I believe understanding the nitty, gritty details of child development may be the key to preventing and possibly even healing personality disorders.
I document the age related stages that children go through. My work is used by tens of thousands every month. During these stages, children fall apart for some time. They might whine, become aggressive, won’t back off, need to cuddle all day long, lie a lot, etc. But after this stage of disarray, they have some new skill or skills. It’s as if the brain routinely upgrades all throughout childhood. These upgrades are rocky and difficult.
As I write about, this might help us heal trauma. I think this unrelenting behavior of children might be one of the major sources of trauma. The thing about these stages is that children become very irritating–to a modern parent anyway. We tend to expect children to “behave.” We don’t live primarily outside where children can run around and try out their new skills. We’re in houses where we don’t want them to break our TVs, etc. We are in no way equipped to handle this behavior.
And yet, our biological designs march on in an industrialized world. And two things happen during each stage: 1) the child becomes irritating and 2) sensitive new skills are forming. In other words, the risk for violence against the child is high at a time that is highly critical for their development. It is a dangerous mix.
My argument in Misbehavior is Growth, my book series about these stages, is that this predestined biological behavior should be seen not as naughtiness, but as like a Bat Signal in the air that we come to children and nurture a new skill. I’m putting up a fight–the most passionate and radical fight I’ll ever put up–to fundamentally change the way we see parenting and child development. Our long view is to get children to be good or even “normalized” (as described by Maria Montessori). You’re fighting human nature. Stop. Lean into the behavior and actively manage it. You’ll never ever totally sanitize away this misbehavior, and each new milestone will bring something new. Don’t fight it; use it. You would be astonished by the results, because it’s exactly in children’s “misbehavior” where their potential lies.
My argument in how it can heal trauma is that if we go back in time and found out when violence occurred in a child’s life, we might look at what developmental milestone they were in. We could look at what skills should have grown, but didn’t.
For instance, I vividly remember being emotionally abused around 4/5 years old. I was told I told “boring stories” and that I was an insufferable dork. At 5, a child develops their “swag.” They just got out of the milestone where they realize they really can die–a horrifying thing to realize–but simultaneously it’s as if they “really exist” now. They can look around and realize, “Holy cow. Everything matters.” And they play around in this new “really real” world, with their personality and how it is perceived by others. At that exact time, my particular swag, my ability to tell stories, which I am sure was awkward and annoying at first, was crapped all over. I have suffered social anxiety most of my life. And true to the idea that misbehavior is growth, do you know what the most popular features of my Facebook Page, The Observant Mom, is? My stories. This is my “inner child,” my inner authentic strength, that should have grown, but didn’t. I believe most of our inner child’s were probably misunderstood, because it was likely couched in “misbehavior,” but I somewhat digress.
So, anyway, I offer that as an example of how understanding abuse/trauma at early ages can help us help affected adults. We can reparent that child who was hurt at that particular age. For instance, at those young ages, I recommend putting on lots of plays, reading history, and letting the child be a “star,” such as telling knock knock jokes to a receptive audience. All of these things still have relevance to healing trauma in an adult. Trauma therapy does have people acting in plays, to see that other people in the play are collaborative and kind and that you are seen. In other words, the things that should have been done for the child are now done for the adult. We reparent that young, wounded child. And you keep doing it and doing it until it has an effect.
I have long had an interest in understanding and healing both Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. They have affected me ok? I grew up with Borderline parents, and strangely I’ve managed to date many narcissistic men. (It’s a complicated triangle with the abusive Narcissist, the likes-to-be-abused Borderline, and the caretaker. I’m the caretaker.) You’ve likely been affected. You know how we all can’t stand each other? It’s probably NPD or (undiagnosed) BPD driving it. These things sincerely plague societies. Most political leaders suffer from one or the other. You’ll find a lot of narcissism among conservatives and borderline among the left, both of whom clamor for political power. The thoughts and behaviors of both of these disorders are often normalized as healthy. Or all psychological advice assumes people are plagued by them, when they are not.
Narcissism is marked by a child who was so hurt and abandoned in their youth that they suppressed their true self and develop a false self. They project a charismatic image to others constantly to receive their admiration and attention, which is known as “narcissistic supply.” They tend to be highly successful in some way, but they suffer with terrible self-esteem internally.
Borderline is marked by a child who experienced such violence and chaos in their young life that they have a constant fear of abandonment. They fall to pieces at the slightest criticism. They are prone to addictions and are not necessarily charismatic or successful; in fact they might take pride in how very ugly they are, which engenders comforting/mothering from others. And they really like to “huddle” with other people. And, though I find every Borderline swears it isn’t true, they can get really mean.
Both personality disorders are set in very young life, which is why I think my child development work, which offers such rich insight into a young person’s life, can help. This blog post will focus on narcissism.
In reading about narcissism, I have noticed for some time that the skills the narcissist lacks are the same ones that should have formed in young life. For instance, Sam Vaknin, who is a narcissist and studies narcissism extensively, writes in Malignant Self-Love.
“Serial vocations prevent the narcissist from having a clear career path
and obviate the need to persevere. All the initiatives adopted by the narcissist are egocentric, sporadic and discrete (they focus on one skill or trait of the narcissist, are randomly distributed in space and in time,
and do not form a thematic or other continuum – they are not goal or objective oriented).” Emotional Involvement Preventive Measures
When I read this, I instantly recognized these skills as ones that should have developed in the late threes. I call one of those milestones “Thematic Thinking.” The child starts to put together a massive amount of information into something, such as drawing out an elaborate picture showing they know how a roller coaster works. I consider the late threes in particular to be ones related to core personality integration, which I will discuss below.
I had thought with narcissism that one particularly violent episode here or there aimed at the child at an unfortunately sensitive time may have caused it. While that is undoubtedly part of it, the even more unfortunate conclusion I have come to is that a narcissist, as a child, experienced relentless abuse across all of early childhood. Virtually all skills that should have been developed in early life are missing in a narcissist. It is not just that the skills didn’t develop, it seems as if the abusive adult waged a concerted attack on the child’s inner self.
I assume here that a narcissist likely had a narcissistic parent. As such, the young child was seen as a threat to the narcissistic parent, who wants all attention on them and resents caregiving duties. A narcissist is incapable of love and continues to raise children without love. The child was only tended to when it met a need of the parent, creating a constant approach/discard cycle. It’s a vicious cycle. One wonders how they manage to breed at all. But the narcissist is incredibly charismatic and often successful and good-looking. We as a culture all but worship these skills which seem like “achievement” to us. Truly, this is a difficult epidemic to solve.
Here is a break down by age, based on my child development work and my understanding of narcissism, as to how eventual adult skills failed to form in a narcissist’s young life. I describe the skill that should have formed, the abuse possibly endured, and how to possibly heal it. Truly, there is no greater healing power than being put back in touch with your inner child, and the amount of detail I offer to do just this is unparalleled.
The Possible Abuse
Sam Vaknin describes the household a narcissist typically grew up in. From Emotional Involvement Prevention Measures:
“The narcissist is typically born into a dysfunctional family. It is characterised by massive denial, both internal (“You do not have a real problem, you are only pretending”) and external (“You must never reveal the family’s secrets to anyone”). “
Massive denial. That is key. It is opposite of what I constantly advocate in parenting, which is an observant approach to parenting. It’s the very name of this blog, “The Observant Mom.” The goal is to observe and observe and understand and observe our children as we parent. It’s to validate their reality, thoughts, and feelings as hard we can. It’s to get into their world. I want to show how great of children we can raise when we take a tremendously deep dive into their inner world. Documenting the intricate details of this inner world is what I do.
The narcissist had the opposite as a child. They had nothing validated. They lived with constant fear. They experienced frequent degradation and humiliation. Misbehavior wasn’t Growth in their family; it was a massive threat to the parent’s huge, false, frail egos. They saw children as something to mold into something “higher” or better. They didn’t lean into natural child development. It was, unfortunately, a relentless attack on a young child’s soul. Likely being wealthy, unfortunately, they had the resources to do it.
I suspect this is slightly different than the house a Borderline grew up in. The house a Borderline grew up in is typically highly violent. But it seems to be more accidental. A terrible condition or an illness caused the family to not have the resources necessary to raise a child. Whereas, for the narcissist, they can easily grow up with a lot of resources and wealth and still have this concerted attack on their soul–in fact, even moreso due to the wealth.
This is my assumption about a narcissist’s upbringing: they experienced nearly constant gaslighting, denial, invalidation, degradation, humiliation, pressure to perform, and even physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. On purpose. Intentionally.
Although, it is actually worse than this: it was marked by some periods of seeming love, followed by a sharp, painful discard. And this cycle is arguably worse than constant abuse. Constant abuse would have allowed the child to develop emotional coping skills to deal with it. They would gather up all resources into one singular healthy goal: run away. It’s far easier to know the enemy is the enemy than to think the enemy might possibly be a friend. Poison delivered from someone you thought loved you is the worst kind. A young child stood no chance against this.
The Possible Cure
I believe going back, milestone by milestone, and seeing what skills should have developed, but didn’t, can help. I offer, as one therapy, doing things developmentally appropriate to the age where the wound occurred as to rehabilitate the now wounded adult.
I don’t want you to feel infantilized by this. I have found that in raising my children, I’ve rounded out many of the skills I didn’t have. For instance, in reading so many children’s stories, my writing has improved. I used to write very long sentences. In reading so many stories to my children, I am constantly around well-constructed sentences. I started writing shorter, more on-point sentences.
Consider also that even professional athletes go back and do some simple exercises. Even a pro who won the Superbowl undoubtedly likes to go outside and just play catch sometimes. Doing things a young child might like doesn’t make you a loser. It makes you entirely human.
Besides, you are currently reading this in the privacy of wherever you are at. You don’t need to tell a single soul that I am going back to your childhood, validating the shit out of you, and offering some simple exercises to help grow what you might lack. You’ve likely never met me. You’ll likely never meet me. You don’t need to impress me. I can never abandon you. Sincerely, I am here to help. I am on your team.
I like to also think of it that you are not a “narcissist.” You are living with narcissism. I know this is opposite of current thinking. Most who deal with narcissism say it’s no different than your race: it’s something you are. But if I can ever so gently needle this out to be something you are living with, not something you are, I think more healing can take place. You are not a narcissist. You are Justin. Or Jason. Or Dan. You are living with a disorder, in the same way some people live with endometriosis or autoimmune disorders. All of these things, including narcissism, are heavily influenced by how a human was treated in early life. They are not genetic conditions. They don’t need some magical “cure.” They need some fundamentally different ways of being. Narcissism itself is maladaptive. This means it is adaptive in its own weird way. It is a profound desire to live and function but within dysfunction. That means that spark, that desire to live, is there. I still call them “narcissists” in order to write with brevity. But a “narcissist” puts an unusual amount of energy into creating their false self. That means there is useful energy within them. If it can be redirected, perhaps healing can take place.
The goal with narcissism is to fundamentally make ugly, challenge, condemn, and ultimately kill the false self. Then, it is to see, validate, and nurture the true self. The true self is where your natural strength is. It shouldn’t take a Herculean effort to be strong and amazing. Strength and beauty are the natural state. It should be fun and boingy and present.
I also seek to wrestle away the idea that punishment is a growth measure or that anyone is deserving of punishment. A narcissist constantly feels worthy of punishment. That punishment should take no place in everyday life as to affect human behavior is the very point I make in my book Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. I discuss emotional management as well as issues about happiness, joy, guilt, pain, fear, shame, unease, and anxiety, extensively in this book. Maybe check it out. No one, including you, should have to walk around in constant shame and constant worry about what others will think of them if they “found out” anything.
Finally, if you don’t like any of my suggestions, then don’t do them. Trying to encourage acceptance is much harder than it seems. How do I tell a person to feel good inside themselves, and that is sincerely what I want for a person, but without turning it into a duty to feel good inside yourself? Your own internal compass is wiser than anything I write here. If I validate you, I’ve done my job. If I make you feel bad about yourself, I have not. Take from me what you want. Don’t feel obligated to do anything.
Now, an age-by-age breakdown of skills and how everything could have gone wrong. I make a lot of assumptions here. My goal is to spark an interest in this study so further research and work can be done.
Ages 0 – 1
My work doesn’t start until age 18 months, but the work of The Wonder Weeks famously starts from birth and goes until 18 months. There are 10 “mental leaps,” brain upgrades, in that time.
The very first brain upgrade that a child goes through is Mental Leap 1 at 5 weeks old. This is one of “Changing Sensations.” The child starts to realize the outer world is separate from them. Their world up to that time is described as not much different than being in the womb: everything is sort of soft and undifferentiated.
This is one of the skills, if not the skill, that a narcissist struggles with: they don’t know where they end and the world begins. A narcissist “only exists as a reflection on other’s eyes.” They are “walking scar tissue.” They don’t know who they are, so they make up who they are, and live off of the attention they receive from others. This is because of a failure to meet the most real need of humans, especially human babies: to be seen. We as humans have to be seen to know our worth. In its absence, it’s as if the child is on a never-ending quest.
It is only through the touch of loving, attentive parents that a person individuates. Without touch, us humans are prone to feel we are lost at sea. When sailors are lost at sea, much like a person in a desert who sees a mirage of water, they sometimes get so lost mentally that they jump off of their boat. They thought they had found land. This is how mentally desolate a person who doesn’t have the loving touch of another can feel. We humans cannot bear this much loneliness, let alone a young child, let alone one whose reality is being actively denied and criticized. From their loved ones.
If you think taking such a hard look at narcissism means reprimanding these people, who indeed tend to be so exploitive and abusive, think again. As young as 5 weeks old, what should have blossomed in them didn’t. I am going to take this analysis up to 6 years old. And it isn’t even until 5 that a child has any sense of conscious choice over their personality. Everything until then is wildly fantastical in the child’s mind. This abuse–this murder–happened before a child truly had any kind of autonomy. It is truly one of the worst sins. I can but hope that some of the abuse didn’t quite set in this young for any individual. I can but hope there are some positive experiences for the child before the age of 5 to draw upon.
The rest of 0-1 is marked by an organization of the child internally, and largely physical. The most dramatic physical change in a human’s life is between 0 and 1. The child learns to sit up, crawl, walk. They learn to watch things that slowly move by them, then judge distance. They start to categorize the world into concepts. They then, with the ability to sit up, grasp things, etc., start in on a lot of trial and error to make things do what they want. This age is filled with a lot of trying to grab things, stacking things, playing with blocks, and splashing in bathtubs.
Age 0 – 1 Reparenting
The adult needs to be held up in love. They need to feel the adoration of a motherly figure, who loves them even if they have flaws and struggles. This will sound insane to an abused person. It’s like drinking spoiled milk all of your life, and then being told milk itself is the elixir of life. A narcissist otherwise learned they can only depend on themselves and does not see the need for such love. Which, given their life experience, is fair. If you don’t want the love of another or see its value, I get that. But it itself might free you of that constant, nagging desire to be “seen” by any random person you meet: the otherwise core conflict of a narcissist.
This requires another committed person. How does one get that? This is the million dollar question in trauma therapy. There is no prescription for this. And the inherent problem is narcissists so fear abandonment that they draw people close, then discard them. They fear humiliation so much that they’d rather do the humiliating before being humiliated.
I am aware that I have the personality that can push through this. I can look at them and say “Stop. Stop this. Don’t push me away.” But should I act as this sacrificial animal? That is the question that burns on my mind. I otherwise do tend to enjoy the company of narcissists more than others. I have my own issues ok?
If you don’t want or don’t have this highly friendly figure in your life, at the very least know this: you had every right to experience rage and hate towards your tormentor, likely your mother. You even had a right to wish her dead. You would be amazed how much of a difference it would make to estrange an abusive person.
I find children who grew up with narcissistic parents, unlike those who grew up with borderline parents (something current thought doesn’t understand), tend to forever crave their mother’s love. They have it in their head that they could get that love “if …” If they were loveable enough. The narcissistic parent projects the image that they are the loving parent. They may be beloved in their community. And yet they don’t extend love to their own child. So the child knows what it looks like, but never received it. This is different for a child of a borderline, whose parents never even attempted any such show. A child of a borderline parent probably just wanted to run away. So the narcissist, I find, tends to not estrange their parents.
But if you can do this if but mentally, accepting the grief that your mother is dead in a way, it might kick off the healing process. You have to see and feel a new way of being, one that you currently probably don’t even know is possible. Getting out from under the abuse really is the first step. And then just trust that something better does really exist.
Ages 1 – 2
The first half of the ones is still covered by The Wonder Weeks and is marked mostly by tinkering with objects in progressively more complicated ways.
My work starts at 18 months: Toddler Milestone 1. This is the chart of the milestones from 18 months to 2 years.
It is at 18 months that a child’s will really kicks in and just continues to grow over the next several months. Some pediatricians describe that it is at this age that parents start to worry about “discipline” and start to enact traditional punishments. For the very first time ever, a child doesn’t just get into the carseat as asked. And you can’t just pick them up without a fight (like you can an infant). This is when my work kicks in and I offer tips to deal with it at each milestone, such as using Distraction to help make situations go smoothly.
It is actually this issue of distraction that I run into arguments with parents. I get told that distraction means you “aren’t dealing with the issue.” Yes you are. As I write, “Distraction isn’t distraction.” You ARE satisfying the need of the child: you are giving them time with you, by, say, singing a song, while getting your need satisfied to get them into the car seat. Virtually all competent caregivers do this as they go about their day. They lovingly make situations easier for a child. That’s what “distraction” is.
But some mothers are so convinced that their children are super smart and can understand that they need to do what they need to do. The parents want to force the issue via highly rational communication with but an 18 month old child. I have to gently tell them, without bruising their ego, that they are grossly over estimating the rational capability of their young child.
Truthfully, one is greatly overestimating the “rational” capability of an adult if you think you can just tell them to do something and they willingly comply. This isn’t how people work, and definitely not a child, who at this age is 100% ego with yet no intellectual capacity for the perspective of other people. You have to make the environment pleasant for the child. The child still needs to go through early life as if they are in a sort of “womb.” I suspect narcissistic mothers did not do this for their children. And it is these very same women that I often have problems with, in which they gaslight my experiences, by constantly telling me to see bad situations “more positively.”
So this is what they do: they pathologize healthy caregiving forms of distraction as being avoidance, but then they themselves engage in gaslighting behavior itself, which is malicious avoidance. If they pathologize you, the light isn’t on them. I write about it here: It’s not Distraction. It’s Gaslighting. And, Yes, Stop. If we define our terms properly, we can’t wiggle out of bad behavior.
Age 1 – 2 Reparenting
Virtually every narcissist I know thinks the world is a dangerous, unfair place. How many have I heard snarl, “Life isn’t fair!” The irony is that the narcissist themselves are incapable of handling a bruising reality. They can’t handle the shame. They can’t take a simple life failure and just learn from it. That harsh way of handling “life” is the maladaptive way they had to adapt to, and they sincerely think everyone else is like them and has to learn this too.
Perhaps the treatment where a parent never thought to make transitioning through life, such as going to get your diaper changed or getting in the bath, pleasant for a child is to blame. I don’t doubt the child was seen as simply being difficult just to be difficult, as “attention seeking,” or “manipulating” the caregiver. Which is of course what the narcissistic parent was doing. These ideas, that children are just manipulatively seeking attention, are alive and well even in parenting today. Many authors directly take these idea to task in their writing. Children are looking for connection from adults, not “attention.” Give it to them.
As you go about life, perhaps be kind to yourself. Ask yourself if are feeling any unease right now. If the unease is unnecessary, can you let it go? Learn the difference between guilt and shame, which is the difference between primary and secondary emotions. Guilt is healthy. It is warranted, temporary, and drives positive action. Shame is not healthy. It never deserves a permanent place in your mind, gets lodged there, and drives negative action. It is toxic. Many books are on the market now that deal with releasing shame. E-readers make it possible to read them in total privacy.
And, of course, many parents start using punitive means with children at this age. I work night and day to show people that punitive means on virtually everyone are counterproductive.
Age 2 – 3 Milestones
It is actually in these milestones where I think the potential for inflicting narcissism starts to really escalate (it is at its most vulnerable in the late threes, I think). A child grows in their emotions, empathy, and sense of right and wrong between 2 and 3. These are things the narcissist struggles with. Here is the chart of the milestones,
If I had to describe the difference between a child of 2 and 3, it is that the child at 2 is stubborn and the child at 3 can put away their own “whim” to adhere to a principle. A child at 2 wants to wear a pair of pants currently in the laundry and only that pair. A child at 3 can be asked to not jump into a pool and will probably comply. This grows in steps over the year. They grow greatly in impulse control, understand basic short term plans, and in general understand what is going on (in the short term). Hence Toddler Milestone 12, which is just shy of 3, is “Adheres to Principles,” while Toddler Milestone 5, which is just after 2, is “Persistence and Insistence.” (But that persistence has a purpose: they dog at new activities until they get them right.)
Some time in the early 2s, somewhere around 2 years, 1 months or a bit after, the child experiences their first big emotions. For the first time ever, the emotion penetrates them deeply, more than just a silly “uh oh” because something dropped. This assuredly brings a sense of fear of something, say of a thunderstorm. A parent can respond in one of two ways. They can admonish the child about their emotion, “It’s thunder! It’s nothing to be afraid of!” Or they can validate the child’s emotion, “You’re scared of thunder? Here, we are here for you when you feel scared.” The child’s first big emotions are starting to develop. And how is it handled? What happens if they experience emotional, physical, or sexual abuse?
They grow in their empathy at these ages. What is amazing is that their first big emotion has to happen first, and only until after this do they have empathy for others. It’s actually not long from their first big emotion that they acknowledge other’s emotions (empathy). They likely experience their first big emotions around 2.1. They start experiencing empathy at Toddler Milestone 8, around 2 years, 6 months. I called this milestone “Inference,” and it proves that empathy is indeed a cognitive skill. Inference means they can draw a plausible conclusion with limited evidence. The garage door opens: dad must be home. Their brother’s door is closed: he must be sleeping. Similarly: their baby brother is crying, maybe they could use a kiss. Before, their “empathy” was largely mimicry. They may have pretended to take care of a baby doll. Now their empathy is deliberate and directed. They can make a deliberate decision of how to solve this “problem.” It is 1:1 matching of event:conclusion or problem:solution at first. But it is beginning empathy, and it’s rooted in this new cognitive ability of inference.
Can I state that again it is not until 2-1/2 that a child is even capable of empathy? There may be variability in human development, but it is not until they intellectually develop this ability can you expect it of a child.
They grow, after this, in their complexity to do this. They might soon start to think “The baby needs a bottle.” This is slightly more educated than their previous solution to most emotional problems: that others just need a hug or a kiss. This is why Toddler Milestone 9, 2 years, 8 months, is “Creative On-the-Spot Problem Solving.”
If a child lives in panicked fear for their own safety, are they going to entertain thoughts of how to help their baby brother? Or perhaps will they resent another child for also having needs, when no one’s needs are being taken care of, and now there is just more to deal with? Enter: the narcissist’s utter disgust at the “neediness” of others. At just 2-1/2 years old.
Further, learning has an emotional component to it. At a minimum, a child has to feel safe to learn effectively. But research tells us one has to have an emotional investment to learn something. We learn stuff that will help us. We especially learn when something negative happens to us. If a narcissists emotions are shut down, learning becomes all but impossible. In the late ones, children develop symbolic thought. So they have the intellectual capability to hold on to symbols but no emotional investment to get up close with objects. This may be why narcissists learn only by generalizing. See, again, Vaknin’s work for more on how narcissists do this.
In the late twos, they really start to develop a sense of right and wrong. As noted, at Inference, they can start to draw some intellectual conclusions. Part of it is also, “At the road, I have to stop and look.” You can finally let them play on the driveway without being so fearful that they’ll run away or into the road. They are starting to follow some rules. It is a relief to most mothers.
This grows greatly in their late twos. Their ability to understand rules/plans over a short amount of time increases. In Toddler Milestone 11, 2 years, 10 months, “Short Term Plans,” they may be told when on vacation that they can’t have candy, because you are about to go on a tour. But then when the tour is done, they know to ask for candy, as it is a more appropriate time. They can realize that the rule is “you take turns” and they can put aside their immediate impulse and adhere to the rule. Their emotional maturity really grows. I don’t doubt that many hormonal changes take place at this time. It’s not that they deny their emotional needs, but they have better regulation over them as their cognitive brain starts to “take over.”
Narcissists struggle with such impulse control. The ones I know seem to constantly feel robbed of joy, and as such all but exploit whatever joy they do see. You can do nothing but get an interesting toy for your kid while out on vacation with one, and they are jealous they didn’t get it. They don’t wait until the tour is done to get candy. They grab it now. Given they learned that adults will never remember to get the candy, it is an understandable if maladaptive response.
A child also learns how to handle mistakes at these ages. They are highly mistake prone during these developmental stages. And just shy of 3, they really, really want to try their hand at complicated things, like making a smoothie on their own, which they are naturally awful at at first. This is why Toddler Milestone 12 is about Principles with “Many Variables.” A nurturing parent will look at a shattered glass of smoothie on the floor, calm themselves down, and say, “It’s Ok. We can try again.” This is no easy thing to do, even for a highly healthy parent, let alone a narcissistic one, who will see this inconvenience as an all out attack on them.
Parents sometimes call them “The Terrible Twos.” To a competent parent, of course, they just see it as natural child development to deal with. To an entitled ass of a parent (the narcissist), they see it as a wild inconvenience. The child lives under the tyranny of being called a “bad boy” during these ages when caring, empathy, and a sense of right and wrong should have bloomed.
Age 2 – 3 Reparenting
How do you teach empathy to someone who failed to develop it in childhood? You would make a lot of money if you could learn to do this.
I find parenting your own children can, possibly, teach this. You have to, however, welcome in some new insight into healthy parenting. All of that stuff that you thought was just a bunch of hippy dippy “progressive” nonsense. Yeah. All of that.
I find some people are benefited just by hearing healthy parenting stories. See one of the ones I tell here, The Power of ‘Let’s Try Again‘. I’ve had people tell me I’ve helped heal them in the stories I tell. Reading parenting books can help too. I really liked Siblings Without Rivalry for these issues. I was in literal pain as I thought of how much the stories written resonated with my youth and how unfairly I was treated–but that better ways exist.
I don’t know of any non-parenting books that can truly give you these emotional tools needed. I try in writing Towards Liberalism, although I find my impact tends to be minimal (as it tends to be when trying to turnaround abusive tendencies or deep personality disorders). Maybe that’s because parenting is where these skills are needed, learned, and imparted. If you read through some parenting books, even if you are not a parent, you might learn how you were failed as a child, which may help release that pain, and help learn what some healthier emotional mechanisms are. You could also read mine, Misbehavior is Growth. 🙂 I offer the introduction (linked) for free.
Age 3 – 4 Milestones
The ages of 3 – 4 is another high risk age in the way of developing narcissism, if not the highest. These are the major milestones at this age (void of the “mini-milestones”):
The child in their early 3s really starts to test principles of moving systems (i.e., all of life). And I consider the late 3s in particular (although all the 3s really) to be core personality integration. Hence their relevance to if a personality disorder sets in.
In the early threes, children test basic things like “Red means stop and green means go.” Then they grow in their flexibility of this. They realize that “Red means stop but sometimes Mom can turn right on red.” They experiment with this too. They purposely do things in unconventional and often difficult ways. This is Preschool Milestone 3, Flexible Application of Principles, one I am particularly fond of. They truly start to show, rather flex (their personality is there at birth), their personality here in what boundaries they push. See Preschool Milestone 3: A Coming of 3-Year-Old Age Milestone. This is my son (my third) cheekily trying to put two legs in one pant leg and walk around:
They grow and grow in their realization of how things move and operate. They constantly evaluate what is being said and compare it to reality. They notice mismatches between these things too. If you make a “3 waffle sandwich,” it better have 3 waffles. This is the essence of Preschool Milestone 4, 3 years, 3 months, “Persistent Application of Principles.”
In the next milestones, they then grow in this persistence of application of principles, noticing things from yesterday–the relevance of them–and projecting thoughts into the future. They do this without any prompting from you do to do it.
Interestingly, in this time, around 3 years, 4 months, the child has wildly fantastical thoughts. They see dogs on the ceiling and sharks in the rug. They think you can pick up entire rooms and bring them to them. They think cars can be picked up and thrown so you can get out of traffic. They have completely irrational thoughts–but they develop control over these thoughts, in increasingly powerful ways over the course of months. They hand you nothing at all and say it’s their favorite character. Eventually they develop elaborate stories about fighting dragons and monsters.
The entire essence of trauma is disassociation. The body is under attack and the inner world takes on a life of its own, constantly on vigilant guard against a possible attack. What happens to a traumatized child whose natural, unstoppable development causes him to see dogs in the ceiling? What kind of world does he see it as? A child in healthy circumstances is shocked by these new things they see, but which are temporary. They likely want their mother more, which is the essence of any one of these developmental stages. But they then learn to control these fantastical things they see. What does the traumatized child learn? How can they not develop a view of constant paranoia? Every single object they see, a ceiling, the floor, is a potential threat.
It is in the mid to late threes that I see as the most high risk time for narcissism to set in. They really, really start to compare everything in the late threes. It starts with simple intellectual associations, such as “Bats sleep just like we do!” This is Preschool Milestone 8, “Integrates Principles.” And they love to race two different cars down a track, etc. They notice they learned about a pig in a video and they have learned about pigs in a book. They mentally hold onto an enormous amount of information, integrate, compare it, and use it.
But they thing they MOST love to compare is THEMSELVES to others. In a race to the van, do they win? Are they the prettiest, smartest, most amazing creature ever? They collect actual data now to determine that. The late 3s can be considered “final organization of the core personality.” And they put themselves into relationships with others. They might decide they are indeed the fastest and need to be the leader. Or their brother is pretty smart and they can learn from him. Or it’s fun to cheer on their sister as she plays a game.
In normal development, a child learns to individuate through this. It might be bruising to lose a race, but loving parents saw them through it. They saw things they were good at. They saw other children as also good at certain things.
But how will a child put in an abusive, gaslighting home deal with this? They’ve lived with constant degradation as being a “bad boy” and a nuisance. To add insult, in the absence of any descriptive praise from their parents, they are now at the mercy of the opinion of their three year old peers. What can set in except a permanent feeling of shame, envy, and being constantly in submission to other’s opinion? This truly is the stuff of horror stories.
In the late threes, children develop “thematic thinking,” which is Preschool Milestone 12, 3 years, 8 months. They can organize objects into a theme. They might start organizing the pepperoni on their pizza into a pattern. Their art starts to take a distinct form. Instead of putting perl beads randomly on boards, they might start to take a pattern. And, as I understand it, narcissists are solely lacking this. One, my ex, in a highly vulnerable confession to me, said, “I’m a one trick pony.” Narcissists cannot organize their actions or lives into a cohesive plan. They hop from job to job. They are easily bored. They maintain one “island of stability” and that’s it. As noted, Sam Vaknin writes about it,
“All the initiatives adopted by the narcissist are egocentric, sporadic and discrete (they focus on one skill or trait of the narcissist, are randomly distributed in space and in time, and do not form a thematic or other continuum – they are not goal or objective oriented).”
This ability to organize up large amounts of data starts in the late 3s. The mid 4s is where they develop the ability to understand ideas across large spans of time.
The very late 3s shows an increase in understanding the exact rules of something. They start to learn to get around those rules. If you tell them not to hit someone, and they hit you with a baseball bat, they tell you they didn’t hit you. The bat did. This is Preschool Milestone 13, 3 years, 10 months, “Test and Evaluates Complex Systems.” Truly, they can hold on to every single little variable as they compare systems of thought. In a healthy environment, this “rules bending” is temporary and even healthy, as they flex their power and ability to solve problems creatively. This age is often a relief for parents, because if you fully explain to a child why they need to stay quiet in a library, they usually do.
In a narcissistic home, this stage of “rules bending” doesn’t develop their creative problem skills. What it exactly does, I am not sure, but perhaps it just perfects the child’s manipulation skills. And we’re talking about a child who isn’t even 4 yet. But look at all, as I just previously described, that they’ve been through. This is a child who was left abandoned when they desperately needed cuddled in infancy. They were bluntly moved around in the world, without any songs or fun to make it pleasant. Their deep emotions were never validated. How could they have anything but resentment for the needs of others when theirs were never satisfied? At the ages when they wonder what their character is and if they are good, they were consistently told they were bad–if not outright annoying. The delightful imagination that should mark childhood instead took on the form of scary ghosts and monsters lurking in every object they encountered. In comparison to others, what their minds are preoccupied with in the mid to late threes, they consistently came up short. And now they are learning how to use and bend rules to their advantage. Where creativity and mutual problem solving could have blossomed, how could anything except cunning and manipulation develop?
Note also that the very early 3s is marked by a child who deliberately picks a “role” to adopt. They might carry on as if they are their older brother. Or they pretend to be a crane. It is different than the twos because the realize they aren’t these things but are choosing to role play. Whereas at 2-1/2, they seem to think they are Snow White or Thomas the Train. This ability to try on a new character has obvious relevance to narcissism, in which the narcissist creates a “false self.” So, really, all of 3 to 4 is core personality integration.
So this is 3 to 4. It is distinctly marked by cognitive growth. They start by bouncing around abstract ideas, in which they make much better and more patterned abstract conclusions, e.g., putting letters into alphabetical order, as is distinct of the early 3s. They grow in their understanding of principles as applied to moving things and over time. They get really smart in their strategic thinking. They start to hold on to an enormous amount of information that they test and compare. They finalize the integration of their very core personality as they gather data about what is and who they are, as compared to others. Throughout all of this, they have wild imaginations that they gradually develop more control over. It ends with what I think of as a “lawyer”: a child who adorably uses their understanding of rules to their advantage.
Core personality integration. This is 3-4. It then launches into 4: a child ready to go out and “take on the world,” so to speak.
Reparenting 3 – 4
It’s here where I think some child-like games and activities might help. Simply playing around with something like perl beads can work this skill of putting things into patterns and plans. I find the activity fun as an adult. It is just plastic beads that you put wherever you want on a peg board, thus creating a sort of mosaic. Or, art in general can help, if you are already skilled at it.
Beginning card and board games are fun at this age. At this age, a child learns games at about the level of Go Fish. Some more advanced games may of course be better for the adult. A game with fair rules makes you feel safe, like the world is fair, and you have control over your destiny. Playing them with others, in a non-gambling way, increases a sense of connection too. I don’t know, however, that a narcissist could handle such “boredom.”
Most narcissists I know gamble in some way. If they don’t hit the casinos, they love, say, flying an airplane or the like. This likely deeply validates them. They constantly wonder if they are a mega-winner or a total loser, which they amount to pure luck. When they gamble, their inner world is made an actual reality. Either fate is acceptable to them. Mega winning makes them feel, well, like a narcissist: all knowing, strong, amazing. Losing confirms their worst fears and acts as a sort of relief. It’s better to get your sentence than be in limbo, not knowing what punishment a judge might deliver. Perhaps dealing directly with gambling addiction can help. I am sure books exist for this exact thing. I don’t want to take the fun of life away from you. I want you to feel more stable day in and day out, such that your moral worth doesn’t feel like it constantly needs put to the test. What can replace gambling? What is fun without constantly risking something that is as high stakes as your own moral worth?
I advocate a lot of descriptive praise for children starting shy of 3, really. As they try their hand at solving problems, they feel profoundly good when you notice what they did. If a parent never did this for you, try it for yourself. When you feel like you are failing, get out a pen and paper and list all the things you are good at. When I feel like a failure in life, I intuitively do this. Many successful people do this. It doesn’t make you a weakling dependent on “mummy’s support,” which is how I see narcissists describe giving such praise to a child. It is an entirely healthy, entirely human thing to do.
Age 4 – 5 Milestones
Hello, 4! In healthy child development, you now have a “superhero”! They know who they are, and they are ready to take on big challenges in the world.
Some child psychologists say children go through stages of being “in” then “out” in about 6-12 month cycles. This is certainly true of 3 into 4. Three is marked by core personality integration. They were “in,” working on their inner life. At 4, they undoubtedly go “out.”
From 3 to 4, you likely had to put on the child’s shoes and coats. This isn’t because they couldn’t. It’s because they still liked and needed your presence. Now they are likely to belligerently demand they do it on their own. They might trot off to their room and slam the door, as they value their privacy and want to try things on their own. This is a picture of my daughter right before her 4th birthday. We went around most places as Wonder Woman:
In the interest of brevity, I am going to make 4-5 and 5-6 shorter than the other descriptions. I also think the damage has mostly been done by 4. But highly relevant things still happen 4-5 and 5-6. Here are the 4-5 milestones:
A healthy child at 4 projects out. It’s as if, to any parent, that any house is too small to contain a 4-year-old child. They learn what is possible versus impossible: they can’t take their head off and put it on yours, but they can carry this heavy basket at the grocery store. Four year olds love to turbo charge what they can do, e.g., skip counting lets you count faster. They can run the full gamut of humor. They are just plain getting all sorts of practice at all sorts of things. A child who isn’t projecting out gets no such practice. They withdraw in. Put simply , how is the narcissist perfecting their skills at this time? Are they learning to care for others and trust? Or are they honing their skills of deception in a turbo charged way?
Four year olds are also prone to exaggerations: “We’ll NEVER get Christmas again,” when the holiday is over. How will an abused child handle this? Are they assured that holidays, like life events, come and go? Healthy four year olds say things like “It’s Ok to make mistakes. We can try again.” Does a narcissistic child learn that he can safely make mistakes without immediate reprimand?
Children absolutely love to hear that someone will ALWAYS love them at around 4-1/2. When they’re bad? Yup. When they spill something? Yup. In the spring? Yup. In the winter? Yup. What conclusion does a child put in a home where he cannot trust anyone come to? Likely that the only one he can truly rely on is himself.
At 4 years, 6 months, children (can) get really good at emotional restraint. They can get really, super angry, but calm down before acting. They might even move to solve a conflict among siblings. They also, interestingly, develop imaginary friends. They also all of a sudden kick up past memories. My theory on childhood memory is that they can remember things younger than 4-1/2, but only if they actively remembered it at 4-1/2. If so, it stays with them. If not, they drop it. They truly develop long term memory now. I bet your earliest memories are around 5 or, sporadically, somewhat younger. Use all of this to think of how it affects a child in a narcissistic home.
But what is really notable about 4 is that at nearly 5, or shortly after 5, they realize they really can die. Vampires and Freddy Kruger are fake, and that’s a relief. But tornadoes, fires, and robbers are really real and could really happen. This is a nightmare at first for children. This explains why they want you in their room late at night. I call this, which might start around 4, years, 10 months, “Loss of Fantastical Thinking.”
I actually asked a narcissist I know if he remembers this milestone. I ask people this, because I think most people can likely remember it. I vividly remember it. I’m trying to encourage empathy in people for what the child is going through. The narcissist became squeamish, coy, and nearly upset I asked. The impression I got is he had no such differentiation across all of childhood. In his mind, perhaps, at any time he could have died. Narcissists do not experience a middle age crisis. That is because their whole life is a mid life crisis: they constantly feel robbed of a better life. Similarly, I wonder if the narcissistic child does not endure this milestone like others do. To him, it’s just another day.
4 – 5 Reparenting
I mean, what can you do this late in the game?
Between 4 and 5, the child loves a lot of reassurance that you love them no matter what. I expect this is why so many love religion after suffering from such personality disorders: it promises unconditional love. But, unfortunately, most religions have no mature, useful ways to deal with abuse (see: their constant sex scandals). A narcissist has a very thwarted view of unconditional love. To him it doesn’t mean, “love me, flaws and all.” It means, “never leave me, abuse and all.” They want to insult and abuse with wanton abandon, but their victim is to take it and never fight back. It proves to them that their “true” self is also lovable. This is not–I repeat not–what unconditional love should be about.
Truly, I think you have to stand up to the narcissist, but specifically their false self. I think they want people to do this. I think they can’t understand why people take their abuse. They want to be kept in line. If you can do this while simultaneously loving their actual core self, you might see healing.
When a child is experiencing such fear about fires, etc., a parent can show them they have an emergency plan. You gather at a place and leave the house. You act. You move. We can conquer threats to us. They are very unlikely to happen to us. And if they do, we as a whole family will help.
Most narcissists I know are conspiracy theorists. They see hit men and murder where there isn’t any. A more realistic view of threats may help, along with some tools of how to deal with it. I’m not sure. Someone else has to be there with them to do it. I strongly advocate we have such a mentorship culture to help each other in every book I write.
Otherwise, 4-5 is a lot of tinkering with big problems and if it has positive effect. What can replace this at the adult level except actual life experience, except not done through the narcissistic lens? This means done through a lens different than one that sees every single life act as a trial of one’s moral worth.
So these are really important, because it truly is the first time a child has conscious control over his fate.
Up until 5, a child is incredibly fantastical. They sincerely see a superhero and a villain in the van, and they create an imaginative story about it. Everything sort of happens to the child before 5. It’s not until “Loss of Fantastical Thinking” do they think they are “really real.” And then, and only then, do they walk around thinking, “Holy. Cow. Everything matters now.” They can walk into a building, and people might like them–or they might not. And they have control over it. It’s scary yet exhilarating, depending on how it goes. And this is the first time ever they have such awareness. And the damage has already thoroughly been done.
Here are the milestones:
We’re somewhat back to “in” at 5, although as within their environment. A child perfects their personality in 5-6. They take the time to bow like a prince, perfecting every single part of their body when they do it. They might pose like a fashion model. They play around with lying big time and realize, fully, around 5-1/2 that people can really be wrong. Their sense of drama grows. Truly, I love this age. Early fives is indeed marked by a child who won’t back off. They needle and harass other children. But I always have a receptive learner in through 5. They can truly be a delight.
One thing about 5 is they start to think about the future. They wonder who they’ll marry and how many kids they’ll have. My daughter, raised in a healthy home, already has worries. She worries that a man will ever marry her. Our society itself is narcissistic. It says, “You will not receive lifelong unconditional love, security, or sex until you get married.” Or, “You are nothing unless you get a college degree.” And as young as 5, a child already worries about such fates. I think our expectations of humans are too much. Marriage, for instance, should be seen as a more natural state that happens when a couple finally wants to have children. It is not the end all, be all of romance, as it is presented in every story, fairy tale, magazine, and movie. We lack a certain flow in Western culture. And it affects our children.
One final note about five. An Oedpius Complex is found sometimes in narcissists. They lust after their mother. I find children start to “seduce” adults around 5-1/2. At least some kind of romantic feelings develop, which coincides largely with the “Drama and Passion” milestone listed. Some think narcissism is a product of not giving up self love in favor of loving another. I think this is overly simplistic. At what age do children “love others”? Because at 2-1/2, they start to develop empathy, which then develops in complexity. They more go “in” and “out” throughout all of development.
But if there is one age where they learn to “love” others, it’s around 5-1/2. My son showed romantic interest in me at this age. I believe I was the symbolic object for other desires, e.g., he had other girls or women in his head, but I was the handy female around to try out the new fantasies with. I encouraged him to direct it yet elsewhere: at characters in books, perhaps, after validating for him that it was ok and “women sure are pretty.” I don’t even want to think of how this was handled for a narcissist. A child coming on to their parent, which is entirely normal, likely did not go well at all in an abusive home.
Their personality is mostly set by 5 (if not 4). They are learning many skills at 5, obviously. They can take bits of information and project it long term. They can learn to read a map and use the map, from memory, later. They can help plan a vacation. But what if it’s all being done through the narcissistic lens? Reparenting may mean unlearning what they learned.
So, now that the damage is done, all future milestones are done from a dysfunctional personality. And if I wrote out all the skills that develop, it would be sobering–unfathomable–to think of how much damage is being done at each one.
Some brief thoughts about 6+. First, I think the child is highly vulnerable to sexual abuse. And I want to state unequivocally: you deserved not one ounce of it. You did not ask for it. You were not too sexy. You were not too annoying. Nothing about you “marked” you. Adults failed you. Period.
Otherwise, what more can be said? The child is going to withdraw in instead of project out. They’ll develop their skills as within a fantasy world, not the real world. They might find their home in art or otherwise learning to charm and manipulate others.
I do think certain personalities are more prone to narcissism than others. Contrary to popular thinking, I think sensitive children are less likely to develop narcissism and thrill seeking children are more likely.
At this point, anyone who uses the word “sensitive” without explaining what they mean is being lazy. It has a specific definition now, as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. A sensitive person doesn’t like too much stimuli. They process things so much that they are more easily overwhelmed. They withdraw.
I have one sensitive boy and one thrill seeking boy. My first, the sensitive one, if he doesn’t like a situation, will leave. That’s what sensitive people do. My third, my thrill seeker, stays. He wants more and more stimulation. He falls over quite a bit but gets back up. The fun of what he is doing outweighs the pain of it for him.
As such, I believe my third is more vulnerable to trauma. He is more willing to stick around with an uncomfortable situation. My first son’s sensitivity helps to protect his inner world, which is so precious to highly sensitive people.
My third, the thrill seeker, is also naturally more charming. He has more natural resources to put into the development of a “false self.” Narcissists tend to be thrill seeking, charming people junkies. This does not at all describe a highly sensitive person, who tends to be thoughtful, reserved, and often quiet. Both may want to be alone for long periods of time, but it’s not for the same reasons.
I think the sensitive child is more likely to develop codependency, in which they take on more responsibility than they need to (ahem), than narcissism.
Misbehavior is Growth
If my work can heal narcissism, I don’t know. But it certainly can prevent it.
The thing about these stages is I believe they get wired in a child’s mind. The stages are very predictable. You went through a loss of fantastical thinking around 5, and your child will too. How your parents handled it got etched into your mind. When your child goes through it, it is likely to kick up some deep, latent memories in you. Everything will feel a bit like de ja vu. You are likely to start “acting like your mother” or father. Unless you know to expect the behavior and consciously choose to respond differently.
I have received hundreds of notes at this point that I help parents stay patient during these maddening stages. I help ground them. And many of them said they came from a toxic background and understanding these milestones was a game changer for them as a parent.
My book series is called Misbehavior is Growth. There are periods of disarray (“misbehavior”) followed by new abilities (“growth”). My guess is the narcissistic parent loved their child during the growth periods but not the misbehavior periods. I wonder if it causes narcissism itself. Narcissism is a product of being abandoned by caregivers, emotionally. Why do caregivers do this? Perhaps because children are difficult.
Further, narcissists want to project an ideal. So they boast when their child is in the “growth” period. But what about the natural “misbehavior” period? It’s a source of embarrassment. Perhaps this itself sets in the highly familiar narcissistic cycles of idealization followed by discard. And narcissists tend to be wealthy. They have a lot to throw at the child if the child “misbehaves.” They may put into place excessive measures to try to contain the misbehavior. Sending a child for psychological help, for instance, is such a measure. And it sends the child a clear message: there is something wrong with you. Much current advice nearly brags about winning the stand off between parent and child when the child acts up. We so often hear to “ignore” the stages. Adults puff up with pride that they can act as a stalwart against the behavior. You know … Unruffled.
I advocate you go to children during the stages. Children become all but “narcissistic” during every single stage. I reject roundly the idea that parenting is a “gentle” effort in which we primarily contain the beast within the child by teaching them calming techniques. Parenting is outright messy. At every stage, the child becomes aggressive, ravenous, and relentlessly demanding in getting their intellectual, physical, and emotional needs met. Some calming tools imparted are cool, but it shouldn’t be the primary goal, i.e., the primary goal is not to simply make them not angry. The goal is to meet the developmental need. The quicker and better you are at meeting these needs, whatever they are and they change at every milestone, the quicker you tame the beast. Narcissistic parents, who so proudly announce they are “ignoring” these stages or pathologize them as a child seeking “attention” can only wildly frustrate the child. What can the child do except get their needs met through one and only one way: violence.
By understanding the cycles of misbehavior and growth, perhaps we can finally break the cycle.
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