There are numerous studies showing narcissism is on the rise, and altruism and empathy are declining. When that’s the greater social context in which we live, what’s a parent to do?
1) Recognize that while you don’t have ultimate control over your teen, you do have influence.
That means modeling the behavior that you want to promote: kindness, compassion, empathy, etc. Since teenagers are still forming their personalities, this is a great time to exert your influence, and to nip some potentially narcissistic traits in the bud.
This entails self-reflection on the part of parents. If you want your daughter to learn that she’s more than the sum of her body parts, then consider whether you have a healthy body image yourself. You might be displaying all sorts of behaviors that you wish she wouldn’t.
2) Monitor your teen’s social media.
That doesn’t necessarily even involve content, but just sheer time spent. Studies say that teens who scored higher on narcissistic personality inventories spent more hours a day online than their peers. There’s speculation that narcissistic traits are amplified–fed, even–by social media. And time spent engaging with the world in other ways can counter some of these tendencies.
3) Don’t assume that all social media is bad.
There’s some evidence to suggest that in moderation, teenager are learning “virtual empathy.” The act of “liking” can be pro-social behavior. But if you notice a negative trend in your child’s online behavior, then it’s time to have a discussion.
Something I suggest parents be alert to is simply the dehumanizing impact of social media. For example, if your child is writing something negative about a celebrity, he or she might feel justified because that’s not a “real person”. Parents can counter this false belief.
Narcissism is about elevating yourself by degrading others, and failing to realize those other people’s feelings actually matter. So it’s best to address this kind of behavior before it becomes a habitual way of relating.
4) Encourage volunteering and engagement in the community.
Teenagers who are privileged often don’t realize they are; they might look around and only notice that others have more. That sort of comparison can fuel narcissism.
So help your teenager see his or her privilege, and to see how vital it is to participate in the greater world. Adolescence is, developmentally, a self-involved time. But you often hear about teenagers who are doing amazing things, starting their own non-profits, for example, or just volunteering. We need to encourage children to see themselves in those sort of role models. It’s a good diversion from all that self-focus.
5) Be honest with your child.
That means that if you see concerning behavior, you name it. You want to do it non-judgmentally (remember, we’re modeling empathy and kindness here!) But we’re also trying to teach our children how to engage in honest self-evaluation. That’s where healthy self-esteem comes from: seeing what strengths and weaknesses, knowing where you need to grow.
Poor self-esteem is a key component in narcissism. A fragile ego can’t withstand any criticism and walls itself off.
Helping your teen realize that they can be better, that they have that capacity within themselves, doesn’t make for an easy conversation (well, series of conversations). But it’s worth it to head off a lot of problems later in life.