Researchers look at how “the just right” approach avoids narcissism in young adults

How helicopter parenting can potentially lead to narcissistic traits in young adults is being studied by researchers at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) and Project Air Strategy for Personality Disorders.

Professor Brin Grenyer says findings from this recent study Narcissistic traits in young people: understanding the role of parenting and maltreatment published in the journal Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotional Dysregulation suggest experiences of being overvalued, overprotected and leniency in parenting discipline were associated with higher traits of pathological narcissism in young people. In narcissism, people feel quite positive about themselves (and can appear grandiose) but this positive image easily breaks down when reality hits (leading to feeling vulnerable).

“The findings suggested that children raised in pampered environments were more likely to have grandiose and vulnerable narcissistic traits as young adults. These traits are realised by a young person expressing unrealistic views, entitlement beliefs and impaired autonomy.”

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is where a person has both difficulties in relating to themselves and others. In young people, traits of narcissism can be manageable but when they become prominent, it can contribute to poor quality relationships and associated depression, anxiety, low self-worth and even suicide attempts in those most affected.

The study was conducted on young people aged between 17 and 25 years. It looked at the parental environment that young adults grew up in and how this related to traits of narcissism.

Three key findings

  • Parent’s overvaluation of their child, such as being overly rewarding or very complimentary regardless of achievement or effort, contributes to unrealistic positive self-views in the young person.
  • Parent’s overprotection or over parenting can prevent the child from learning from their own mistakes and solve their own problems, limiting their ability to become independent. People can become more dependent on others for feedback and guidance. It may also limit the ability to correct unrealistic positive self-views to more realistic self-views.
  • Lenient parenting or lack of limit setting may foster in the young person a sense of entitlement characteristic of narcissism.

Dr Charlotte van Schie says differences in how a mother or father parented were related to narcissism.

“Father Parenting often related to narcissism under certain conditions, such as when fathers were both less caring but overvalued the child. However, overprotection by both parents related to grandiose and vulnerable narcissism.”

She says neglect also has serious consequences for development, but the study found that over parenting seemed to be the clearest indicator of narcissistic traits as it related to both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Neglect or lack of care is a risk for developing narcissistic traits but it is also a risk factor for developing other disorders.

How do you get the balance right?

“We want our children to be safe but we also want them to learn and grow. The challenge is letting go of your children when it is safe to do so and to let them do things independently. Being present or involved all the time can actually impede their development,” said Dr van Schie.

Professor Brin Grenyer says ‘Good enough’ parenting is a bit like the Goldilocks approach to porridge – not too hot, not too cold, but just right. The findings suggest finding the right balance when raising children will help them develop healthy yet realistic self-esteem and avoid mental health difficulties as young adults.

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