; they want to know am I a good girl/boy? Am I loved? They will often seek reassurance that they are behaving as expected. They will be thrilled to make their parents happy (this makes them feel loved) and frightened or upset when they make their parents unhappy (this makes them feel unloved especially if criticism is delivered without understanding or empathy).
When children are chastised by their parents they will deal with it in one of two ways; they internalise the criticism they receive saying to themselves “it’s my fault” or they externalise it saying “it wasn’t my fault” it was someone/something else’s.
Where children are continually criticised or parents are constantly angry at the child (especially when the child is not at fault and or verbal or physical abuse is experienced) the child is likely to experience a more intense reaction to criticism often preserving a view of themselves that is completely distorted. A young child whose brain is not fully developed struggles to cope with two very different realities, their original reality where they see themselves as omnipotent (in symbiosis with the mother) and the horrific new reality of their powerlessness, imperfection and “badness”. It’s not hard to imagine that under these circumstances a child may prefer to cling to their first grandiose reality and that the second reality is suppressed or ignored. Nor is it hard to imagine that a child who fears rejection from their parents feels like they have to put on a show of “goodness” or “brilliance” to gain their approval in order to feel special again.
It is possible for suffers of NPD to have had parents that were neither controlling nor manipulative and who did not have unresolved narcissistic issues themselves. Sometimes the parents are unable to provide the emotional support a child needs as they grow through no fault of their own e.g. parents who suffer from long term illnesses or disability. In these cases it may be a failure of the parent’s support system that doesn’t cater adequately for the child’s needs.
“Mirroring” is an important element that Psychologists focus on when looking at the development of NPD and its treatment. Mirroring is the means by which we feel noticed or admired for our grandiose aspirations. For example, if a child wins an award at school for a particular achievement they will hope to see happiness/pride in the faces of their parents in recognition for their efforts. The parents smiles will tell them they have done well, the child will be jubilant (even if they appear embarrassed). The child may even think “what can I do next to please mum and dad?” and quickly shift to their next thought for a future ambition “oooo! I could be a Doctor!, no a Popstar!. oooo an Astronaut!”. Insufficient mirroring as a child can lead to an excessive need to be noticed and admired in adulthood; Narcissists tend to seek out narcissistic supplies for this very purpose (see What does the false self look like in action?). Excessive mirroring also has it’s consequences e.g. if a mother shows the child that everything they do is “amazing” and they are clearly more talented than other children it is likely that the child will believe themself to be better than their peers at everything possibly leading to disappointment later in life when they clearly can’t excel at everything they do.
A child can also be loved too much to the point where they are actually seduced by one of their parents. This can happen when their parent’s have relationship difficulties and the child is given more than a healthy share of attention to the exclusion of the other parent. For example, a mother may feel that the father isn’t meeting her needs emotionally so she will turn to her child for emotional gratification – in effect trying to get the child to be what they want from a partner. This can lead to competition between the child and the parent who is being “ignored”. This may lead to confusing feelings as the child struggles to cope with their sexual feelings for the seducing parent (Oedipal conflict) and the likely hostility of their other parent who will be aware the child is receiving the special attention that would normally be theirs. This dilemma often leads to the child cutting off their sexual feelings which Lowen believes “amounts to a psychological castration and leaves the person orgastically impotent” and “that this impotence is the basis, on the deepest level, of the striving for power” (pg. 84 – 85). Power and Control are important to Narcissists. They do not like to be seen as/feel dependant or weak, they prefer to be in control. They also like to seduce others in order to gain admiration – something that they may have learnt from their seductive parent.
It is clear that there are a great number of things parents need to do right to ensure the separation/individuation process is successful and that there are a lot of things that parents can do wrong. Getting it right for their child is hard work, getting it wrong can be disastrous for all concerned and raising a child perfectly is impossible.