How NOT To Raise a Narcissist: A Step-By-Step Guide

As a researcher who specializes in narcissism and psychopathy, I frequently get questions from a diverse group of people who ask me how not to raise a narcissist. This includes adult children of narcissists who have suffered trauma at the hands of their parents and do not want to pass on generational trauma or repeat the cycle with their own children. It also includes parents who are co-parenting with narcissists who want to ensure their children don’t mirror the patterns of the narcissistic parent. While more clinical research needs to be conducted on the origins of narcissism, we can use what we do know from research as well as millions of lived experiences to better guide our parenting practices in healthy ways. It should be noted that narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder can occur due to an interaction between environment and biological predisposition. The steps in this article should not be seen as a judgment on parents whose children grow up to be narcissistic – rather, it is meant to be a helpful resource for parents who want to put their children in the best possible position to lead healthy lives.

Differentiate between healthy praise and excessive overvaluation. Offer emotional validation while still leaving room for critical thinking and respect for others.

Longitudinal research indicates that it is parental overvaluation and spoiling a child, rather than a lack of parental warmth or childhood maltreatment, that can predict the development of narcissistic traits. There have been mixed studies on the role parental maltreatment can play in predicting narcissism, which is contrary to what many psychologists have believed to be the primary cause for a long time. Traits of narcissism can also be moderately heritable. There is still no final clinical verdict on the cause but it’s clear that parenting can play a role.   That doesn’t mean you can’t encourage your children or be their biggest cheerleader. Whenever possible, healthy praise and emotional validation are encouraged. However, it’s important not to put your child on a pedestal and make them feel entitled to privileges or make them feel superior to others. There’s a difference between telling your child, “Great job! You worked hard and I am so proud of you,” and telling them, “You are the most amazing and brilliant person in the world,” and instilling in them the belief that they deserve special favors or don’t need to “wait their turn in line” figuratively speaking across different scenarios at school or work.

Allow for natural consequences to ensue when warranted without being overly coddling, punishing, or controlling. Avoid perfectionistic standards to “earn” your love.

Children of parents who coddle them excessively and shield them from consequences do not get to learn that they will be held accountable for engaging in behavior that harms others. Children of controlling parents often act out rather than comply. Children who are punished or neglected for not complying with the demands of their parents or feel the weight of their exceptional, perfectionistic standards can develop a host of issues with self-esteem along with narcissism. It’s important that children learn a sense of responsibility and accountability for their behaviors and actions and also learn to open up to you about their true emotions without fearing you or your disapproval. This is about establishing a delicate balance where you’re still an authority figure, but one that is loving, emotionally validating, and compassionate. For example, if your child gets a “B” in a class rather than all As, it’s important not to shame them and still offer your unconditional positive regard (avoiding perfectionistic standards). If your child is acting out or bullying someone, you must step in and let them know this is unacceptable behavior rather than excusing or justifying it early on.

Model empathy, healthy boundaries, and address bullying to teach a sense of accountability.

Piggybacking off this, it’s very important to model empathy. Check in with your child about their own feelings and the emotions of others and reward prosocial behaviors such as helping others with healthy praise. Ask them regularly what they’re feeling to assist them in building an emotional vocabulary. This will guide them in mindfully identifying their own emotions and the emotions of others around them. Be sure to ask follow-up questions (i.e. “How did you feel on the playground on your first day?” “What is that man on that tv show feeling? Do you think he’s sad? Why?” “Why do you think Sarah felt so bad when Timmy pulled her pigtails and called her a bad name?”). Use examples from age-appropriate books, children’s television shows, and real-life situations to illustrate scenarios of respect, disrespect, bullying so they can better understand and empower themselves with the right tools. Discuss the various ways privilege can present itself, help them acknowledge what privileges they may have and remind your child how to respect the diverse backgrounds of others. This will empower them if they are the ones being bullied and compel them to change their behaviors in contexts where they may be the ones bullying others. If you find that your child seems to be lacking in empathy, guilt, or compassion for others or engages in behaviors like chronic lying, harming animals, bullying others, stealing, or starting fires, it is important to see a therapist as soon as possible for further evaluation. Intervene as early as you can not just for the well-being of your child, but for the well-being of other children who may be harmed by them.

Invest only in healthy relationships and friendships.

Who you surround your child with matters. Children are sponges and will notice how you interact with others and how they interact with you. They will internalize your demonstration of belief systems, behaviors, and boundaries. Parents who are co-parenting with a narcissistic ex-spouse will need additional tools to limit communication with their ex-spouses in front of their children. Children who witness one parent abusing another can become victims themselves in the future or perpetrators. The trauma of witnessing one parent harm another – whether emotionally, verbally, physically, or financially – cannot be underestimated. You may have heard accounts of parents who “stay together for the children.” Please avoid this trap – both for you and the children. Often, it is better to leave because of the children rather than stay. Even if you can’t leave right away, gather as many resources as you can and prepare your exit. Speak to a divorce lawyer early on. Ensure you’re working toward providing a safe home environment for your children both in terms of financial security and emotional safety. Practice harm reduction – limit your child’s exposure to abuse in the home as much as you can. Get counseling to learn healthy tools so you can model self-love and boundaries. A safe environment is necessary for children to grow and develop in healthy ways. While divorce can be stressful, a long-term marriage with disrespect and chronic levels of stress can rewire the brain of a developing child in harmful ways, making them more susceptible to re-traumatization in adulthood or even perpetration. Children do not deserve to grow up in emotionally unsafe homes where they walk on eggshells, are woken up by arguments, subjected to rage-fueled verbal assaults, or asked to step in to protect their parents – nor do they deserve to witness a parent they love be demeaned on a daily basis. You have a much better chance for your child to grow up a healthy adult and not a narcissist or the victim of a future narcissist when they are not raised in the presence of toxic people.

About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.