5 Key Differences Between Self-Esteem and Narcissism

What parents can do to nurture a healthy ego without raising an egomaniac

Respect for others builds self-esteem and keeps narcissism at bay. Getty Images/SolStock

As parents, we want to instill self-confidence in our kids. But with undesirable traits like narcissism and affluenza being real concerns today, it's important to know just what that fine line is between being secure about oneself and having a raging ego. Here are some examples that illustrate the differences between narcissism and healthy self-esteem.

1. Sense of Entitlement vs. Justified Pride

People who have good self-esteem are proud of their work and accomplishments.

They do not feel angry, jealous, or cheated when others do well or get something they do not have. People who are narcissistic feel that they deserve privileges and perqs because they are special and better than others.

What parents can do: To encourage kids to have a good perspective on their own work and efforts, parents can praise kids for hard work and focus on that, instead of focusing only on winning or getting more or doing better than everyone else. Never give kids empty praise or inflate their accomplishments, which may actually backfire and make kids feel less secure about things they actually do accomplish, and at the same time, lead them to expect praise and rewards every time they do anything. 

2. Focus on Winning vs. Focus on Performing Well

Narcissism is all about believing that you're better than others, and beating everyone is the goal. Narcissists are constantly insecure, and more likely to focus on external things like physical appearances and material goods.

Everything is a constant race to be better than others. For people with healthy self-esteem, however, the focus is more on doing one's best and being proud of one's own accomplishments. They can work well with others, and appreciate the contributions other people make when cooperating on something.

What parents can do: Remind kids that there's great value in doing the best job they can, and that the feeling of winning comes from that--not from beating others. And when they do win something, they should be proud of their achievement, but should also have respect for the job that their opponent did.

3. Putting Others Down vs. Having Respect for People

One of the hallmarks of narcissism is feeling superior to others by looking down on them. People who have good self-esteem don't try to view others as being inferior in order to feel good about themselves.

What parents can do: Have your kids practice using good manners and treating others with respect, whether it's grandma or grandpa or the cashier at the supermarket. Teach your child to get into the habit of seeing something of value in the things other people do, and have respect for others' talents just as they have for their own.

4. Gratitude vs. Expectation

People who feel entitled to things expect to get what they want, when they want it.

They do not think about how others might have contributed to what they have, or how fortunate they are to have non-material things like a loving family and friends. People who have a healthy view of themselves know that they have the things they have because they are lucky and have worked for it, not because they are better than others. They understand what it means to be thankful.

What parents can do: Remind kids to be grateful and to think about those who are less fortunate than they are. An added bonus to encouraging gratitude: Research shows that kids who are grateful are happier, more optimistic, and happier with themselves, among many other benefits. And be sure to discourage materialism and affluenza by cutting down the amount of time kids are exposed to commercials and focusing your family on sharing fun activities, not on material things.Teach kids to volunteer and be charitable to help kids appreciate what they have and give them a sense of accomplishment when they make a positive difference in the lives of others.

5. All About Me vs. Others' Feelings and Thoughts

Narcissists think about what they want and what they need and rarely if ever consider the impact on others or other people's thoughts or feelings. People who have a healthy self-esteem have empathy for others and know that they are not the center of the world.

What parents can do: When kids misbehave, be sure to discipline them firmly but lovingly, and take steps to make sure they do not become spoiled. Have them do regular chores, teach them to routinely say thank you,  And remember to take care of yourself by doing things like finding time to exercise and feel and look good. Your kids may be the center of your world, but it's important for them to understand that you have needs and they should consider them important, too.

It's clear that there are many reasons to steer kids toward healthy self-esteem. Not only will they be more pleasant, kind, and generous people, but they'll also be happier, better able to make friends, and focus on positive, rather than negative, emotions and thoughts to carry them through life.

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