By Kim Cooper | May 21, 2012
Narcissism and Teens
Before I tell stories on my mother I should let you know that I love her dearly. While born in 1940 and slightly older than a baby Boomer she has always identified with the Boomer generation. I remember watching TV with her in the late 80s and seeing one of the first TV ads ever aimed squarely at my generation. I found the ad, featuring Jennifer Saunders, slightly amusing (and got the joke) but my mother didn’t and was incensed. She said, “That doesn’t make me want to buy that! What on earth was that about?” Being part of one of the smallest demographics on the planet (I am now 46) I couldn’t help laughing at her reaction. I said “Really? You are upset there was one ad on TV that wasn’t aimed at you?” I know that wasn’t polite but I found her comment so funny that my laughter was that uncontrolled and very enjoyable kind you usually only experience when seeing a good comedian live on stage. I was even more surprised when I saw that she really had no idea what I was laughing about.
That was the first glimpse that I had of a huge generational chasm that existed between my mother and myself that was not just about age.
If you follow my blog at the Narcissism Daily Mirror you may remember the movie Steve and I made earlier this year, titled Narcissism and Social Media, where I had a laugh about all of the complaints we see in the media aimed at how (apparently) self centered Gen Y kids are these days. It would seem to me that in contrast, the post WWII baby boom must have been the biggest social experiment in generational narcissism ever. But hey, my laughter is all in good sport and I am not generation bashing, just making sure the responsibility for societies narcissism gets shared around as equally as it should! That movie prompted a question from one of our readers about what is healthy (and what is not) when it comes to narcissistic behavior in teenagers.
The subject of narcissism and teenagers is a popular one and since I live with three teenagers, while also playing part time mother to a host of their friends, it is a subject I consider often. The fact is I have too many stories I could tell and so to protect my kids privacy, I will try and avoid telling too many stories and break this down as best I can into some hopefully very practical points.
It’s Okay to Look in the Mirror
It is normal and healthy for teenagers to spend a lot of time looking in the mirror and trying out new looks. Developing a healthy public persona is critical to developing good social skills and self esteem and is a fantastic natural tonic against depression. Everyone needs to spruce up their look and reinvent themselves from time to time and home, for a teenager, should be a safe place to try out new styles and ‘looks’ without fear of humiliation or criticism. You may remember that it took you a bit of time to find the clothes and accessories that help you feel the most comfortable and best express who you are.
Likewise, it is important teenagers are taught social convention with clothes and most especially shoes. I always tell my kids that “street wear” will leave you dressed so that you may find yourself left out on the street! That is fine if you plan to on going skate boarding with your friends (as my son often does) but without a change of clothing you are unlikely to be welcome anywhere else.
I call my favorite look for men, Man About Town and it includes a casual soft tailored suit jacket and suit pants paired with a lightweight knit sweater (with a singlet underneath but no button up shirt or tie) and dress Doc Martins or similar. This is a classic and simple look for men that will see them comfortably and acceptably dressed just about anywhere they find themselves just about any time of the day – from uptown to downtown and back.
Okay – sorry to digress – and maybe you were brought up knowing what shoes and attire to wear where, but not every child grows up with this privileged education – which more than anything else – will determine how many doors will open to them in life.
On the topic of developing a healthy public persona, I believe it also important to teach teenagers the importance of joining in. Standing or sitting on the sidelines or else taking over and acting the clown may look cool to teenagers – so it is important to help them notice that the people they probably respect the most at school are the ones who join in the activity at hand without attracting too much attention to themselves (when my kids were younger I used Arnold from the cartoon Hey Arnold as a positive example of this). Sure the class or activity may be boring and/or badly planned now and then, but complaining only makes it worse for everyone and time will generally pass more quickly if you can just grin and bear it and join in the best you can.
What About Facebook and Youtube?
Social media has got a lot of flack in recent years for breeding narcissism in teenagers, so lets have a look at what is healthy and what is not …
I know a lot of mothers who follow their kids on social media and who oversee all of their interactions with peers. I guess that is okay if you have that kind of really close knit relationship and extra time on your hands – but I think you will find that most teenagers will appreciate you giving them a little more space. So following are a few ideas of how you can make sure your kids are on safe ground emotionally without having to monitor every discussion with their friends …
- Profile Page Reality Check
Check out their profile page and ask yourself if it is a realistic representation of them or not? Are they using their real age and do their photos look age appropriate and anything like them?
This point above is super important.
Putting out an over idealized and unrealistic image of yourself is the number one symptom of unhealthy narcissism. Sure all of us have a slightly different private and public persona but these should match closely on matters of values. Ministers of religion caught posting profiles on risque sex or swingers sites come to mind as an example of the danger of what I am getting at here. That behavior started somewhere with these men and didn’t spring up overnight. Likewise kids who lie or exaggerate about themselves or act superior and put down their peers are all warning signs that your teenagers self esteem and public persona may need some help before it may begin to isolate them into a narcissistic and unhealthy double life.
Wean Them Off Computer Games
It is easy to leave kids playing computer games because you are busy doing something else. Sign them up for basketball or singing lessons or anything else to keep them busy and engaged with good role models for them to spend time with even if it is not yourself. You also need to multi task sometimes, for instance I am playing Master Mind with my 12 year old (he is guessing and I am scoring) while editing this piece, while my oldest son makes (and cleans up after) dinner for everyone (including his girlfriend) to show off his ‘being a great boyfriend’ skills!
I know this point is hard but it is important – if the other activities you first organize don’t catch their interest, keep trying and keep the interaction as positive as you can. Don’t lecture but explain why you are not prepared to sit and watch them throw all their time and energy away on a game that has no end and will give them nothing back in return.
Learn to Ask the Right Questions
I am not a great conversationalist but there is a trick which gets me through with teenagers every time. Take the last few words of their sentence and turn it into a question. Such as;
Teenager Says: “We just went to the movies.”
You: “the movies?”
Just watch, they will keep talking and the longer you do this the more you will draw them out and encourage them to share what they are interested in and excited about in their life without you getting tempted to moralize, lecture or change the direction of the conversation away from what they want to share. Being interested in someone else’s interests always brings people close.
If your teenager shares something questionable – you question them back and get their take on it before you judge. For instance if they say a friend of theirs was ‘out of it’ (at a party) you might say “He was drunk?” You might then find out that they are just as disapproving as you and if not you will have better information to make decisions from next time.
Greet Them and Their Friends by Name
Look your teenager in the face and smile and show you are glad to see them when they come home and also greet their friends by name looking in their eyes and asking a few polite questions every time they come in.
This is the most important point of all. Stop and practice right now saying your child’s name in a tone of voice that shows you are glad to see them.
A Broad Mix of Role Models and Friends
Teenagers need to be reminded that if they are going to be truly successful and respected in their life they will need to be able to relate to people of all ages and not just their friends.
Finding all age activities to join in as a family can be challenging these days but it is important. We live in an apartment block with many elderly neighbors who we have built relationships with over time and this has been an invaluable education for our children. Our neighbors pass on clothes, books and homemade baked goods to the kids (now and then) and our eldest boy even called an ambulance once for a blind neighbor when his wife (who we are good friends with) had a stroke. We are busy people and don’t visit each others houses and most conversations (which can be lengthy with old people!) happen in the hall, but getting the chance to save a life at 14 (and all the attendant love and praise that goes with that) is an invaluable experience that not every child gets.
Attachment and Self Esteem
So how do you build attachment and self esteem in children? There has been a movement in recent years that claims narcissism in adults comes from children being praised too often and too much, and while I agree this does sound logical at first – I disagree with this assessment. Instead I would suggest that unhealthy narcissism is more often caused by unrealistic expectations and inconsistency with helping a child set goals.
A child who is regularly set challenges that interest them and will stretch them slightly – but that they are capable of achieving – will flourish with regular praise for reaching each of these benchmarks in their growth. So instead of pulling back on the praise I would suggest looking more closely at (and using wisdom) in setting goals and challenges for all family members including your teen.
Years of research has given answers to what makes humans happy and the answer lies in the suggestion above. We all like challenges that stretch us but that we can achieve. Without these we stagnate and life becomes boring or else we may become angry that we cannot live up to what is expected and demanded of us in life. So choosing the right goals to challenge your teen with – that are about their own growth and development more than your own ego and needs – will ensure that they are happy and grow to their full potential and that they will keep coming back for more challenges (and more praise).
Lead by Example
Teenagers have antennae a mile high for hypocrisy and so if you want your teen to grow up with solid character virtues you better make sure that you work on practicing what you preach! Humility is a great one to start with. Are you able to admit to them when you are embarrassed and when you were wrong?
Don’t Try and be Cool
You will not impress teenagers by trying to act like a teenager yourself. If you talk to teenagers you may find that they actually think this is kind of creepy and I think it doesn’t show a lot of self respect. Use language appropriate for your age and position in the family and don’t try and be too casual. Teenagers need to learn social etiquette and rules from their parents and you need to be good examples of this. A pizza night in front of the TV is okay now and then but kids also need to learn table manners and that conversation around the table should be shared and is fun. We have a conversation egg (it is just a clay egg) that first taught the kids how to pass the conversation along and how to ask questions. It has been handy sometimes too as a game we can bring out when we need to teach a guest or friend (who doesn’t pass the conversation along) these skills too! The game is simple – the egg gets passed around the table and the person who has it gets to tell a story of their choice. Other people should then ask questions about the story. The person with the egg then hands it to the person who they think asked the best questions. However everyone has to have a turn before anyone gets the egg twice so as the game progresses anyone who might not have joined in will start being encouraged by everyone to ask questions.
Acting your age around teenagers includes you not feeling that you have to be engaged in everything they do. Give them and their friends space but be present and engaged with greetings, farewells and meal times and you will find it won’t be long until they come and find you themselves when they need to talk or need your help.
And What About Contempt?
I know parents who say speaking with contempt is just a stage teenagers go through – but I couldn’t disagree more. What kind of risk is that to take in a job as serious as parenting your child to adulthood? What if they get to 18 or 20 and haven’t grown out of it? What are you going to do about it then?
Teenagers talking to their parents with contempt is a serious issue and is NEVER tolerated in our house. When it happens our first step is to explain to the offender that they are going to need to start working on better negotiation skills, because rudeness, contempt or intimidation will always deliver the exact opposite of what they are trying to achieve. You need to calmly stick by this too. I remember a week going by (that was torture for me) holding my ground with my son hating me because I would not back down on this one. He had been rude to me and the result was that he was not allowed to have his way on a matter (that I know meant a lot to him) that we had argued about when he first became rude. I stayed calm and got on with my life but inside his hating me felt like torture. I am glad I did stand firm though. He came around in the end and forgave me – and began thinking long and hard about trying that negotiation tactic again.
The important point is that you distinguish with them that it is the style of communication that is the issue rather than it being a battle of wills. We teach our kids that if you are too upset to talk about something respectfully they should wait and not bring it up at all. This doesn’t mean our kids can’t be angry with us – because anger is natural and a healthy reaction when a person feels they have been disrespected – but when anger is used to try and get your way it is not natural but is instead called a racket – so another favorite of mine with the kids is to say “I can hear that you are angry with me – but I will not tolerate sarcasm or you calling me names, so if you want me to consider what you are saying maybe you need to take some time and calm down before we talk about this again.”
When They Need to be Pulled Close
We don’t see so much of our eldest boy these days so I really try and make sure our time together is when he needs it most and I try and make that time count. Driving lessons are a great time to make that extra effort by doing something like setting up an obstacle course in a big abandoned car-park so we can have some fun together and I can set him a fun but educational driving challenge or two. More importantly I try and notice when he and his girlfriend or teachers might be slightly at odds and he is feeling down, and at those times I know he will accept and even welcome an invite to share a movie he likes with us more than at other times.
It is important to see when your teenagers are feeling sad or rejected and need pulling in close.
Likewise I try and see when our kids are feeling happy and excited and even if I am not feeling quite the same I try and join in and share their good spirits without raining on their parade.
You may feel sad about your life not having turned out the way you might have wanted it but do your best to not take this out on your kids. If you are lonely they cannot fill that hole in you and you need to work on your relationship skills and not lean on them and expect them to cheer you up, or take care of your negative emotions. A child cannot replace an adult partner as an emotional companion and expecting this of them will only set them up for a lifetime of emotional confusion, heartache and pain.
For parents …
Hold on the Your Kids – by Gabor Mate and Goron Nuefeld
The Love Safety Net Workbook – Exercises to learn the 4 pillars of a happy and functional family life
10 Steps to Overcome Codependence – Do you Sometimes Feel Disrespected, Powerless and Unloved? Codependence is at the Very heart of Family Dysfunction.
For Teenagers …
Emotional Stupidity – Are you guilty of any of these emotionally stupid moves?
The Little Book of Empathy Love and Friendship – Are you treated like a puppy or a bug? Learn what makes others feel for us.