How to Stop Too Much Praise From Turning Kids Into Narcissists

How too much of a good thing could turn your child into a jerk

How to build self-esteem without encouraging narcissism. Getty Images/Cultura RM/Attia-Fotografie

You may want to spare the praise if you don't want to spoil your child. When it comes to praising kids, too much may be too much of a good thing, says a new study by Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio, and the University of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands.

The study, which surveyed 565 children between the ages of 7 and 11 and their parents in the Netherlands every six months over a period of 2 years, found that kids whose parents saw them as better than their peers were more likely to be narcissistic.

Parents were asked how much they agreed with statements like, "My child is a great example for other children to follow." This kind of overvaluation was associated with narcissism in kids--thinking they were superior to others or entitled to privileges.

Interestingly, researchers found that while overvaluation was linked to narcissism, it was not associated with more self-esteem in kids. In fact, parents who showed more emotional warmth had kids with higher self-esteem, and those kids were more likely to be happy with themselves and like themselves without thinking they were more special than others.

This is just one study, but its findings make sense. It’s natural to want to tell your kids how proud you are of their achievements, and to want to build their self-esteem. But it's easy to see how kids' views of themselves can get skewed if they are constantly told that they are better than everyone else.

So how can parents know how praise and support can build self-confidence and how much can turn him into a raging egomaniac? The key is to keep it real, and help your child put everything, especially himself, into perspective. For example:

Focus on the work, not on her. When your child does something well or achieves something, help her focus on everything that made it happen.

Did she work really hard at it? Was there some luck involved? Did she have any help? Talk about how proud you are of her accomplishment and how much you appreciate her efforts while emphasizing all the factors that made it possible.

Never put down his peers or competitors. Even if your child is the smartest, best-dressed, most talented genius among his peers (or whatever other wonderful thing he may be), never, ever, talk about how his peers are less than he is. Be sure to show your child how to spot the talents and abilities of those around him, and teach him how to find value in what others do. If he has a classmate or friend who isn’t the best at math but is great at art or music, show your child how to appreciate that, and to praise others for what they are good at. When classmates' or friends' work is on display in class, take the opportunity to teach your child how to find nice things about other people's efforts. Learning how to see the value of other people’s efforts—whether or not those efforts lead to a “win” or make them the best at something—is a valuable skill that will help your child not only learn to appreciate others but make it less likely that he will be a narcissist.

Talk about what success is. Does it always mean a trophy? Does she always have to win? Or is it more about trying your very best and knowing that you worked hard at something? Praise her for things she actually did, such as trying her best, and put value in that. Don’t try to inflate her efforts to make her feel good. If she fails, encourage her to not give up and to learn from mistakes. 

Teach him to be gracious in defeat. Show him how to be a good sport and have good manners when others succeed. Never let your child think he is better than everyone else and should always win.

And teach her how to have good manners when she wins. It’s just as important for your child to know how to be a gracious winner as it is to have good manners when she loses. Gloating and boasting are unpleasant, and will make your child not only a poor sport, but disliked by peers. Learning how to be a good winner is just as important as learning how to be gracious when she loses.

Teach him to be grateful. Remind him that no one does anything all by himself. He may have accomplished something through his own hard work, but no child—or adult—achieves things without the support of others. He has had help from you--his parents--and his teachers, grandparents, caregivers, older siblings, and other key people in his life. Talk about how we all benefit from each other, and point out the ways you and your spouse help each other, and how that contributes to each other’s success at work and at home. And on a larger, more global scale, talk about how families benefit from the hard work of law-enforcement officers, firefighters, teachers, healthcare workers, and other members of our communities who dedicate their lives to helping others.

Think about how you want your child to view his world and himself. If he is confident in himself, he won't need to put others down to feel good. If he learns to appreciate others, he will be more likely to make friends and be a kind person who is charitable and has empathy for others. And if he understands that he doesn't deserve more than others, he'll be much less likely to be greedy and experience affluenza, which will only lead to his own unhappiness.

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