Between getting a trophy just for participation, posting selfies on social media, and millennials who think they deserve high-level, lucrative positions right after college, the current generation has gotten a bad rep as self-centered, entitled and narcissistic.
Starting in the toddler years, self-centeredness is completely normal and part of development. Although it’s true that children and young adults are more self-centered that older adults, experts say from baby boomers to Generation Z, it’s not a new phenomenon.
“I have never seen convincing research that kids today are more self-centered,” said Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.”
Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, however, has conducted several studies that indicate narcissism among college students is on the rise.
Yet Markham said the questionnaire that Twenge used, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), isn’t a good measure because it includes questions about self-confidence, not to mention that other researchers couldn’t replicate her claims.
“The research shows the opposite. The research shows kids volunteer more [and] it shows kids are more confident but not more entitled,” Markham said.
Strong self-esteem or inflated ego?
Every parent wants their child to have a strong sense of self and research shows kids today have stronger self-esteem than previous generations. In fact, 80 percent of middle school students scored higher in self-esteem in 2006 than students in 1988, according to a study in the Review of General Psychology.
Another study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that by age 5, kids have developed self-esteem comparable to those of adults.
Although self-esteem is always a good thing, some experts say many parents are raising children who are self-centered and entitled. And that superiority, ironically, is rooted in poor self-esteem.
One of the problems is helicopter parenting.
“We give them so much of our love and attention that they start to realize unconsciously, ‘I can’t function without mom or dad,’” said Dr. Gary Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.
Brown frequently sees this happening among affluent parents or those who want to give their children a better life than they had themselves.
“That creates a certain anxiety in those children but it also fuels a false sense of importance,” he said.
“Somebody who is always coming across as arrogant, or self-centered, or not caring about others, is somebody who was missed, somebody who wasn’t seen, somebody who wasn’t recognized,” said Dr. Brad Reedy, the co-owner and clinical director of Evoke Therapy Programs in Santa Clara, Utah and author of, “The Journey of the Heroic Parent.”
Reedy said kids who grow up feeling this way do so because their parents can’t set limits in their own lives.
These parents might be the ones who overschedule their kids and spend afternoons and weekends shuttling them to countless sports and after-school activities. The problem is that they do it because they feel guilty, have a strong desire to be the perfect parent, or because they want their kids to be successful because they falsely believe it’s a reflection on them, Reedy said.
As a result, children are never required to recognize other people and they see themselves as the center of the universe.
“You’re not really parenting the child, you’re parenting your own wounded child,” he said.
How not to raise a self-centered kid
Parenting is no easy feat, but emphasizing love and support without going overboard is the key to raising a child who won’t turn into a self-centered adult. Here’s how to make it happen.
Regardless of your child’s age, try to see each situation from his perspective and be empathic, but always set boundaries.
“If you constantly put your child’s needs above other people’s and you don’t set limits with your child on their behavior, then you’re giving the child the message that they’re entitled over and above other people’s needs,” Markham said.
Foster a strong work ethic.
Instead of placing too much emphasis on academics or sports which can create performance anxiety, focus on a strong work ethic and that teaching your child that giving it your all is good enough.
Find opportunities to teach your children to practice gratitude so they will appreciate what they have and be empathic towards others. For example, children can donate toys, collect food for the local food bank or volunteer.
Let them feel unhappiness.
“We need to let them be unhappy, it’s really important. But we need to support them through that unhappiness so that they learn unhappiness is tolerable. That’s how kids become resilient and that’s how kids also get normal competence instead of superior competence,” Markham said.
Say ‘I love you.’
Children whose parents “overvalue,” them by telling them they’re more special than others or entitled to special treatment, in part, seem to grow up to be narcissists, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found.
A better approach is what you already do best: plenty of hugs, kisses and “I love you.”
“If our children have a sense of genuine warmth from their parents, I think that does a lot more to correlate with good self esteem,” Brown said.
Do your own work.
Consider seeing a therapist or read parenting books to understand why you might be over-parenting your child and learn how to set limits.
Accept their uniqueness.
Instead of constantly criticizing your children or hovering, love them just the way they are.
“Kids who get that message have a need to prove that they’re better than they are,” according to Markham. “Everyone is unique but no one is special.”
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.