Healthy Self-esteem

The following is a very interesting article that was written by Kerry Watts, an independent consultant for the BC Council of Families. I thought it was worth sharing.

                                             Overvaluing a Child’s Accomplishments can Lead to Narcissism

Most parents hope to raise children with healthy self-esteem; few would be likely to say the same about raising a narcissist.

A recent study suggests that the way parents talk to and think about their children can have a significant impact on whether they end up feeling good about themselves and liking who they are (self-esteem), or feeling that they are better than other people and deserving of special privileges (narcissism).

The study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, measured child narcissism and self-esteem in children aged seven to 12 over a two-year period (the study’s author notes that before the age of 8 all children are narcissists). The researchers also measured “parental overvaluation” and “parental warmth” as a way of comparing social-learning theory, which suggests that children acquire their self-image via socialization, with the currently dominant psychoanalytic theory that narcissism is a result of individuals overcompensating for a lack of parental care and attention during childhood.

Over the course of the study, children of parents who consistently overvalued their accomplishments and felt they were “more special than other children” and deserving of “something extra in life” had higher levels of child narcissism, whereas the parents who showed emotional warmth tended to have children with higher self-esteem. According to the research: “When children are seen by their parents as being more special and more entitled than other children, they may internalize the view that they are superior individuals, a view that is at the core of narcissism. But when children are treated by their parents with affection and appreciation, they may internalize the view that they are valuable individuals, a view that is at the core of self-esteem.”

Previous research has linked narcissism to aggression and and violent behaviour, and many researchers argue that narcissism is on the rise, especially among adolescents. At the same time, people with high self-esteem tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression. While the most recent study represents only a small sample of families, and there are many other factors at play that make individuals likely to develop narcissistic tendencies, including temperament, the findings are important in that they show that the type of praise we offer children can have a significant impact in how they view themselves.

Brad Bushman, one of the study’s authors, “It’s a lot better to say ‘You worked really hard’ than ‘You must be really smart,’ ” he says, “because if you tell the kid that they’re smart and then if they fail they think ‘Oh I’m stupid.’ ” He also suggests that parents replace telling children “You are special” with “I love you.” This reaffirms the child’s worth and value and raises self-esteem without encouraging feelings of superiority over others.

BC Council for families

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