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Can Narcissism Be Identified in Children?

A reader asks if her brother's narcissistic traits were evident in childhood.

Key points

  • Some who display narcissism as adults show signs as children; others don't.
  • Some traits—monopolizing conversations, overreactions, lack of empathy—are identifiable in childhood.
  • Parents who overindulge, underindulge, or traumatize may contribute to narcissism.
Luann bento/Pexels
Source: Luann bento/Pexels

“How did our family come to this?” one woman asks. “I never expected this. Ever.”

“This” is a six-year estrangement with one of her two brothers. Even worse, the estranged brother has sued his siblings over the settlement of their parents’ estate. The legal case is bitter, ugly, and constantly continued in court—a source of misery for the siblings and contentment for the lawyers.

“My father always taught us to ‘never let anything come between you and your siblings,’" she says. "It was family first, and my parents were role models for that. We were surrounded by love with so many strong ties to family. I was close to my brother when I was younger, so I am completely blindsided, shocked, and betrayed by the estrangement.”

She now recognizes that her brother displays some narcissistic traits, though she didn’t see the signs until she observed his extreme, aggressive, cruel behavior in the wake of her father’s death and during their court case. “But how could we have seen and identified these traits when we were children, let alone understood them?”

She poses an interesting question: Is it possible to recognize narcissistic traits in children?

What are some narcissistic traits in children?

Some children begin to display narcissistic traits after about age 12. However, Michele Nealon, president of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, explains that children's behavior patterns change as they move through the various stages of development.

Ego-centrism and a lack of empathy are among the indicators that may raise concern about whether a child is a narcissist or will develop narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Other signs include difficulty making and maintaining friendships, resistance to accepting responsibility, and poor school performance.

“Some people say their [narcissistic] sibling was a nightmare for their entire lives,” explains Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist and author specializing in narcissism and narcissistic abuse, “always spiteful, mean or controlling, sucking all the attention out of the room.” Others, she says, aren’t as extreme in childhood, and it can take time to identify and accept that a sibling is narcissistic. It's especially difficult to accept if siblings had a decent relationship in childhood and if a brother or sister is deeply loyal to family.

Here is a list of behaviors a child with narcissistic traits may display:

  • Monopolizes conversations; withdraws from those who don’t give attention or admiration; routinely interrupts and interrogates.
  • Needs to be the center of attention, viewing excessive attention as their right. These children often have unrealistic expectations of others.
  • Belittles others, considering themselves “better” than other children; often displays magnified feelings of envy, often fighting or stealing toys from other children to get what they want.
  • Dismisses others’ feelings and opinions; often acts bored or irritated when others speak.
  • Excludes peers from a game or group on the basis of superficial characteristics, such as social or financial status, or a different or lesser skill level.
  • Lacks the ability or inclination to empathize with others.
  • Contradicts and corrects others; insists on being right.
  • Avoids accountability for their behavior.
  • Throws temper tantrums when criticized or when they don’t get their way; quick to flare up and overreact.
  • Threatens verbally and/or physically. Can be abusive.
  • Expects attention, agreement, and/or caretaking without reciprocity.
  • Exaggerates their successes and achievements, diminishing the achievements of those around them.
  • Pushes back against authority figures; resents being told what to do.
  • Avoids eye contact, also known as gaze aversion. Refusing to look into the eyes of someone speaking to them protects the NPD child from the possibility of feeling corrected or rejected, which their low self-esteem can’t tolerate.
  • Displays little gratitude to parents or others; often blames parents or adults for their own wrongdoings.
  • Becomes outraged when others don’t meet their needs, expecting others to take responsibility for their emotional well-being.
  • Engages in pathological play—for example, patterns of vengeance, refusing to accommodate and/or acknowledge others’ needs, repetitive and/or intense destructiveness.
  • Lacks a moral compass—the ability to identify right from wrong—and doesn’t exhibit remorse about lying, cheating, or stealing.
  • Develops advanced language and vocabulary skills that mask their shortcomings.
  • Struggles with stress, often regressing to a behavioral stage younger than their developmental level when facing a situation they can’t manipulate, because they lack the ability to self-soothe.
  • Suffers deeply with separation anxiety.

How does someone become a narcissist?

The seeds of narcissism are often sown in childhood, mental health experts say, and even well-meaning, competent parents may unwittingly raise a narcissist. Narcissism is a byproduct of experiences and temperament. Three common childhood experiences may contribute to the development of narcissism:

  • They are overindulged for superficial attributes, as parents may focus excessively on externals: appearance, status, wealth, or how things look to others.
  • They are underindulged; parents are detached or unresponsive to the child’s care.
  • They experience trauma or abuse.

While these three factors do not guarantee a child will become a narcissist, Durvasula explains, every narcissist likely encountered at least one of the above in childhood.

Many children overcome such experiences, becoming empathetic adults. Unfortunately, however, an established narcissistic personality is fairly resistant to change. Experts say that the narcissist’s personality is fixed by the age of 25.

When family members recognize narcissism in a loved one, they become aware of what they can and can’t expect. This is exemplified by the woman who felt deeply betrayed by her sibling estrangement and asked, “How did our family come to this?” She’s now confident that, understanding his narcissistic traits, she can predict her brother’s behavior.

“Once you see it,” she says, “you can’t unsee it.”


Kernberg, P. F. (1989). Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Childhood. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(3), 671–694.

Bleiberg, E. (1984). Narcissistic disorders in children. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 48(6), 501–517.

Eddie Brummelman et al.; (2015); Origins of narcissism in children.

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