Youth Culture Window
Narcissist—[one who displays an] inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity, (www.dictionary.com)
Kate is becoming more and more concerned about her son, Chris, a high school freshman.
Since 2nd grade Chris has been friends with Zack. Kate has always liked Zack, but some things are beginning to bother her.
She observes Chris giving in constantly to what Zack wants to do and agreeing with Zack on most issues, as well as with what Zack deems as important. She’s starting to wonder if Chris has developed a habit of denying his real feelings and opinions when Zack is around. She also notices Zack frequently belittling Chris in ways that disturb her.
Kate knows she’s had to get used to the fact that bonding is different for boys than girls, and that boys often find it hysterical to call each other names. Still she’s uneasy. In the past she figured Zack was good for Chris because he was more outgoing than her son; she even admired that Zack was viewed as popular—yet chose to spend much of his time with Chris over the years.
Now Kate’s beginning to wonder if that was such a good thing.
Kate isn’t irritated when other teens are around, so she’s made a conscious decision to try and track her reactions to Zack to see if she can identify what her growing angst is all about. The results?
- Zack’s constant bragging annoys her.
- So does Zack’s self-righteous air. Chris and Zack are basketball teammates, and Kate notices that when Chris plays well, Zack usually has to one up him (okay, that’s #3).
- Zack speaks as if he’s right all the time. Even when Zack’s chatting with Kate, if she inserts a different point of view, Zack seems to puff up and tell her why her thoughts, opinions, or feelings are wrong. She knows adolescence is a time for kids to figure out who they are and what they believe, so she likes challenging them to see various sides of issues. Somehow, though, when Kate’s talking to Zack, she begins feeling…stupid! Why?
- It’s his tone! (Kate’s finally figuring this out.) She says to herself, he’s talking to me in a well-anyone-with-a-brain-knows-how-right-I-am-and-how-insane-your-point-of-view-is tone of voice!
Kate’s mind flashes to Zack’s parents, Don and Cindy—who drive her (and the other basketball parents) crazy. They go on and on about Zack and his accomplishments. The other parents root for all the kids on the team, but not Don and Cindy. They look startled and even a little frazzled when someone on Zack’s team plays well and gets attention. And rather than cheering for that kid like the rest of the parents, Don and Cindy increase their bragging about the newest training, etc., that—who else?—Zack is into.
Kate asks herself, Wow, is this the only way Zack can get his parents to love and accept him? When he’s the superstar? The top dog? The very best? Is Zack allowed to be wrong without being made to feel he’s stupid?
Kate’s been reading about teen development and knows it’s normal for them to go through a fairly narcissistic stage—but it’s also something they usually outgrow. But will Zack? And are Zack’s parents full-blown narcissists? She suddenly feels more empathy for Zack, and yet her thoughts turn back to Chris: Does Chris see these patterns? Will Chris marry someone like Zack, who constantly controls things and puts him down? Is Chris a narcissist magnet?
When teens don’t have a solid group of healthy peers to hang out with during their identity-struggling years, they often feel lonely and left out. This can lead to feelings of shame, inadequacy, and self-doubt, which can then make them vulnerable to narcissists who show them favor. Lonely teens with low self-esteem tend to idealize egomaniacal friends, which can lead to the lonely teens feeling more worthy—after all, they’re now attached to their new friends’ inflated sense of self.
So devalued teens feed the egos of puffed-up teens, who become more condescending toward others while the devalued teens feel more pressure to bow and latch on to the puffed-up teens. Narcissists tend to choose friends who follow them and idealize them. This is how they gain their sense of security. Narcissistic teens, in particular, subtly convince their “followers” that their self-esteem will increase by associating with them—but the price is always giving in to what the narcissistic teens demand.
Teens who experience temporary breaks from solid peer groups (e.g., due to a fight with a close friend, moving to a new school, changing churches, etc.) are also vulnerable to narcissistic relationships. And perhaps the most vulnerable teens are from narcissistic homes (like Zack’s). So it’s crucial that lonely teens’ tendencies to gravitate toward narcissists (or narcissists’ tendencies to seek out lonely teens) are pointed out before the behavior is ingrained.
How to Help Teens Who Are Narcissist Magnets:
- If you speak from a place of “I’m just wondering...” rather than from a place of judgment about their friends, teens will drop their defenses more readily.
- Ask them if they feel pressure to give in too often with particular friends. Or you can say, “Does it seem like ( ) thinks he’s right all the time?” If they become defensive, you can follow up with, “Hey, it’s good that you disagree, and he’ll listen to your perspectives, too!” or “Excellent! It’s important that you choose what you want or what’s good for you!” (Often these teens insist things are fine…but only because they haven’t been conscious of their friends’ narcissism. But after you clue them in, these selfish traits will start bugging them more and more.)
- Affirm their inherent, God-given strengths, abilities, and good attributes—and that it’s important to find people who appreciate, value, and love us for who we really are. If you’re a parent of a narcissist magnet, find other adults who believe in your teen and affirm those qualities about him or her. (Teens actively take in what others say about them, as they’re constantly developing their identities—and not solely based on their parents’ views of things.)
- Remind them that in healthy relationships, we become more aware of and honest about how we feel, believe, and what we want, like, and dislike—not the opposite.
- Remind them of the importance of setting boundaries (e.g., standing up for ourselves when others hurt or anger us; stating what we need—as well as the consequences if our requests are ignored).
- Remind them that it’s crucial for all people to learn how to negotiate and compromise (i.e. both peoples’ views and feelings are considered).
- Remind them of the importance of finding safe people¬—those we can be real with, who show us empathy and grace, and who don’t attack or devalue our thoughts and feelings. (But remember: safe people also tell us the truth about us when they see us faking or acting out in self-destructive ways. Also, safe people allow us to tell them the truth about how we see them, too. It’s a two-way street. With safe people, we don’t walk on eggshells to avoid rejection or abandonment. In safe relationships, we know we don’t risk losing the relationship if conflicts arise. We know we’ll work it out.)
- Help these teens understand that most people are doing the best they can from what they’ve experienced in their lives—so they should always take others’ pasts into consideration when others are being narcissistic.
- Learning to give healthy feedback may enhance friendships so they grow and mature. But if others are consistently cruel, we need to distance ourselves from them.
- Help teens realize that it’s part of human nature to sometimes think and act in narcissistic ways. When we, as adults, act self-righteously, are overly critical of others, or behave selfishly, we need to counter that by role modeling humility, openly admitting our behavior, apologizing with humble hearts, expressing empathy for others’ feelings, and trying to work things out.
What makes the teen years hard for us adults is that kids no longer do what we say—they do what we do.
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