Teen girl narcissism

Teen Narcissism: What’s Normal and What’s Extreme

Parenting teens is not easy. One extra challenging element can be feeling like your teen is only focused on themselves. It may feel at times like your teen is so selfish and self-absorbed, and like they only care about their own lives and experiences. Sometimes it feels like they actually think the world revolves around them! You may start to wonder - could my teen be developing Narcissistic Personality Disorder? 

Many typical teen behaviors can mirror symptoms of a personality disorder because teens are developmentally prone to extreme moods, self-focus, and tumultuous relationships. This article will cover the differences between a personality disorder, normal teenage egocentrism, and how to cope with narcissistic behavior. 

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?

NPD is one type of personality disorder. A personality disorder is broadly defined as enduring patterns of inner experiences and behavior that differ significantly from expectations from your culture. These deviations are inflexible, pervasive and cause significant distress and impairment. For narcissistic personality disorder, the most prominent problematic patterns are:

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance while constantly comparing yourself to others
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, and love
  • Need for excessive admiration, and intense distress in response to shame or failure
  • Interpersonal exploitation (i.e., taking advantage of others for their own gains)
  • Lack of empathy for others

When does NPD develop?

Personality disorders are typically not diagnosed until adulthood (18+) since they are significant diagnoses that require thorough evaluation by a mental health professional to diagnose and require specialized treatment. Teens rarely present with this many symptoms in a stable way over time. 

Some symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder look like typical adolescent self-focus and drama! The biggest difference is that symptoms of NPD are more extreme and cause intense, persistent problems and disruption to a person’s life and functioning.

Signs and Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Along with the baseline description above, someone with NPD needs to have at least five of the symptoms listed below present consistently over a minimum of 6 months to a year, to receive a diagnosis in adulthood. Below you’ll find these symptoms are paired with real examples of how this can show up in a young person’s life. Whether you meet the criteria for a diagnosis or not, any of these symptoms is a signal to get more support and evaluation:

  1. Grandiose sense of self-importance, such as exaggerating achievements and talents or expecting to be recognized as superior without corresponding achievements.
    Example: Expects to be selected as captain of the varsity soccer team, having only played soccer in childhood.
  2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
    Example: Convinced that they’re going to become a social media influencer with an already enormous following, so there’s no need to focus on school.
  3. Believing that they are special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.
    Example: Receiving negative feedback from a teacher results in them believing they should begin college early because they are “above” others at school.
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
    Example: Deeply offended when friends don’t treat them as the center of the social experience.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement, unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment, or expects automatic compliance with their wishes.
    Example: Expects parents to give preference to them over siblings or other family members even if it means harm coming to others.
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative, like taking advantage of others to achieve their own ends.
    Example: Begins dating someone to get closer to the date’s parent, who has a prestigious job.
  7. Lacks empathy—is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
    Example: Abruptly stops hanging out with a friend who offends them.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
    Example: Always talking about what their friends have, and needing them to be jealous of their new clothes or accessories.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
    Example: Constantly talking about being “better than everyone.”

What’s the difference between narcissism and teen egocentrism?

It’s natural to wonder sometimes if your teen is problematically selfish. Because teens are undergoing so many physical and emotional changes during the teen years, and experiencing more intense moods, it can feel like they believe the world revolves around them sometimes. Narcissism, on the other hand, is when a pervasive and problematic pattern of extreme selfishness persists past the teen years into adulthood, and begins to impact every area of a person’s life. How can you tell the difference between typical teen selfishness and narcissism? Let’s look at what “adolescent egocentrism” is and how to tell the difference between this and narcissistic traits.

Dr. David Elkind coined the term “adolescent egocentrism.” He discovered that teenagers have difficulty separating their thoughts from the thoughts of others and that this is a normal and healthy developmental process. Being extra self-centered during the teen years is actually a result of brain development, and it causes most teens to feel like no one else (including their parents) understands them, and that everyone is focused on them all the time.

Even though this sounds like the symptoms of NPD, remember that those symptoms have to be present across contexts for a significant period of time, persisting into adulthood, and causing problems across all areas of life. Adults with NPD are often very isolated, lonely people who struggle in work and relationships, even if it appears that they have a lot of success on the surface. Most teens will grow out of their egocentric thoughts and behaviors, and have times when they demonstrate empathy and humility, even if there is a rough period. If you are noticing that, rather than “growing out of” narcissistic behavior, your teen seems to only struggle more as they get older, or if they begin struggling across contexts and transitions to adult environments like college or work, it’s a good time to seek more evaluation and help. More detail on treatment for NPD is included below.

Potential causes of NPD

There appears to be a genetic component to the risk of developing a personality disorder in general. The risk of developing NPD is greater when there is a first-degree relative, like a parent, with NPD or another personality disorder. Many adults who are diagnosed with NPD in adulthood have similar experiences in childhood—these are considered risk factors:

  • Extreme or inconsistent parenting, such as one parent giving excessive attention, and the other being abusive or absent
  • Multiple traumatic experiences
  • Hostile conflict or violence in the home
  • Early parental loss or disruption

It’s important to note that not all children who experience these things go on to develop NPD or other mental health disorders, but they are considered risk factors. These experiences are all marked by significant disruptions in a person’s crucial early relationships, which is why NPD is often described as an “attachment” disorder, along with borderline personality disorder and other disorders associated with interpersonal relationships.

Despite the inflated, “grandiose” way that people with NPD present to others most of the time, this disorder is characterized by extremely poor self-esteem and self-doubt. In fact, it’s this disruption in their ability to care for themselves consistently that causes them to present a “front” of arrogance. People with NPD usually have varying degrees of insight around this, and it may change depending on who they are close to at any time. 

Adults with NPD are usually considered very “charming” and easy to get along with at first, but relationships invariably end up filled with conflict and distance due to the lack of empathy, sense of entitlement, and exploitative behavior that someone with NPD engages in. Ultimately, people with NPD have disruptions across all relationships in their life, and difficulty functioning across areas like work, school, and day-to-day life management. This is very different from typical teen struggles with changing moods, identity discovery, and conflict with family.

Treatment for NPD

If you are noticing any of these signs or symptoms developing in your teen, or you believe your teen is struggling with self-esteem and relationships in general, therapy is a great starting place. For most adults with NPD, a combination of individual and family therapy is the most effective route. The focus of therapy for many people with NPD, or teens struggling with similar symptoms, includes:

  1. Consistent, caring boundaries
    Healthy relationships—both family relationships, and the therapeutic relationship— contain a consistent source of positive support and equally consistent boundaries. Boundaries need to be predictable, explicit, and equitable.
  2. Understanding relationships and emotions
    Individuals with NPD may not have learned “basic” elements of relationships and emotions during early childhood, so finding developmentally appropriate and individually respectful ways of teaching this can be essential in therapy for NPD.
  3. Practicing empathy
    Learning how to understand others can be taught! Family and individual therapy can serve as practice. Motivation for this can increase after someone with NPD has worked in therapy for a while and feels more capable of understanding relationships and boundaries.
  4. Building choice into behavior
    People with personality disorders often struggle with feeling like emotions and reactions are “automatic.” Learning how to understand, tolerate, and cope with distress is a great tool to break this “automatic” reaction cycle.

Parenting and NPD

If you are worried that your teen is struggling with symptoms of NPD, remember that it is developmentally appropriate and normal for teens to go through periods of time when they are self-focused. It’s also normal for family conflict to increase with teens, because the process of growing up, figuring out who they are, and trying new relationships inevitably leads to tension and conflict in the household. 

Most teens will “grow out of” self-focused behavior as they get older, and will behave differently in different contexts—like being selfish with a sibling, but compassionate toward a friend. If you believe your teen’s self-focus is more extreme and persistent, or you’re concerned about the quality of their relationships and ongoing mental health, then a mental health professional with expertise in teens is a great place to start. 

Presenting a choice between family therapy or therapy just for them can make the process less intimidating for your teen, so they have more of a say. The teen mental health experts at Joon can help your teen find relief from their struggles—don’t hesitate to make an appointment and learn more.

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August 3, 2023
Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Nicolai provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatment rooted in cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, interpersonal therapy, and family systems. Dr. Nicolai has specialized training in treating trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidailty, family problems, emotion dysregulation, and mood and anxiety disorders.

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