Think your child might be exhibiting abnormally narcissistic traits? Experts share the telltale signs and what you can do about them.
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If you've ever had a friend, partner, or co-parent who's a narcissist, you're already familiar with the obvious trademarks. They'll prioritize their needs above anyone else's, which most often shows up as pushing boundaries or breaking agreements. They also have a lack of empathy and respond with criticism, anger, or defensiveness. Once you've come to understand that these are behaviors can possibly even signal narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), it can be easier to find solutions.

That said, if it's your child who's exhibiting signs of narcissism, the situation becomes more difficult. That's because "self-focus, which is often associated with narcissism, is actually a normal and important part of the developmental process," in children, says Stephanie Macadaan, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist and the owner of Renewed Relationships Counseling Group.

Here's how you can tell what's normal and what's not when it comes to your child's seemingly narcissistic behaviors.

Tween Girl Texting On Bed
Credit: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock

The Difference Between Narcissistic Traits and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

"We all have narcissistic aspects to our personality that help build self-esteem and self-worth," explains Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D, a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship expert in Los Angeles. "The difference with NPD is that the person has a persistent way of constantly feeling wounded, wronged, and victimized and can't tolerate your success when set alongside theirs. They do this to such an extent that they are always upset and can't sustain relationships that require them to give and take. They are entitled and feel no shame in it."

But children and teens can't be diagnosed with NPD. That's because their personality is still forming, and there are stages of development that include a focus on oneself and one's needs, points out Dan Peters, Ph.D, host of The Parent Footprint with Dr. Dan. "Many kids and teens go through phases of being self-absorbed, have inflated sense of confidence or self-worth, and can lack empathy for others due to the focus on getting their own needs met," he says.

In fact, narcissistic traits like these are actually pretty common for kids to exhibit, says Macadaan.

How to Tell If Narcissistic Behaviors Aren't Normal

It's possible that your child's narcissistic behaviors are abnormal or concerning. Michele Nealon, Psy.D, President of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, says that while all children seek attention from those around them—and in different ways depending on their stage of development—narcissistic children appear to step that up several notches.

According to Dr. Nealon, a narcissistic child will also tend to:

  • Monopolize conversations
  • Belittle others
  • Exaggerate their successes and achievements and diminish the value of achievements of those around them
  • Have a more difficult time empathizing with others
  • Be prone to temper tantrums and quick to anger when they do not get their way
  • Push against authority figures, especially when things are not going their way

But again, many of these behaviors are normal at certain stages of a child or teen's development. "Children's behavior patterns change as they move through the various stages of development," acknowledges Dr. Nealon. "For this reason, it is exceptionally important for parents not to read too much into a child's behavior at any one time during their development."

Complicating matters further: What may seem out of the norm at one stage of development can be completely usual and expected at another stage, says Dr. Nealon. "Temporary narcissistic behavior may be the result of a child's response to recent growth changes, medications, or even medical procedures," she notes. "Additionally, a child's behavior can appear to change as a result of a family or school related stress."

To differentiate what's normal from what's not, Dr. Peters says you'll want to consider:

  • The child's age
  • The child's maturity
  • Patterns of behavior
  • Consequences of their behavior on relationships, over time

"Parents should look for patterns of the above behavior that are consistent, extreme, and causing a negative impact on both family and social relationships," he advises. You can also pay attention to a child's pronounced lack of insight and awareness of their behavior, along with excessive blaming of others, notes Dr. Peters.

What To Do If You Suspect Your Child's Narcissism Isn't Normal

"Early intervention for any condition, including narcissistic behaviors, provides the greatest opportunity for change," points out Dr. Peters. If you suspect your child's narcissistic behaviors are problematic, consider taking the following steps.

Talk to your child about how their behaviors affect others.

Encourage your child to understand the impact of their behavior on others, develop empathy, and feel secure in the world without having to use others to meet their needs. This will contribute to them being able to build healthy relationships, as well as experience and show love and affection, says Dr. Peters.

Work on your own emotional self-awareness.

"The root of narcissism is often a need to be self-focused because you cannot trust that your caregivers are attuned to, and able to meet, your needs," points out Macadaan. For that reason, she encourages parents to be aware of and check in with family dynamics that may create disconnection.

Dr. Peters agrees, adding that the best thing to do for your own health and your child's well-being is understanding your own emotions and behavior. He encourages you to ask questions like:

  • "How do I treat people?"
  • "How do I feel about myself?"
  • "What are my relationships like?"
  • "How do I get my needs met?"

"The more parents can be self-aware, the more they can choose their behavior and actions and model those actions for their children," says Dr. Peters.

Reach out to a mental health specialist.

If you're concerned about your child's behavior, particularly if there is a family history of narcissism, Dr. Peters encourages you to seek help from a mental health care provider who specializes in children and adolescents. "It is important to gain insight as to whether your child is going through a developmental phase and/or showing a pattern of concerning behaviors that could benefit from treatment," he says.

Ultimately, if narcissistic behaviors feel extreme and consistent for an extended period of time, there is help available, says Macadaan. "Today there is much more knowledge and understanding of behaviors that can be problematic," she notes. "Taking advantage of family therapy or getting individual support for the parents and child can provide relief and help make changes that lead to more connection and understanding."