Is your child acting entitled and selfish? Are you worried they are showing signs of narcissism? Some warning signs can include constantly wanting to be the center of attention, never compromising, and continually insisting that things can only be their way.
However, as a parent, how can you tell the difference between a budding narcissist and a child throwing a tantrum? After all, healthy children push boundaries and act out as part of typical development. Join us as our guest, renowned early childhood narcissism expert Dr. Mary Ann Little, explains the difference between usual childhood behavior and potential warning signs.
Mary Ann Little, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has been in private practice for over four decades. She is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and has served as an adjunct professor in the departments of psychology and special education at the University of Texas at Dallas. Dr. Little authored Loving Your Children Better: Matching Parenting Styles to the Age and Stage of Your Children; Cooperation Station, an educational toy for kids and families; and the Competent Kids Series. Her latest book, Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic Children, is out now.
Dr. Little has been a consultant to numerous educational and psychiatric facilities and frequently lectures to both lay and professional audiences. When not in her Dallas office, she can be found with her husband cooking, cycling back roads in Europe, or hiking trails near Santa Fe. Visit her online at drmaryannlittle.com.
Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling in today we have Mary Ann Little, PhD. Dr. Little’s new book, “Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic Children,” is available now. I’m excited to welcome to the podcast, Dr. Little.
Mary Ann Little, PhD: I’m glad to be here, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: I am super glad that you are here too. Now, I do not have children, but I am very lucky to be an uncle and my youngest niece has many of us in our family concerned that she lacks empathy and she often acts very entitled. Now obviously I love my niece. We all love her. She’s nine years old and honestly, she is the only proof I have that my genes still exist in my family. She’s loud, she’s exuberant, and she’s always vying to be the center of attention, just like her Uncle Gabe. Well, both now and when I was nine. And I want to remind the audience that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those qualities. But our concern comes in is that she doesn’t seem to understand that she is responsible for her own emotions, and that she is responsible for how her actions impact others. She feels very strongly that nothing is ever her fault, and that everyone should be doing what she wants to do 100% of the time. And we struggle because isn’t some of that normal? I mean, she is nine years old after all. And how can we, as parents and concerned adults tell the difference between a warning sign and what is just being a normal child who tests boundaries, for example. So I guess what I am asking and I’m asking on behalf of myself, my family and all the parents out there who are wondering what is the sign that your child is becoming a narcissist?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: It has to do with selfishness, entitlement and lack of regard for others. It’s not a single thing. It’s several things, and it has to do with it is showing that there is a deficiency in the self-concept, and is showing you that there is an erroneous aspect of their model of love and relationships. And ultimately, in the end, narcissism is a disorder of the self that contributes to problems in relationships. So any single sign doesn’t get you there. And I want to caution parents to say, well, my child is entitled. He wants me to make pancakes every morning. Yes that’s true. You may want to address that and let him learn that some mornings he’s got to have something else, but that standing alone doesn’t tell us that your child is a narcissist or is developing in ways that are necessarily dangerous. We need to understand that it’s that constellation of characteristics that are persisting over time.
Gabe Howard: So just to really nail this down, what is the difference between a child having a temper tantrum and a potential warning sign for narcissism?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: It depends on when it occurs and also how frequently it occurs. So the same behavior, for example tantruming over I wanted my sandwich cut in squares, not triangles, is appropriate for a preschooler, but the same degree of demandingness from a nine year old would begin to make you be concerned that something about development had been disrupted. So the actual issue here is that there are certain tendencies and traits that should be developing over the course of childhood. And I’m going to tell you a few of those because it’s important for parents to know. We’re looking for empathy to develop and become more sensitive and appropriate. We’re looking for cooperation to increase in frequency and complexity, and we’re looking for the regard for the feelings of others to build with age. At the same time, self-esteem should become more realistic. And by this I mean when children are preschoolers, they think they are the rulers of the universe. Sort of an idea of I’m good at everything. But eventually it becomes more differentiated into I can do things when I work on them for a long time, or I’m good at solving things with time. So this differentiation is what we’re looking for. And now to go back a little bit to your niece, I would just tell you there are some other things that we should see declining. And your niece, one of them is, is that emotional volatility should settle and calm with age and angry or aggressive responses to being criticized, wronged and disappointed should be declining as well.
Gabe Howard: Well, for my niece, these things are not settling down. And in fact, they actually they actually seem to be increasing. And whenever something happens that that my niece gets in trouble for, she says it was an accident or that somebody else did something to cause it, or that it’s somebody else’s fault that she is mad or that she’s hangry. Hangry is her new favorite word. And before we go any further, I do want to let everyone know I have my sister’s permission to talk about this and ask about my niece’s behavior on this podcast, but my very specific for you, Dr. Little, is are you saying that a nine-year-old not accepting responsibility for her own behavior is a warning sign?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: I would say that a nine-year-old taking no responsibility is a warning sign. And what we’re, what it means is that we want to begin to help children think about not always blaming someone or something outside of themselves and starting to ask children questions like, now I know that this didn’t go well, but do you think you played a part in this? Is there something that you could have done differently that would have contributed to a different outcome? And the most important thing I can tell you is getting angry at a child for being angry is not indicated. That will make the behavior worse.
Gabe Howard: All of us have had these conversations with my niece, and my sister has confided in me, and pretty much in the moment. That’s the beauty of, you know, text messaging and our connected world. I’m not hearing this second hand 30 days after the fact. I’m hearing this after my niece has been sent to her room and my sister has said she explains it. And I know nobody knows my family, but they know me and I’m the loud one, and my sister’s the calm one. I’m the rambunctious,
Mary Ann Little, PhD: [Laughter] Okay.
Gabe Howard: Charismatic one, and my sister is ex-military and my sister is also a professor. She teaches young adults for a living, so she’s in a really
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Mm.
Gabe Howard: Good place to help guide my niece and help her understand these, these things that are that are happening for her. And the thing that my sister always comes back with is that my sister never hears the answer that she wants, no matter what information she gives to my niece. She never sees it from the perspective of anyone but herself. And that is what’s concerning my sister and our family.
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Right. One of the techniques that I actually utilize in my practice has to do with perspective shifting. And I actually go back to some original research that was done by Jean Piaget. That has to do with looking at a mountain from four different places on a four-sided square table, and asking children how the mountain would look from if you sat in position A versus position C, and children actually don’t have that cognitive ability until they’re 8 or 9 years old. But it’s an emotional task as well. If you can take that same example and ask a child, how do you think it would feel if someone had laughed at you when you stood up to identify countries on a map and you had done it incorrectly? qSo, if we start farther away from your niece’s position, where it’s not about her doing something wrong, but maybe beginning to understand what it looks like and feels like for someone else, it might give us a little a starting place to help her begin to think about this.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that always comes up is the idea of consequences. It’s really easy to tell other parents how to parent. My. My favorite phrase in the whole wide world is you should come to me for all of your parenting advice, because as a childless man, I know everything.
Mary Ann Little, PhD: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: And I really believe that there’s. Right? Right? Non-parents know everything.
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Right.
Gabe Howard: I and I really want to make sure that I’m not doing that. But at the same time, I’ve observed some behavior. I’ve observed my niece throw a fit, and one fit was in public and it was very loud. And she kicked her father right in public, right in full view of many members of the family. And the end result of that is that she still got what she wanted, and there was no long-term consequences. Now, from my vantage point, it’s really easy for me to say to my sister, hey, look, this this is your fault. Right? She should have been removed from the situation. She should have been grounded. She should have been punished. How did you let her get away with this? My sister is obviously going to have a very different take on this, which is it was very hot. We’d been up all day. We’re on a family vacation, which is stressful for all of us. And she didn’t want to punish her child during a family vacation, because who wants to ground their kid for the five days that you’re not at home? There’s just very few opportunities to do these things with your kid. And I think that that’s also a very compelling argument. So where’s the balance between those two things?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Well, you raise an essential point, which is where is the middle ground? And you want to be careful. When children behave poorly, you want to be certain that they don’t get the desired outcome. Perhaps you can’t have time or the circumstances set up in such a way that you can ground them, but you can ask them to go sit on a park bench for five minutes and think about their behavior. You can make certain that they didn’t get the ice cream treat, and you can tell them, but you have another opportunity to get one after dinner this evening so that what you’re signaling a child is we notice that this behavior took place and we’re not supportive of that. But we also understand that growing up is hard, and we want to give you a chance to try to earn that another way at a later time.
Gabe Howard: I want to flip the script a little bit and talk about narcissism and adults. Just for the point of this question, but I’ve always heard that narcissism in adults is caused by unloving parents, cold parents, demanding parents, angry parents, absentee parents. Just the theme I want everybody to hear is negative, mean, cruel parents. My sister and brother-in-law are anything but. They are the most loving, engaged, and caring parents I have ever seen in my life. I cannot brag on them enough and yet their daughter behaves as well, frankly, if I can speak freely, as a brat and I’m I can’t figure it out. I can’t put my thumb on it. Is what we understand about adult narcissism just wrong? Is that just a stereotype that all adult narcissists come from bad families?
Gabe Howard: Stay tuned after the break, when Dr. Marianne Little answers this question and delves into why overpraising your children can lead to narcissism.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing childhood narcissism with Dr. Mary Ann Little.
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Well, part of what I did in this book is I researched the literature, and basically what I would tell you is I came up with not a single parenting style that accounted or contributed to narcissism in the child, but four different styles. And you are describing what I refer to as the critical, harsh parenting position. But there are three others that are equally problematic. One is the hovering directive parent. Another is the indulgent, permissive parent. And the last is the inattentive, disengaged parent. And part of the problem with narcissism has been we haven’t been able to quite figure out what actually causes this. And the way I put together the research and the findings to date would be to tell you that in all of these, what’s happened is there’s too much or too little of certain things. And I want to tell you that I think about it instead of being that you’re warm or you’re cold, wit’s more that you could be overly involved with your child in the same way that you could be under involved with your child. With limits, you could have too many limits and you could have too few. And health, from my perspective, is what I refer to as the healthy center. And that’s where there’s an accepting view of the child. Not this is the most special child in the world. This is a worthy and valued child, not an exceptional child. I love this child, but not that I’m enmeshed with this child. This is where there’s appropriate limits, appropriate discipline, and there are realistic expectations. So it’s hitting that center ground. And if I’m making myself clear, I’m trying to tell you that you can be too directive and not directive enough. You can overvalue in the same way that you can undervalue. And we actually have research that shows that overvaluing children contributes directly in research designs to narcissism in children.
Gabe Howard: So if I’m hearing you correctly, thinking too highly of your child is a bad thing.
Mary Ann Little, PhD: It could be, yes. Treating a child as special can build narcissism in children.
Gabe Howard: But what if your child is special? Aren’t all children special?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: [Laughter] Right. Let me see if I can explain this to you, though, because what I’m saying is they’re special. They’re loved for who they are as they are in your mind’s eye. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re special in the world, and special in the world means that they’re actually the best child ever. That they’re better than other children. That they’re more talented than other children. And those things contribute. It’s the excessive amount that’s problematic. Of course, parents love their children, and it’s essential to raise a healthy child, but it’s almost like too much of a good thing. In the same way that we know too little is problematic.
Gabe Howard: It’s interesting that you bring that up because in my little nonscientific research for this episode, I talk to a lot of people and I asked, hey, do you think that a child can be narcissistic? And everybody agreed that other people’s children can be, but nobody agreed that their child could be.
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Mm.
Gabe Howard: And obviously I asked people who I knew and I was like, I don’t know, you know, many of you, you got some entitled, bratty kids. Now, now all of my friend group has just diminished just immediately with that statement. Everybody’s like, he’s talking about me. I know he is. I, I’m not, and I love all of my friends children. But the specific thing that I wanted to point out is just how quickly we see entitled brats, narcissists, etc., behavior in other people’s kids, and the fact that we never see it in our own loved ones. Is this what you’re talking about when you say overvaluing our children? This idea that our children can’t be that, but we’re sending
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Yes.
Gabe Howard: This subtle message that all the other children are?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Yes. And I think that has to do with seeing your child as too important. Too special. Better than other children and parents can communicate to their children. And unfortunately, it translates to children with a kind of superior attitude, which, if you’ll follow my logic, leads eventually to if I’m superior, then it only makes sense that I should get special treatment. That would be entitlement. And it only makes sense that in a relationship, people should cater to me, because my needs are more important than the other person’s needs, and therefore I would seek out what I refer to as narcissistic relationships. A superior partner, and then there’s an inferior partner who’s the caretaker. This deficiency in children that is growing, this specialness, translates into problem relationships.
Gabe Howard: Now, I have to believe that anyone listening to this podcast suspects that maybe their child is entitled? Maybe their child is a budding narcissist? Maybe something is going wrong? But I got to imagine that there’s a lot of people who are on the fence. How can you recognize if your child is heading in the wrong direction? And more specifically, how can they help pull it back in a gentle way?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Well, the things that I have mentioned that have to do with empathy, cooperation, regard for the feelings of others should be being monitored and improving over time, and parents are actively engaged in the process of teaching those things. Similarly, the self-centeredness, the self-obsession, if you will, should be declining with age. And it is through conversations with children that parents are trying to let them know that their behavior may look to others differently than it appears to them.
Gabe Howard: What if your child doesn’t understand that? How do you help them see it?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: That’s in fact a very hard question. But I think we’re back to where I talked about trying to let them appreciate a different perspective. They may not see it, but the more experience they have with it, the more it will be front of mind. Teaching empathy can be done. How do you think Bobby feels at this moment? His dog just is lost and no one can find it. And it’s been ten days. That can be done. It is less threatening when a child is learning about the world in somewhere other than himself, as opposed to, you shouldn’t be speaking to your brother that way. How do you think he feels? And the child wants to say, yeah, but he just poked me with a pencil, you know, and that’s why I was mean to him. And that doesn’t count.
Gabe Howard: My niece is exceptionally strong willed, and I am sincerely hopeful that we can help her channel that into something incredible. Look, political leaders, business leaders, community organizers, people who have led real change in our history had to be resolute and strong willed. You know, President Abraham Lincoln, Doctor Martin Luther King, our current vice president, Kamala Harris, these are people who are strong willed. And I’m proud. I am proud of my niece for being strong willed. Andw this is one of the things that makes it very difficult for me because I’m like, look, I want you to be really, really strong willed, but like, not so much with me.
Mary Ann Little, PhD: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: Not with, like, your mom and dad. Like, can you listen when we talk? But put-up boundaries with everybody else?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: And you’re now talking about the classic parental dilemma. I don’t like this behavior, but outwaiting this behavior while we’re on family vacation is really going to be a problem. Or for me. Or I don’t like this behavior, but it’s really going to be a problem if you do this during the state fair. It’s a problem for the rest of the group. And so that’s the balance. But you are leading me to believe that there’s a possibility that your niece is really not very accustomed to limits, and perhaps is now just telling us that I’ve gotten through lots of them, and I’m thinking I might be able to get through this one as well.
Gabe Howard: Is change still possible? I mean, are we too far gone with my niece? Is she just nine years old and this is who she is now? We’ve got a future narcissist on our hands?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: I absolutely think it is not too late. There is always time, but I would just remind you that there is another stage of development that is coming and it is transformational and that is adolescence. So the skills you can develop before you go into adolescence, if you will, it’s kind of a recreation of a new self, and we want them to have access to some of the information along the way, and that is to learn that they’re good, but not the best. That is to know that there are certain virtues that need to be respected, that there are limits, that it’s okay for people to put on them, and also for them to learn how to put those limits on themselves. The goal in child development is to sort of have parents have a role, and then ultimately the child doesn’t need it anymore because the child has learned to parent themselves and the best way to do that is by letting them see the impact of their behavior on others, both positive and negative. And I want to emphasize that if there’s not enough emphasis on the positives, then the child is not likely to hear you when you try to point out the negatives.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Little, your new book, “Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic Children,” is out now and is a wonderful read and I hope everybody checks it out. Where can folks find you online?
Mary Ann Little, PhD: They can find me at my website, which is DrMaryAnnLittle.com, and they can also purchase my book at Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, or at Indie Books.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for being here.
Mary Ann Little, PhD: Thank you, I enjoyed it.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome, Dr. Little. And I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners.My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award winning public speaker, and I could be available for your next event. I also wrote the book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get it on Amazon, but listen, you can grab a signed copy with free podcast swag just be heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and you want to make sure you don’t miss a thing. And listen, while we’re doing favors, can you do me another one? Recommend the show because sharing the show is how we grow. Whether you do it on social media, a text message, a huddle, wherever you do it, just make sure you do it. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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