Self-obsession is a natural trait in children. Toddlers are in a stage of personal development where they must learn to attend to (and defend) their own needs and identify sources of danger to their own well-being. As preteens and teens go through adolescence, they begin to develop independence, taking the time to define their sense of self.
While empathic traits are also a normal part of being human – regardless of age – it is still normal for kids to generally put themselves first, feel jealous of others, and even seem egotistical. Narcissism becomes a dangerous trait in teens when they are self-centered and wholly incapable of showing interest or compassion for others.
The Roots of a Narcissistic Teenager
Narcissistic personality disorder, or narcissism as a psychiatric diagnosis, is not typically diagnosed in children under 18. This crucially includes most teens, as some signs of natural behavior may be misinterpreted as narcissistic behavior. There are still a few key differences between being self-centered and true diagnosed narcissism, or NPD.
A psychiatrist or doctor may refuse to diagnose your child unless they exhibit clear signs of disordered behavior, such as severe problems with interpersonal relationships, clear lack of empathy, signs of grandiosity across situations and settings, and explosive (dangerous) jealousy. In general, teens start to develop out of their self-centered mindset around ages 15 and 16.
Personal development is highly individual, so it is difficult to put an exact number on it. As your teen approaches the final stages of teenage life, they will likely change in behavior to show that they are beginning to grasp that the world does not revolve around them, that they have certain responsibilities to others. There is more to life than impressing others. But that does not mean these things happen overnight.
Parenting styles, experiences, and even advertising play a role in how your teen thinks of themselves, and the world. Your teen might not be a diagnosed narcissist, but their self-centered thinking may still be an undesirable or grating character trait that could be addressed through less drastic measures than full-on therapy. Consider speaking with a professional about how your parenting philosophy might influence a child to develop narcissistic tendencies, such as:
- Exclusively tying consequences and punishments to possessions (causing your child to place too much value in material wealth).
- Your teen’s media consumption or attitude towards advertising (advertisers and social network companies collaborate to instill superficial positivity into their customers, incentivize online engagement, and sell more).
- Your family’s attitude towards the importance of charity, volunteering, and empathic community endeavors.
Narcissism vs. Narcissist Personality Disorder
After the Greek myth of the young man who accidentally drowned himself, narcissism is defined by self-obsession, enamored with his reflection in the water. Yet, a crucial and defining part of that myth (and definition) is the inability of the narcissist to love or care for anyone else.
Teens who put themselves first may be entitled or self-centered, but not necessarily narcissistic. A narcissistic teenager struggles to function as a partner, is impacted by their negative behavior at work or school, and is disruptive. About 6 percent of people above the age of 18 are diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder.
Signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
Signs of narcissistic personality disorder include:
- Inflated sense of superiority.
- Exaggerating achievements and accomplishments.
- Remorselessly manipulative behavior.
- Lack of ability to empathize with others/cannot understand the needs of others.
- Arrogant and haughty behavior.
- Chases after status symbols.
- Typically leans towards valuing cerebral superiority (believing themselves as omnipotent, incomparably brilliant) or somatic superiority (focused on looks and status, allure, sex appeal, and body).
- Depression and anxiety issues.
Some risk factors associated with developing narcissistic personality disorder later in adulthood can include:
- Learning how to manipulate others.
- Sudden loss during childhood.
- Severe emotional abuse.
- An excessively critical or over-indulging environment.
- Lack of consistent parenting/caregiving (had to fend for themselves part of the time or most of the time).
Building Empathy With Your Teen
Self-absorbed teens may be helped through a targeted parenting approach. By working to address each of the behavioral flaws your teen is exhibiting, you might be able to help them achieve a different outlook and tap into their inner sense of empathy and compassion.
Do not expect a child to mature into an adult over the course of a few weeks but know that being needlessly and constantly self-absorbed is not necessarily healthy or normal behavior either. You could try building empathy with your teen by bringing the topic up whenever it becomes relevant.
When your teen is angry that something did not work out in their favor, such as a friend canceling dinner plans due to a sudden family emergency, ask them to consider what their friend might be going through at that moment and the fear and sorrow they might be feeling. Encourage your teen to consider acting on their emotions by consoling their friend.
When something tragic happens in the news, ask your teen what they think it would be like to be in such a horrible situation. Or when they act in their self-interest while going against their word with a friend or betraying someone’s trust, compel them to take a moment to reflect on their actions and consider whether they feel guilty.
These exercises aren’t about teaching a teen to share or apologize in an earnest tone – they’re about getting them to take other people into account, take a look at the bigger picture, and grow.
Helping Your Narcissistic Teenager
A narcissistic teenager is a little more difficult to treat. A psychologist will interview and review your teen’s symptoms and behavior, run tests to rule out other potential causes, and prescribe a treatment plan. In general, true narcissists will not accept treatment and would not volunteer to be labeled as needing help. You cannot convince them that something is wrong.
However, they may be convinced to consider talk therapy and change their behavior to better fit in with others and reduce the challenges of interpersonal relationships. This can help a professional slowly get to the root of the patient’s behavioral issues and thought patterns, often ironically centered around insecurity and low self-esteem, and deep-seated self-resentment.
Teens diagnosed with NPD need friends and family to help support them by highlighting their therapy goals and reminding them that it is a long-term step-by-step journey. It takes time to learn to develop one’s empathy in cases of NPD and separate oneself from the problematic thought patterns that feed narcissism.