A clinical psychotherapist shares her answer to the question ‘I see signs of narcissistic behaviour in my adopted son sometimes. He is 14 now. How can I help him to be more normal and mentally healthy in the future?’ on Quora.
Many teens can be somewhat narcissistic in general. They are in an important stage of their life where every feeling can feel really “BIG”, every social situation can appear earth shattering, and they are figuring out who they are, what type of identity they want, and imagining who they want to become when “they grow up.” As a parent, it can be very difficult to differentiate between typical teenage narcissistic behaviour, versus behaviour that may be more indicative of future issues with NPD (narcissistic personality disorder).
Regardless, here are some things some of my clients have found useful with their teenager children in similar situations…
Showing more interest in them:
This may sound counterintuitive – but most people (teenagers included), want to feel they matter, that you care about and have a genuine interest in their individual thoughts, feelings, ideas, and preferences, (rather than what they are being told to think, feel, etc.). If you feel they are talking about themselves a lot, this is usually an indicator that they want to feel validated and important, and want more attention. Often, the most supportive thing for them is to listen to them more.
Behaviours vs. personality:
When talking to your son about these issues, make sure you are addressing the problematic behaviours vs. HIM being the problem. Meaning, you can talk about what the boundaries and rules are, but it’s important to remind him that being unhappy with his behaviour does not change that you love him. You can be angry at him in the moment, but still love him and the two are not mutually exclusive. This is especially important as it demonstrates “object constancy”, or the ability to maintain loving feelings towards someone even when hurt or angry with them in the moment. This is often something that adults with NPD struggle with, so it is incredibly beneficial to demonstrate this important concept.
Listen: Is it time we rethink teens and smart phones? (Post continues…)
The best way to teach teenagers empathy, is to demonstrate empathy towards them (especially when you are annoyed with them and it may be hardest). You can disagree with their opinion, but it is very helpful to demonstrate this important emotion for them anyway. This may mean asking them about “why” they made a particular choice (without judgement about whether it was right or wrong), how they view a given situation, and showing that you are interested in their perspective and care about them and their feelings, even if you both disagree. Contrary to popular belief, people don’t become narcissistic because they were coddled too much, or overly indulged. In fact, one of the common characteristics of my client’s with NPD, is that they did NOT feel that their parents were empathetic towards them, or particularly interested in their feelings, actions, thoughts, or who they were as an individual separate from what their parents wanted of them.
Son vs. “adopted son”:
Adopting a child is an amazing thing. However, it leave many teens with even more questions about their identity, why they were “given up” in the first place, and what their role in the family is, and questions about their biological parents. This is also a common part of the individuation that happens as an adopted teen, and as difficult as it can be, try to remember that this is not a threat to you or your relationship as your son’s mother.
The point is…
There is so much inherent narcissism in the teenage experience, that it can be difficult to differentiate between “normal” teenage narcissistic behaviour, and the more problematic variety.
That being said, it is often helpful to focus on listening to teenagers and what he is thinking and feeling (as opposed to lecturing or telling them why they are wrong or narcissistic), trying to demonstrate that even when you disagree, you still “get” their point of view, showing empathy and love towards him (especially when that feels hard to do), and remembering that some narcissism is a normal part of the teenage experience.
If you have serious concerns though, you may want to contact a therapist to discuss them further, as well as explore if he might benefit from some support from a therapist, and even learn some strategies that may be helpful in improving the relationship between you both at this difficult juncture.
This post originally appeared on Quora and has been republished with full permission.