Respectful Parenting: Helping To Immunise Against Narcissism?

Narcissism seems to be the topic of the day.  But what is narcissism?  And (the big question) - can this personality disorder be prevented?  Could a mutually respectful parenting approach reduce the prevalence of narcissism in our society, and instead help our children grow up as empathic, nurturing human beings?

In the thought-provoking book The Life of I – the New Culture of Narcissism, the author, Anne Manne, explores theories and history around narcissism.  Within the many  take-home messages threaded throughout the book, it is parenting practice, and the prevailing society in which that practice takes place, that Manne identifies as the primary influence on whether a child becomes narcissistic.

Here, I try to summarise her conclusions, then look to possible solutions to prevent children becoming narcissistic adults. This book was written not to wave the finger of blame at parents, but to raise awareness of the damaging outcomes of an increasingly narcissistic society.  For me,this was not an uplifting read, but for me was a red flag – almost, a call to action.

Wearing my parent educator hat, however, I could see possibility and hope, and I wondered.  What if we started at the ground floor, before babies became narcissistic adults? Would it be possible to help immunise society against the scourge of self-obsession, simply by teaching parents a respectful, peaceful approach to communicating with children?


Manne describes the prevalence of narcissism (according to one study of university students in the US) as increasing by 30% between 1979 and 2006 - epidemic in proportion.

The characteristics of narcissists include :

  • lacking in empathy;
  • valuing competition;
  • unable to listen to others – always shift conversation to themselves;
  • treating people as objects, rather than worthy of respect;
  • only one point of view in a discussion – theirs;
  • that caring about others is not important;
  • exaggerated love of self combined with a devaluation of others;
  • grandiosity and vulnerability at the same time;
  • mistrust, anger and envy;
  • being unable to regulate their emotions.

Narcissists do not have empathy.  They are unable to see things from another’s point of view. They cannot put themselves in another person’s shoes. 

They may feel shame (the root of much of their anger), but they will not feel guilt – because guilt means taking responsibility for their part in someone else’s distress.

In the first section of the book, Manne takes us through various views on the underlying causes and character of the narcissist.  Are they simply born this way, or did their upbringing and culture influence who they became?  She details some fascinating (and frightening) case studies of well-know narcissists, including Anders Behring Breivik (who massacred 69 young Norwegians, left-wing ‘idealists’), and Lance Armstrong, disgraced cyclist.  The story of their lives and their backgrounds lives with me, in illustrating the roots and possible outcomes of narcissism.

In the end, Manne makes a compelling argument (in my view) that parenting style and society are the main players in the formation of narcissists.  She takes us through an explanation of attachment, and how insecure attachment creates narcissism.  The parenting characteristics that she describes as leading to narcissism included parents:

  • not being empathetic to their child’s needs
  • not being attentive
  • not being ‘present’ emotionally
  • rejecting the child
  • being ‘cold’ towards their child
  • not listening to the child
  • overvaluing the child’s achievements
  • wearing child’s achievements personally, as a reflection of the parent’s achievement
  • aggrandising the child’s achievements
  • over indulgence
  • overblown, and overuse of, praise – which is reserved only for achievement.

A Bleak Outlook

The second part of Manne’s book examined narcissism and society, and this is where I felt overcome by the dark picture she painted, of a society where narcissism is accepted and even rewarded.  The effects included influencing the economics of western countries such as Australia and America, and the different beliefs regarding climate change.

Manne quotes research from sociologist Julie Stephens on parenting and marketing.

“Stephens links the new market ideology to the transformation of an emphasis on ‘being with’ a child – giving responsive, loving care – into a new ethos of doing something to a child in order to winch out more productivity and create a better child product.”

For me, one of the saddest outcomes of a society tending towards narcissism is the devaluing of ‘care’ – of caring for others. 

Prevention Rather Than Cure

I did not find a clear solution in Manne's book on how to avoid narcissism.  However, my reading of her recommendations are that children:

  • require empathic parenting;
  • should not be overly praised for achievement;
  • need warm parenting;
  • need to form a secure attachment with parents or carers from infancy. 

A Peaceful Parenting Approach - Society's Potential Narcissism Vaccine?

I see the skills and principles of Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) as helping parents to bring up secure, emotionally intelligent, resilient and considerate children, who feel connected to, and valued by, their parents.

In my opinion, I think this respectful approach to raising children ticks all Manne's boxes for avoiding narcissism.

PET specifically teaches parents to listen with empathy, to help them understand, then empathise with warmth, to their child’s needs.

By hearing their child's feelings, parents model empathy, which in turn helps the child develop empathy, and emotional intelligence. Evidence now shows the importance of 'soft' skills (taught in PET) in ensuring positive outcomes for children.

An essential aspect of developing secure attachment is that parents become ‘attuned’ to their developing child’s needs.  PET helps parents understand that children don't misbehave, but instead behave to meet a need. The PET approach then assists parents to identify needs of both child and parent - in effect, become aware (attuned) to the concept of children having needs.

Participants in PET learn how to assert their own requirements with compassion – and not at the expense of the child’s self-worth.  I believe that when parents let their children know (in a respectful, non-blameful manner), that other people besides the child have needs and feelings, then children develop consideration and empathy

The PET approach provides alternatives to praise  to avoid 'overblown' praise.

Challengingly, parents in a PET program are asked to consider whether their sense of self-worth comes from within, or are they hoping to rely on their children's 'success', in order for them, as parents, to be seen as 'successful'? This goes to the heart of one of the parent factors identified by Manne as leading to narcissism.

When there is conflict between parent and child, PET encourages parents to avoid, entirely, the use of punishment or reward. Instead, no-lose conflict resolution becomes the alternative to punitive discipline. Children and parents problem solve together, which helps develop a relationship of understanding, warmth and consideration – on the part of both child and parent.

Children brought up by parents practising these skills of mutual respect are, I believe, more likely to mature into empathic and caring adults with a sense of self-worth and connectedness. 

If society were to choose to 'vaccinate' against narcissism, then I could see no better place to start, than with helping parents to value, and relate respectfully, with their children.

Blog post by Larissa Dann  19th August 2014 (updated 9 February 2017)        Image used under license Shutterstock

 © Larissa Dann. 2014, 2017.  All rights reserved

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