I witnessed an interesting interaction between two young girls recently. One was struggling with a toy but working hard to figure out how to solve the problem. The other barked out orders every few seconds. When she couldn’t stand the struggle for another minute, she ripped the toy from the hands of the other girl and said, “I’m the expert. I’ll do this.” She then proceeded to endure the same struggle for about two minutes before throwing it aside and stating, “This obviously doesn’t work right or I would have figured it out.”
She was high on narcissism but low on frustration tolerance—a recipe for a meltdown, at best.
I get a lot of questions about the perceived changes in childhood behavior. Are children more disrespectful than they once were? Are they more narcissistic? Why do they get quiet when the going gets tough?
The truth is that there are several factors at play. While the media is always quick to blame the parents, it’s important to look at each child as an individual. Sure, permissive parenting tends to backfire and result in a role reversal within the family and hovering in an effort to remove all potential obstacles leads to learned helplessness, but children do need love, affection and feedback to thrive.
It’s a bit confusing.
A look at the research shows that too much praise and overvaluing young children increases narcissism. This comes with a host of problems that reach from childhood to adulthood. Narcissistic kids believe that they are better than others, are entitled to special privileges and have a strong need for constant praise and adoration. They are the first to blow a fuse when something doesn’t go their way and lash out verbally and/or aggressively. In short, they can’t handle defeat.
The study did draw some important conclusions: High parental warmth was correlated with healthy self-esteem in children but parental overvaluation was linked with narcissism.
Not only are we living in a time of hyper-competition among children, we aren't teaching kids the importance of limits and boundaries.
While studies like this cause parents to rethink how much praise they actually use, the flip side is that kids who experience a lack of parental warmth deal with other problems. A UCLA study demonstrated that when babies experience a lack of parental warmth and affection, their regulatory systems are negatively impacted, resulting in a decreased ability to cope with stress and increased risk of disease as they grow.
Offer too much praise and you might raise a narcissist, but fail to provide enough love and affection and your kid can’t cope with stress. Where is the middle ground?
1. Talk about kindness
“Be kind” is a phrase used often, but what does it actually mean to be kind? Young children do tend to get caught up in their own needs. They are also likely to perceive their actions as kind and well-intended, even if another child has a different opinion.
Talk about kindness with your kids. Use examples from the world around them so that they can see kindness in action. Point out their own acts of kindness—not to praise them into narcissism but to help them understand how their positive actions impact others.
2. Read together
Research shows that reading fiction improves empathy, because it encourages the reader to walk in another’s shoes. Read together so that you can talk to your child about empathy, kindness and other social-emotional issues that come up within the text.
One thing I find often is that parents stop reading to their kids the moment their kids can read independently. That’s a shame. Time spent reading together is time spent cultivating empathy and compassion. It’s also a wonderful time to connect and debrief at the end of the day.
3. Set limits and boundaries
When I talk to parents about the importance of slowing down and breaking the habit of overscheduling, I always hear some version of, “But my kid wants to play travel soccer and town soccer—it’s not my choice.”
Not only are we living in a time of hyper-competition among children, we aren’t teaching kids the importance of limits and boundaries. Making choices is part of life. So is dealing with, “No.”
Set limits. Establish boundaries. Stick to them.
It isn’t our job to critique every error; it’s our job to love them, anyway.
4. Teach frustration tolerance
Kids need to learn how to manage frustration. They won’t win every game, and they won’t get the best grade on every test. They have to learn how to cope with failure and to deal with feelings of frustration.
I often teach kids to think of negative emotions as a volcano—the more they avoid them, the bigger they get. How can they release those feelings? Pound Play-Doh while they talk. Color red to show how angry they feel. Tear paper to release stress. The options are endless, but they need lessons in coping to get started.
5. Provide plenty of love and affection
If parental warmth is the key to healthy self-esteem, it’s important to tap into unconditional love. Childhood isn’t easy. Kids make mistakes. They make bad choices. They learn from their failures.
It isn’t our job to critique every error; it’s our job to love them, anyway. Pile on the empathy, compassion and love to raise a kid who cares about others.