Just like every other psychological problems and personality disorders, one’s childhood plays a huge role in narcissism as well. Although genetic factors may also influence it, family dynamics and one’s upbringing make up the base of narcissism.
So, how can an innocent child turn into a narcissistic emotional abuser?
Even if family dynamics can’t be the sole reason of it, it is believed that some parent behaviors leave a child more vulnerable to this disorder.
The first one of these behaviors is constantly and severely criticizing the child. All children are born vulnerable and fragile. Therefore, the children need their parents’ love, attention and protection at the beginning of their lives. If the family manages creating a healthy bond with the child, they can grow up to be a confident and loving individual. But if they cannot do that and the very same family that was supposed to love and protect the child end up criticizing them all the time and make them feel walking on eggshells around their own family; the child turns into someone who’s skeptical, anxious and biased against life, people and their surroundings. Not being given enough love and appreciation even by their own family can cause the child to feel ashamed and worthless. Even as an adult, shame is a feeling we often try to avoid and have trouble controlling. And for a poor little child, it can be quite destructive. In order to cope with it, the child can retreat into their own shell and decide to show the unconditional and limitless love and respect they were denied by others to themselves. In their own mind, they’re special, they deserve to be loved and appreciated but that can be seen and understood by other special people only.
Another mistake parents make is to spoil the child too much and idealizing them. Naturally, almost all parents tend to think their own children to be special. But some families’ adoration take that to extremes. Excessive amount of praise and unrealistic compliments can easily blur a child’s mind. Spoiled and idealized children grow up to become someone who thinks they have the right to do everything, someone who’s beyond all rules and boundaries because they’re special. Although it doesn’t look too harmful, excessive spoiling counts as emotional abuse against children. Children who believe they should get whatever they want without even putting any effort in getting them, often get upset and angry or feel desperate when they’re not shown the same amount of love and respect from other people in their lives.
In some families, criticism and praise go hand in hand. So, the child can be harshly criticized while also being too idealized. In some families, one of the parents can be criticizing the child all the time while the other is drowning them in gifts and compliments. Or the contradicting behavior can be coming from the same parent as well. While trying to cope with all the criticism and the shame and worthlessness it brings, the child can also start believing that they’re special and important. Families where criticism and praise coexist are the ideal environments to create a ‘covert narcissist’. This kind of contradicting behaviors and the constant mood swings of the parents can damage a child’s psychology.
Overprotective and cold families also cause children to turn into narcissists. The subconscious message overprotective families give their children is that the world is a dangerous place and therefore they need constant protection because they possess something extremely valuable and special. These children grow into adults who still need protection and special treatment.
Children who were loved ‘conditionally’ may also develop narcissistic personalities. Every child wants to be loved unconditionally by their parents. Being loved is not a privilege, but a necessity for them to survive emotionally. Unfortunately, a lot of families love their children conditionally. They show their love and affection only when the child does something they wanted them to. This type of families prevent their children from developing their own personalities, identities, talents and hobbies. Because what they care about is not the child’s own wishes, but their own. Children who grew up in this kind of families settle with this twisted and conditional version of love, thinking it’s still better than not being loved at all. As a result, they start concealing their true personalities and wearing masks from a very early age in order to get the love and appreciation they desire.
Some narcissists may have suffered from severe physical, sexual or psychological abuse. People who were abused try to cope with their traumas with different methods. Some of them copy their abuser’s behavior in order to prevent themselves from being a “victim” again and slowly turn into a manipulator themselves. For narcissists, who believe themselves to be superior and don’t hesitate using other people; their narcissism is a weapon that can protect them from the possibility of becoming a prey again.
We discussed the extremisms the narcissists may have faced in their childhoods. But just like extremisms, deprivations can also cause narcissism. Neglect is one of the most important elements that cause narcissistic personality disorder. Neglect can be physical or emotional; the parents may be unable to take care of the child’s basic needs such as food, shelter, education etc. or their emotional needs. Emotional neglect can be the main reason behind a lot of mental disorders such as narcissism. Just like how they felt when they were severely criticized or loved conditionally; it can cause a child to distrust other people and be filled with shame and rage. They can find it hard to recognize and comprehend their own feelings as a result of the emotional neglect they suffered from. Besides, neglected children can develop manipulative behavior at early ages.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about having a narcissistic parent. Naturally, we all get our first information about life from our parents. We observe their behavior and see them as role models. The first bilateral relationship model we witness is that of our parents’. Therefore, we can often find ourselves turning into our mothers or fathers later on or include people who act like our parents into our lives. A child who grows up with a narcissistic parent starts observing their environment and learning everything that could help them survive. Especially empathy is something we’re not born with, but rather learn later on. All children are naturally narcissistic but in time, they learn empathy and respecting other people’s rights. But a child who grows up in a family that lacks empathy cannot learn such things. What’s even sadder is the fact the narcissistic parent probably had narcissistic parents as well. In this way, the narcissism in the family continues for generations until someone tries to stop this cycle.
To summarize; if a child grew up in a family where they couldn’t find the attention, love and healthy bonds they needed, there’s a high chance of them turning into a narcissist. But of course not every single child who grew up in such environments or had the genetic codes for it turns into a narcissist. Everyone has difference defense mechanisms to cope with what they’re going through. For example, while a child could be manipulating those around them to get what they need because they were neglected by their families, another child who went through the same treatment can believe if they’re ‘better and more polite’, their family can finally notice them and care about them more. Eventually, both situations are harmful for a child’s emotional development. Besides, in some families narcissism can be the most logical option to survive.
As a result, behind the glittering, charismatic and confident façade of a narcissist; there’s a child who couldn’t get over their childhood traumas, who wasn’t loved enough and who’s perpetually resentful and insecure. Their own personality never truly developed so they had to create an imaginary one for themselves. The shell a child creates around them in order to survive emotionally can eventually get so thick that they won’t find a way to get out of it. The other children will leave their natural narcissism caused by the childhood and puberty phases behind in time and realize that they’re ‘just as special and important as everyone else’, whereas the narcissist is going to be crushed under the defense mechanisms they developed during their childhood.
Within this context, it’s sad to see the ‘cruel’ narcissist we meet as an adult was once a ‘victim’ who’s still just an angry 5 years old deep down.
At the same time, I still believe that no one has the right to manipulate and control others regardless of their psychological problems. Everyone should be responsible of their own mistakes. I noticed that people who are in a relationship with narcissists are extremely empathetic individuals. Although empathy and sympathy are valuable things, if they’re the reason why we’re stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship; they can be quite toxic. Therefore, even though I believe it’s important to understand a narcissist and notice the deep wounds they carry in their hearts, I still choose to sympathize with their victims. Because once they realize their own self-worth, they can turn over a new leaf both for themselves and for those who can truly love them.
You can also find the articles on https://medium.com/@narsistsiz:
Aklınızı Keşfedin. “Narsisizm: Narsistik Kişilik Bozukluğunun 5 Nedeni”. Access 3 January,2019. https://aklinizikesfedin.com/narsisizm-narsistik-kisilik-bozuklugunun-5-nedeni/.
Psychology Today. “Childhood Roots of Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. Access 29 January, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/warning-signs-parents/201701/childhood-roots-narcissistic-personality-disorder.