The idea that parenting can contribute to narcissism is one that goes back to Freud. While our understanding of narcissism has evolved since then, the basic theory that certain parenting styles can produce more narcissistic adults has stuck around.
There’s an intuitive sense to this way of undertanding narcissism: it’s not so far-fetched to think that children whose parents instill a sense of being special and entitled will become narcissistic adults.
In recent years, several empirical studies have taken this idea as a starting point, looking for hard evidence linking parenting and narcissism.
Most recently, a paper titled Parental Invalidation and the Development of Narcissism involved surveying 442 people, asking them specifically about memories of being invalidated by their parents. It found that those with stronger memories of being invalidated by either parent tended to have higher levels of narcissism. One possible interpretation of this result is that children who feel invalidated by their parents become more narcissistic adults on average.
On the other hand, if too little validation causes problems, too much might not be good either. Research done in 2015 showed that children who were overvalued by their parents were more narcissistic as a group. The authors suggested this might indicate that the children were “internalizing parents’ inflated views of them.”
Finally a 2014 study found that parents who were more psychologically controlling tended to raise children who scored higher on narcissism. The same study found that parents who were colder produced less narcissistic children, which highlights why it’s good to be cautious interpreting results from these kind of studies: this association between colder parenting and lower narcissism likely has some significance, but it’s not as simple as saying that coldness is a value parents should aspire to!
Still, we probably can conclude that parenting strategies characterized by invalidation, overvaluation and psychological control do more harm than good and may create narcissists. Even Freud wouldn’t argue with that!
Image: Flickr/Kevin O’Neill