Help, is my teen a narcissist?

by Laurel Pretorius
our teens display narcissistic traits, but they are by no means narcissists
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Teens have a reputation for being selfish and self-absorbed. Is this normal behaviour and how do parents manage this narcissist phase of their teens’ lives? By Laurel Pretorius.

Our teens are hard work, aren’t they? We love them but often don’t like them. We have sleepless nights worrying about them, but we know that we need to let go and allow them some freedom. They want (need) our hugs and kisses on their terms but then out of nowhere will storm off and slam doors. Everything revolves around them. In fact, their behaviour traits can be called fairly narcissistic.

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Are our teens narcissists?

Wikipedia defines narcissism as “a self-centred personality style characterised as having an excessive preoccupation with oneself and one’s own needs, often at the expense of others.”

So yes, our teens display narcissistic traits, but they are by no means narcissists. What we need to understand is this behaviour is perfectly normal, even healthy and beneficial for them in the long run, because during the adolescent phase, our teens are preparing to become independent and well-versed adults.

“They transition from a child, whose identity and sense of self comes strongly from their parents and family, into early adulthood with their own strong sense of self and feelings of independence and control,” explains Jonathan Hoffenberg, manager and social worker of the Parent Centre, an NGO offering parents various coaching and parenting workshops.

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Teens are designed this way

Adolescence is a time of self-discovery, identity formation, and establishing a sense of freedom away from the family home. During this period, teens may become more self-focused as they grapple with questions of who they are, where they fit in, and what their values and beliefs are. The desire for self-affirmation and social acceptance can sometimes manifest as narcissistic behaviour.

“The psychological, physiological, and chemical processes of puberty all mean that teens can be self-absorbed, self-conscious, at times even self-loathing,” says Hoffenberg. In fact, being a normal teen can mean they withdraw from family and friends, it can mean mood swings and feeling overwhelmed, and it can mean confusion, inconsistency, and chaos.

Social media ills

But perhaps what makes it even harder to parent teens today is the rise of social media usage which sadly exacerbates the narcissist in all of us. So, we can only begin to imagine what this does to our developing teens who now measure their worth based on the external validation of likes, comments, and shares. The constant comparison with peers on social media platforms can contribute to a heightened need for attention and admiration.

“Social media also removes us from others and makes negative and hurtful interactions easier due to being detached from those we may hurt. This fosters a self-absorbed, combative, and ironically increased feeling of victimisation. We lash out at others without thought and feel hurt by others lashing out at us,” Hoffenberg says. This can be especially relevant to teens who seek constant validation yet still lack the maturity to manage their feelings appropriately.

He also explains that it doesn’t help growing up in a violent society, which is currently out of control in South Africa and globally. We all cope less when overwhelmed, stressed, tired, scared, and worried about the violence that has become part of our lives. “The trials of daily life and ease in which we can cut ourselves off by slipping on our headphones and focusing on our screens all entail that we become more self-absorbed,” he adds.

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Tips to navigate these stormy waters:

Speak openly and honestly: Create a judgment-free zone for your teen to express thoughts and feelings, building a stronger connection.

Cultivate empathy: Engage your teen in conversations that prompt consideration of others’ perspectives and encourage involvement in community service.

Embrace strengths and weaknesses: Help your teen understand and appreciate individual differences while setting realistic expectations to ease external validation pressures.

Encourage self-reflection: Promote journaling or introspective activities to deepen your teen’s understanding of themselves and their motivations.

Manage social media use: Monitor and limit your teen’s exposure to social media, advocating for breaks to maintain a balanced perspective on self-image.

Model healthy behaviour: Demonstrate positive self-esteem and empathy as a role model, providing a foundation for your teen’s emotional and relational navigation.

And lastly, Hoffenberg says, “Teens will go through a self-absorbed process as they transform from the obedient, loving and controllable child to a confident and self-assured young adult and this means exploration, mistakes and leaving the nest you made for them.”

In other words, they will finally grow into lovely and engaging young adults with the right understanding and support. So, hang in there, this stage won’t last forever.

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How are you coping with the teenage years? Tell us in comments!

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