Narcissists’ behaviors can be mystifying and maddening if you expect them to consistently act like adults.
Though narcissists can behave like adults much of the time, when they feel embarrassed, ignored or inferior they may revert to a childlike state, acting like children during the “terrible twos.”
In a way, this regression makes sense. Narcissistic personality disorder or a narcissistic style often develops due to early trauma or family influences that can leave aspects of a person stuck at an emotionally young age.
For example, picture a young child caught with his hand in the cookie jar when told to wait until after dinner. Children respond to such situations with one or more of a dozen instinctual responses. By the same token, adult narcissists use sophisticated versions of these same childlike responses.
As you read through the following examples, you may want to think of a narcissist in your life and note any similarities with how the narcissist you know responds when feeling stressed, slighted or thwarted.
What a child caught with his or her hand in the cookie jar might do
1) Deny they did it
“I didn’t eat one. I was just looking for later.”
2) Blame someone else
“But sis said it was all right.”
3) Pretend they don’t know what you are talking about
4) Throw a tantrum
5) Say they had no choice
“I was so hungry I couldn’t help it.”
6) Recite good things they have done
“But yesterday I put all my toys away. Aren’t you proud of me?”
7) Cry or act like a victim
“You’re so mean to me. It’s not fair.”
8) Hide or run away
9) Try to charm you
“But I love you so much, Mommy.”
10) Change the subject
“Can I go outside and play?”
11) Ignore you or stonewall
12) Get mad at you for catching them
“Stop spying on me!”
Such childlike responses bear an uncanny resemblance to the key tactics narcissists use to avoid responsibility and manipulate others:
- Acting out
- Making excuses
- Seeking credit
- Playing the victim
- Running away
Recognizing the childlike nature of narcissists’ responses can empower you when dealing with narcissists. The next time you find yourself confused or on the defensive by a narcissist’s behavior, envision him or her as a two-year old in an adult body. Doing so can give you perspective and allow you to respond rather than react.
If an adult narcissist acts like a child, perhaps you need to treat them as you would a child. As an adult or parent, you can see through children’s attempts to avoid blame and shame. You don’t take it personally but you also set healthy limits, as that is in their best interests as well as yours.
The difference with adult narcissists is they have more power than children. Their tactics can affect you and pose danger. You have to choose your responses wisely. Here are some strategies that can help:
Give them choices
If you take your child to a crowded restaurant when you’re in a hurry, you give the child choices. Instead of asking what they want to eat, you say “Do you want pizza or a PBJ?” Similarly, suggesting options or choices to an acting-out narcissist may let them think they are in control and can move the situation along.
Have realistic expectations
You don’t expect a small child to act in a mature adult fashion. Similarly, you are generally not likely to go wrong by underestimating a narcissist’s level of maturity. You don’t have to tolerate abusive behavior. But expecting emotional maturity from a two-year-old — of any age — will just leave you frustrated.
Don’t take it personally
You don’t take a two-year-old’s pouting personally. They are in the throes of emotions they haven’t yet learned to contain or soothe. Similarly, narcissists generally cannot contain their feelings when they are embarrassed or disappointed. Recognize that they are awash in emotions that to them are so huge they cannot cope in a mature fashion.