Emma Lord
March 10, 2015 11:30 am

What if I told you that every time your parents patted you on the back for doing well on a test, they might have been setting you up to be the actual worst? A recent study from Ohio University suggests that overpraising kids can make them into total narcissists as adults. Here’s the reasoning behind it: It’s no secret that kids will believe pretty much anything their parents tell them (I can’t count the number of times my dad yelled “Look, it’s Elvis!” and stole my french fries), so if a parent tells a kid they’re great at something, obviously they’ll believe it — even if it’s totally wrong. This, in turn, sets kids up to think that they really are better than everyone else. I’d like to pitch the idea of informally calling this the Draco Malfoy Effect, if nobody has any other suggestions.

This isn’t to be confused with praising kids in general, which is important for validation and self-esteem. The researchers stressed that the narcissism were only higher in cases where the kids were overvalued by constant and usually empty praise, often for things that didn’t merit it.

The study tracked parents and children in the Netherlands over the course of six and a half years, frequently checking in with questionnaires to measure both the parents’ attitudes toward their children, and the children’s attitudes about themselves. Over time, they saw that both parents who overpraised and under-praised their kids tending to breed children who thought they deserved better than others. They theorize in the first case that kids believed they were better because their parents told them they were, and in the second case that kids needed to pump themselves up to compensate when their parents didn’t do it for them.

Even scarier, the effects of this can be long-lasting and have huge consequences in adulthood. “Narcissistic children feel superior to others, believe they are entitled to privileges, and crave for constant admiration from others,” sad study author Eddie Brummelman in a statement to Forbes. “When they fail to obtain the admiration they want, they may lash out aggressively. Narcissistic individuals are also at increased risk to develop addiction. Subgroups of narcissists, especially those with low self-esteem, are at increased risk to develop anxiety and depression.”

Interestingly enough, overpraising did not predict self-esteem levels. Plenty of the children in the study who were narcissistic also scored low on self-esteem, which really puts the whole pick-on-Harry-Potter-because-my-Dad-basically-sold-me-to-the-Dark-Lord thing a little bit more into perspective. I guess the moral of this study we can all take away is that parental praise is like craft glitter: lovely as it is, a little bit goes a long way.

(Images from here and here.)

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