Teenage Narcissism

During their teenage years adolescents are naturally self-involved, putting their own needs before those of anyone close to them and passionately insisting that they are right.  However, are our teens more self-involved than we were?  Did we spend as much time looking in the mirror, fixing hair and obsessing about clothes?  According to recent research, narcissism is actually on the rise and this concept of self-importance is undermining the happiness of our children.

According to research conducted by psychology professor Jean M. Twenge at San Diego State University, one out of four students showed signs of narcissism as compared to one out of seven in 1985.  Back in the 1950s, when the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) was first given to teens, only 12 percent of them agreed with the statement, “I am an important person.”  In the 1980’s, though, around 80 percent of agreed with the statement.  Recent studies raise the self-importance factor even higher.

Social scientists Jean Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and many others have studied various personality inventories and come to the stark conclusion that narcissism is on the rise.  They attribute the rise mainly to school programs and educational media that highlight “positive self-feelings and specialness.”  When a group of parents at one of our parent skills training course were asked why they think this change is occurring, parents came up with ideas that fit with current scientific hypothesis.  These included: new technologies that allow teens to self promote like Myspace, Youtube, and Facebook; reality television which promotes the idea of self-absorption; and television shows which value fame over talent.  No longer are personal characteristics like conscientiousness and diligence highlighted or rewarded.  Teens have the ability to capture and record the events of their day and week and have someone read and respond to it, fostering the belief that what happens to them on the way to school or dinner with the family might be meaningful to others, building the idea that their life is, indeed, something special, different, unique and worth sharing.

The problem which was brought to light in a parent skill building class is that a lot of parents just as easily fall into the same trap as their child, and end up feeding narcissism.  Parents talked about how they: tended to over highlight their child’s performance in group activities, even going so far as to put down other participants; stressed academic achievement over personal characteristics; encouraged their children to take on activities for the sake of a resume rather than for satisfaction; and taught their children to criticize others to feed a sense of self-importance.

Parents walk a fine line between fostering self-esteem and indulging narcissism.  So what can parents do to help their teens combat narcissism?  Experts state that responsibilities at home (chores), community service, exposure to different cultures, upholding religious beliefs and traditions, and exposure to art and talent are all paramount in helping children and teens look outside themselves.  Creating an open forum for a dialog with ourselves and our children can help communicate the values that lead to a happy, well-adjusted adulthood.

It is important to note that narcissism is not high self-esteem.  Self-esteem involves emotional, evaluative, and cognitive components.  It entails certain action dispositions:  to move toward life rather than away from it; to move toward consciousness rather than away from it; to treat facts with respect rather than denial; to operate self-responsibly rather than the opposite.  Healthy self-esteem is subjective and realistic self-approval and self-respect.  Narcissism is an unwarranted fascination with oneself.  The healthy self-esteem of young children is based on the love and acceptance of significant others.  An individual with healthy self-esteem has a high level of respect for others as well as him or herself.

Building healthy self-esteem involves providing your child with attention, providing encouraging comments and giving positive and accurate feedback.  Discussing your child’s inaccurate beliefs, being a positive role model, being affectionate, being attentive to your child’s social circle, teaching responsibility and providing opportunities to demonstrate responsibility and experience success, and providing a safe and loving home environment will all help foster your child’s self-esteem and limit their developing narcissism.

About Steven Petrus

Dr. Steven Petrus is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in psycho-educational assessment, child, adolescent and family therapy.
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One Response to Teenage Narcissism

  1. Keisha says:

    Very good! I wonder what role this increased narcissism has played on the increased levels of violence in young people? I am willing to bet that there is some correlation.

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