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  • Mary Ann Little, Ph.D.

Can a Child Actually Be a Narcissist?

How to understand narcissistic traits and tendencies in children.

Can a Child Actually Be a Narcissist?

  • High-achieving child narcissists cope with narcissistic vulnerability through exceptional performance.

  • Child bully narcissists have an underlying “mean streak” that they exercise in controlling others.

  • Manipulative child narcissists use others to achieve their goals, often without regard for their feelings.

It is hard to imagine that your precious youngster could be developing in such undesirable ways that they would be considered a narcissist. However, children can reveal certain tendencies and traits that indicate they are on the path to a narcissistic disorder.

Technically speaking, a narcissist cannot be diagnosed until the age of 18; however, specific attitudes and behaviors that presage narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) may be evident earlier. Even so, it is essential to realize that narcissism looks different in an adult than in a child.

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How to Spot an Adult Narcissist

This list isn't exhaustive, but it's a good starting place. A narcissist:

  • needs recognition.

  • believes they're special.

  • overestimates their skills and abilities.

  • thinks far too highly of their own opinion.

  • needs to be "right."

  • lacks interest in things that do not involve the self.

  • becomes overly sensitive to real and perceived slights.

  • idealizes or devalues others.

  • expects special treatment.

  • makes unrealistic demands.

  • maintains superficial and exploitative relationships.

  • fails to take responsibility for their behavior.

  • blames others for errors and misunderstandings.

  • lacks empathy

Two major types of narcissists are recognized in adults: vulnerable and grandiose. The vulnerable narcissist presents as more anxious, worried, and sensitive to criticism and is often high achieving. The layperson less frequently recognizes this variety of narcissists.

The grandiose narcissist, on the other hand, is earlier to spot, tending toward flamboyant, charismatic, controlling, and manipulative behavior. This second type can be popular, socially prominent, and perceived to be a leader while at the same time being mean-spirited and interpersonally exploitative.

Grandiose and vulnerable narcissists don't present the same way, which explains why so many people don't recognize that both these types are suffering from the same negative core qualities of self-centeredness, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy. They also suffer the same negative outcome of problematic and impoverished interpersonal relationships.

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What a Child Narcissist Looks Like

Identifying narcissism in children, rather than adults, is complicated. Emerging child narcissists (N2Bs, or narcissists-to-be) come in all sizes and shapes—or so it seems.

While such children generally fall within the broad categories of vulnerable or grandiose, several subtypes within each can be identified. The wide range of types can be challenging.

6 Presentations of Emerging Child Narcissists-to-Be

1. The High Achieving Narcissist (coping with narcissistic vulnerability through winning). High-achieving narcissists cope with their narcissistic vulnerability through exceptional performance. They must be the best or practically perfect in every way. The effort they put into achievement often has a maniacal quality.

They work harder because they must perform and be better than everyone else. Areas of exceptionality vary, but these children make straight A's or are the teacher's pet. High-achieving narcissists are the kids most challenging to diagnose as their perfectionistic performance masks any underlying deficiencies or distress.

It is important to emphasize that the diagnosis of a high-achieving narcissist is not based on their exceptional performance but rather on what drives the need to achieve.

2. The Non-Achieving Narcissist (coping with narcissistic vulnerability and fear of failure through avoidance). Non-achieving narcissists are the children who value recognition and attention but have been unable to achieve their lofty goals. Frustrated and hurt by their underachievement, they cope through avoidance.

Some withdraw from the competition and display a "don't care" attitude. Others will act out in maladaptive ways, trying to get attention through misbehavior or risk-taking. All have given up on the idea that they can succeed in a way that wins recognition and positive regard.

3. The Bully Narcissist (coping with narcissistic vulnerability and values through unchecked aggression). Bully narcissists have an underlying "mean streak" that they exercise in controlling others. They abuse others socially through exclusion and physically through ridicule and teasing, which can turn into hazing in young adulthood.

Some are the "queen bees" and the most popular boys on campus. They often mediate inclusion and exclusion in social groups without regard for fairness or honor, with a concern only for their power. Often charismatic and likable, their flaws are difficult to see. Their social skills are strong, so their misbehavior can be hard to catch.

4. The Daredevil Narcissist (coping with narcissistic vulnerability through unchecked grandiosity). Daredevil narcissists are youngsters whose grandiosity has not been softened through the years. In the school-aged years, their grandiosity can be seen in eye-catching clothes or schoolyard feats like riding a bike alarmingly fast down a steep hill.

In older children, they can engage in risky behaviors that range from drug or alcohol abuse to dangerous driving and sexual promiscuity. Lack of good judgment is their fatal flaw.

5. The Closet Narcissist (coping with narcissistic vulnerability through association with a narcissist). Closet narcissists do not look like narcissists at all. Aware of their narcissistic vulnerability, they cope by aligning with a powerful narcissistic friend or classmate, basking in the reflected glory they experience from the relationship.

Content with attaching to an exhibitionistic or achieving narcissist who has high social value, they are often compliant and ingratiating, working to find a place near the throne of their popular high-status peer.

6. The Manipulative Narcissist (coping with narcissistic vulnerability through the exercise of power, getting one's way). The manipulative narcissist is intent on getting their way. Manipulative narcissists use others to achieve their goals, often without regard for their feelings. Their self-validation comes through wielding power and their ability to control others and the environment.

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Some manipulative narcissists are gifted leaders who can influence groups to reach higher, more expansive goals, and this type of narcissist often seeks political or other high-status positions. In childhood, some may earn a place on the student council or be elected team captain.

Others have an antisocial component, which means they tend to be dishonest or live outside the rules. In childhood, that may mean they steal pencils from the school store or take desired items from a classmate's backpack. Many manipulative narcissists come from families of wealth, prestige, and power.

Parents and educators need to realize that the development of narcissism begins earlier than you might think and that understanding the variety of "childhood types" is critical. Hard as it might be to believe, a narcissist who fits the more nerdy, perfectionistic valedictorian category has the same psychological structure as the narcissist who presents as the popular football captain with controlling, manipulative, and bullying behaviors.

The good news is that recognizing narcissistic tendencies and traits earlier—rather than later—provides more opportunities to get a child back on course. Early intervention not only makes correction easier but produces far better outcomes.

Mary Ann Little, Ph.D., - Website - Book -


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