When Narcissists Use Children

English transcript: From time to time, in the Deaf community, I have noticed some Deaf adults using children to settle scores or to take revenge against people. This is very distressing and a cause for concern. It is important to take a look at the issue of using children.

The concept of using children actually encompasses a wide spectrum of possible situations. At one end, there are situations that are harmless and cause no trauma to children. At the opposite end, there are truly awful and unhealthy situations that cause much harm and can damage children’s self-esteem.

Some of the adults that engage in these kinds of behaviors exhibit characteristics common to narcissists. Taking a closer look at narcissism, the personality traits, and the reasons for certain behaviors, can help us better understand how narcissists function.

To start, let me share an example of situation using children, which can be considered undamaging. A while ago, my family went on vacation to Russia, joining a Deaf tour group, led by a Deaf tour guide. One day when we were out sightseeing, some adults needed to use the bathroom or get a drink of water. They were hesitant to make their request to the tour guide, who they were sure would dismiss them with an impatient admonition to wait, seeing as they were adults after all. Desperate for a solution, they came up with the idea of asking my then-11-year old daughter if she minded telling the tour guide that she needed to use the bathroom or get a drink of water. My daughter, who didn’t need the bathroom or water, thought it was funny and readily obliged. The tour guide responded to her request with immediate understanding – and the whole group was happy and appreciative. In this harmless example of using children, it was clear my daughter enjoyed conspiring with her fellow sightseers and suffered no emotional damage at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, there are situations that can cause lasting damage to children. Consider, for example, a custody case in which the parents’ constant arguing ends up with them in the courtroom. The narcissistic father has one goal – to win custody – and he will do anything to win. Because he doesn’t have any empathy or sensitivity to his daughter’s feelings, he might go so far as to fabricate statements, right in front of his daughter. He might, for example, tell the court that his daughter had revealed to him that she didn’t care about or love her mother. In an effort to paint a terrible picture of his wife, he might even testify that she was unfit and abusive. Never mind the emotional turmoil his daughter must be experiencing, as witness to the lies about her mother. Or the distress she feels being stuck in the middle, unable to challenge her controlling father or defend her mother. All the father is concerned about is protecting his image as a good father and husband, no matter the cost. This type of situation is an extreme example of using children in harmful way.

How do we define narcissism, exactly? The DSM IV TR published by the American Psychiatric Association, lists criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), among other disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Rather then run through the entire list of criteria for NPD, I will give a brief overview of the most important characteristics.

Narcissism is characterized first and foremost by an inflated sense of self-importance or grandiosity. The narcissist’s image is so important that someone with NPD will over-exaggerate personal achievements and accomplishments in order to impress others. For example, one man with narcissistic traits boasted that out of 700 applicants to a prestigious and highly competitive graduate program, he was one of the few selected. The fact that he was Deaf made his accomplishment quite impressive. Not quite believing that 700 people would apply to this particular graduate program, however, I called the school to verify the number of applicants for recent admission. Interestingly, I learned that 70 people had applied recently. Even though being one of 70 selected is an admirable accomplishment itself, this narcissist found it necessary to tack on an extra zero to the admissions pool, in order to ramp up the impressiveness of his selection and boost his ego.

Not only is pathological lying prevalent among narcissists, so is the need for an approving audience. The attention and admiration from many people feeds the narcissist’s ego. If faced with the prospect of losing attention or approval, the narcissist often responds with rage and will do anything to get back this source of ego-boosting.

Another striking characteristic of narcissism is a lack of empathy, or an inability to understand and feel other people’s pain, such as the father in the courtroom who showed such insensitivity to his son’s emotional well-being. No matter how hard someone might try to enlighten the narcissist about the need for developing empathy, this is a next-to-impossible task because narcissists are primarily fixated on their own selves.

Very few narcissists seek therapy or help. Since they do not recognize that anything may be wrong or that they are hurting people, they rarely address their issues or behaviors. They are content with themselves. Typically, 50-75% of narcissists are men, and they are generally intelligent people. They may know how to show behaviors that appear empathic or socially appropriate, but they are acting with ulterior motives, and not with genuine feelings. Behind every action is a drive to satisfy their narcissistic needs.

Research has not pinpointed a clear cause of narcissism, but some indications suggest genetics may be a factor, as are abusive and neglectful experiences during childhood. Additionally, children who are overindulged or whose every need is gratified, may develop narcissistic qualities.

Protecting yourself or children from narcissists poses a challenge. Whenever possible, the best defense is to avoid narcissists. Unfortunately, this is not an option for everyone. The narcissist may be your spouse, family member, co-worker, or someone who is impossible to avoid. In these situations, it is often best to ignore the narcissist’s behaviors. Sometimes narcissists will be forced to confront their behaviors when faced with serious life issues or the possibility of losing too much. The more their behaviors are reinforced, the more they will continue their behaviors. When children are involved, it is important to explain to them about narcissism and let them know that the person’s behaviors are not their fault. Give them plenty of support and teach them to develop thick skin against the narcissist’s attacks. Counseling can be helpful when children deal with narcissistic family members on a daily basis. Last, but not least, community members can support each other in dealing with narcissistic people in the community.

Disclaimer: Please note that this video is not directed toward any particular individual or individuals. Any resemblance of the examples to persons in real life is purely coincidental.

To cite: McCullough, C. (2010). When Narcissists Use Children. ASC on the Couch. Retrieved (date retrieved), from http://www.ascdeaf.com/blog/?p=571

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