Narcissistic individuals think they're better than everyone else, live for personal success and expect exceptional treatment, explained the study's authors in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. When narcissists experience failure, they're not pleasant to be around, and can lash out violently.
Evaluating 565 Dutch children, ages 7 to 12, for narcissistic tendencies, the investigators questioned the children's parents on how, when and how often they praised their child.
The children whose parents consistently told them they were superior to other children, no matter what, scored higher on measurements for narcissism compared to the kids who were given a more realistic view of themselves, the investigators found.
That's because over-praising children can lead them to believe they are special people who deserve special treatment all the time, explained Brad Bushman, one of the study's authors, and a a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.
"Parents should be warm and loving, but not give their child blanket praise," said Bushman. "We should not boost self-esteem and hope our children will behave well. Instead, we should praise our children after they do well."
Dr. Gene Beresin, the executive director of Massachusetts General Hospital's Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, said he doubts some of the study's conclusions.
"In the first place, parents are just one influence on a child," said Beresin. "Teachers, peers, siblings and many others influence how a child feels about themselves and how they behave towards others."
Beresin also argued that American children are not necessarily the same as Dutch children, and the age of the children used in the study were inadequate test subjects.
"I don't see how you can label kids this young as narcissistic when it's generally recognized that such personality traits aren't fully formed until late adolescence, like around age 18," said Beresin.
Parents who build a bond of trust with their children by giving them honest feedback mixed with encouragement and support help build a child's self-esteem and security, argues Beresin. Positive feedback, as long as it's accurate and appropriate, can only help boost a child's self-worth.
The study's investigators said their work builds on a larger body of research that shows parental "overvaluation" can lead children to develop narcissism later in life because children tend to see themselves just as the important people in their lives see them.
The researchers didn't rule out the effects of other influences, like genetics, but said previous work shows that cultivating an unreasonably confident view of self is at the core of narcissism.