Too Much Praise Can Turn Your Kids Into Narcissistic Jerks, Study Finds

Excessive praise for the wrong reasons isn't a good idea, a new study says.

ByABC News
March 9, 2015, 2:59 PM

— -- Make your kid believe he’s a “special snowflake” and you risk turning him into a narcissistic jerk, according to a new Dutch study.

Narcissistic individuals think they’re better than everyone else, live for personal success and expect exceptional treatment, explained the authors of the study that appeared in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When narcissists experience failure, they’re not pleasant to be around, sometimes even lashing out violently, the study notes

The study evaluated 565 Dutch children ages 7 through 12 for narcissist tendencies such as feelings of superiority and self-satisfaction. The investigators also questioned the children’s parents about how, when and how often they offered praise and other feedback.

The kids whose parents consistently told them they were superior to other children, no matter what, scored higher on measurements for narcissism compared to kids who were given a more realistic view of themselves, the investigators found. That’s because over-praising children can lead them to believe they are special people who deserve special treatment all the time, explained Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University and one of the study’s authors.

“Parents should be warm and loving, but not give their child blanket praise,” Bushman said. “We should not boost self-esteem and hope our children will behave well. Instead, we should praise our children after they do well.”

Dr. Gene Beresin, the executive director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, said he was skeptical about some of the study’s conclusions.

“In the first place, parents are just one influence on a child,” he said. “Teachers, peers, siblings and many others influence how a child feels about themselves and how they behave towards others.”

Beresin said American children are not necessarily the same as Dutch children. But what concerned him most is the age of the children in the study.

“I don’t see how you can label kids this young as narcissistic when it’s generally recognized that such personality traits aren’t fully formed until late adolescence, like around age 18,” he said.

Beresin said parents who build a bond of trust with their children by giving them honest feedback mixed with encouragement and support help build a child’s self-esteem and security. Positive feedback, as long as it’s accurate and appropriate, can only help boost a child’s self-worth, he said.

But the investigators said their work builds on a body of research that shows parental “overvaluation” leads to narcissism later in life because children tend to see themselves as the important people in their lives see them. The researchers didn’t rule out the effects of other influences like genetics but said previous work shows that cultivating an unreasonably confident view of self is at the core of narcissism.