Hello Dr. Brilliant Cliché,
How do you correct narcissistic behavior in a teenager who has been allowed to “run the Roost” since she was two? The family now sees their folly but as they attempt to regain control the teen, now 13, just makes life unbearable and dysfunctional. She is degrading to her parents and grandmother and shows little empathy for them or anyone. She has turned into the pretty yet nasty girl depicted in the tween and teen shows. She is cruel to even her friends. She did show empathy as a child but has lost it along the way. She hasn’t yet threatened a suicide gesture but she is so dramatic I picture this being a future ploy as her parents try to set limits. I believe many families are at this stage. Can you share some insight on reclaiming the family control?
APPRECIATIVE (E. ALoisio)
Not only is this a hard situation to live with, but it is a hard question to answer as well.
By the time a child is 13 yrs old much in their personality is fixed so although not impossible it is a lot more difficult to change things than to prevent them in the first place. A child can not be separated from the milieu that he or she lives in. The task of a child between 6 and 12 is to learn and internalize the rules of the family. The task between 12 and 20 is to reapply those rules to the outside world. That’s what causes the growing pains in all teenagers as they need to question and understand how what they know applies to the greater world. Problems occur in families where there are conflicting rule sets between mom and dad or mom and ex dad or other combinations thereof. One young client of mine had 6 separate adult families to contend with between all of mom’s X’s and the ½ sibling’s families. In these families there is no consistency, therefore the child does not ever develop an internalized set of rules.
When he or she hits the greater world, they have no means to navigate. This already confused child will have every normal developmental issue and growing pain exaggerated for them along with the whole family. One’s internal rules are one’s sense of self. There are varied results of not having a set of internal rules. One client I saw developed a passive approach. She deferred to others for what she thought; of course she would then reject their information or help because no one really understands or knows you but YOU. Another client of mine was a fighter. She would accept no help from the get go. She would have to do everything by herself, trusted no one, and tried to control everything and everyone in her life.
Most kids do a bit of both and there are all kinds of names the psychiatric world has come up with to label these children. The list is long: oppositional defiant, borderline personality, dependent personality, major depression, bipolar, general anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, affective dysregulation disorder (newest one)… but what we really have is a confused child who does not even know they are confused. Kids need to know the rules but in order to do so their parents need to know the rules; herein lies a problem. I just got off the phone with a client whose 13 yr old had made a suicide pact at school with another child. The child’s mom grew up in chaos, developed no internalized set of rules and has made for herself a tumultuous adult life. Anyone growing up in this family would be confused. If you do not know yourself you can not know anyone else. If one doesn’t have an internalized set of consistent rules they cannot interpret other people and will misconstrue and misinterpret other people’s intent. Kids who can’t interpret the intent of other people, or can’t appropriately read another’s body language, often react aggressively towards others as they feel they are always being attacked or singled out. There can also be genetic components involved, non verbal, receptive and expressive learning disorders as well. There are some studies that indicate bipolar disorder is actually a speech and language disorder. Other labels like borderline personality disorder I believe are clearly learning disorders caused by a conflicting or absent internal rule set.
So what can you do for your child? Neuropsytesting is mandatory; make sure you specifically ask them to test for receptive and expressive issues and nvld (non verbal learning disorders) or they will not do so. I also suggest counseling, medication evaluation, and whatever else you can do for yourself to increase the stability and consistency of the household. Family therapy, marital therapy, counseling, medication evaluation, parenting classes, support groups ect. are all possibilities that might be considered. If the child does not live with you but with their parents and their parents are of different minds regarding rules, or they are permissive at one moment and strict another, there is little you can do besides share the knowledge you have gained without the expectation they will listen to you. In dealing with the child on visits you must role model consistent behavior with high expectations.
Sometimes a child’s saving grace is a relative or someone outside the family who has good self esteem, is unable to be manipulated and doesn’t accept shit. That’s the theory behind the big brother/big sister program. The busier a teenager is kept the better they do. They need to join school activities and programs, karate ect. I have seen volunteering in an animal shelter save a teenager’s life. Part of the rules is knowing and feeling “I am needed and useful.” Volunteerism can replace a tumultuous, chaotic, codependent, dysfunctional, relationship. It provides the same message to a teen: “they need me, and I have self worth.” Volunteerism is the best way to exercise empathy as well.
Many parents try to avoid psychiatric hospitalizations and emergency room intervention. I believe this is a mistake. If a child threatens harm to self, others or properties, take them to the ER. It might be a pain and a hassle but it enforces that there is a line. It also imparts an external structure on a family where there may be lacking an internal one.
Good luck. Although it is hard to be a witness for another person it is an extremely powerful and useful role to be in.
Dr. Brilliant Cliché
The Granny Doctor has a suggestion. She has a deep understanding of narcissistic teenage girls, having once been one herself. My parents didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with me. I had a higher IQ than either of them and was prone to sophistry, even at a young age. I was cute and talented and good at evasive moves. I could talk my way out of anything and sneer at the rest of it. I continued on this objectionable personality bent well into my 30’s, because I was an artist and in a rock band and the world seemed to keep sending me the message that I was special, could get away with anything, and people would just accept it.
What changed me was martial arts. I happened to luck into a dojo with a Sensei who believed in The Old Ways. For my black belt test, I was training with guys who were a foot taller than me, outweighed me by a 100 lbs, and who didn’t hesitate to treat me like one of them. I suffered sprained wrists, black eyes, a fractured bone in my foot. When I went whining to Sensei, he would just turn a calm eye on me and say “you are hurting yourself, Katrin,” and throw me back in the ring. Eventually, I got it; and when I did, my whole personality changed. I went from being a snotty, self-entitled perpetual teen to being someone who started to figure out how to be a real person.
Why did this work? Simple. There is nothing in a snotty, self-entitled teen’s life that they can’t sneer at, argue with or turn their backs on. But when you put them up against an immovable force that they can’t argue with or talk their way out of and sneering will not save their sorry ass from getting kicked, there is nothing left to do but try to deal. In order to deal, they have to learn something new and in order to learn that thing they have to trust the wisdom of “one who has gone before”. Either that, or slink off with their tails between their legs, looking like a wimpy loser.
There is nothing in your teen’s life that is real enough to change her. She is surrounded by people whom she has been bamboozling for years and she knows it will continue. No one is putting her in a position where she has to answer to anything. No one wants a constant battle and she knows it. None of you can really jolt her out of her narcissistic bent.
Dr. Brilliant Cliché’s suggestion of an outside mentor is a good one, but in my opinion, if the Immovable Force is not present in the equation, results will not be as good. Be careful about karate schools though. Many of them seem to increase aggression and narcissism. There are many martial arts forms to choose from, and aikido is particularly good for controlling aggression. It’s important to have the right Sensei. Visit a place before you chose, visit several. I suggest you ship her off to a martial arts dojo that doesn’t pull punches and has a Sensei who will let her get a few black eyes without rescue or coddling. See how good she is at ruling the roost when she’s getting dumped on her keister by guys who could eat her for breakfast and don’t think much of manipulative snotty girls. See what she’s made of. You might be surprised.
Inside every snotty self-involved teen is a real person just waiting to come out. An immovable Force, new skills and authority figures who can be respected can open the door. I suggest you get your daughter to a door and boot her through it.
I wonder if this is why the military does the same thing for many people. It removes all ambiguity and provides an external structure.
Some readers wrote:
mdesio -What is best for this child is not the most legal way, beating the Sh*t out of her . The sensitive understanding way does not work, these kids are too manipulative for her stupid parents to be of any help, and no professional has the time to sit on top of them to make them do their part. Worked well on myself and siblings, now straight as an arrow and Tonto.
NMASERMO – I’d like to know a tad more about the parents, the siblings, what are they like?
nmasermo – I can’t answer that as it wasn’t my client just a submitted question, but I will post your response on the blog and we might just yet find out more. (drbrilliantcliche.wordpress.com)
mdesio – The whip might work for compliance and behavior but it will screw up all the child’s future intimate relationships. It doesn’t teach skills that are transferable outside the family unit.
Dr. Brilliant Cliché