Introduction | What is a personality disorder? | Narcissistic Personality Disorder
How to recognize a narcissist | Traits discussed | "Now We Are Six" | "It's a Good Life"
What's normal? | Further reading | Attachment | Narcissus in art | Aftermath | Beyond | Music
"Now We Are Six"

[Apologies to A. A. Milne.]

If you had a narcissist for a parent, you lived in a world governed by whim enforced without mercy.

Narcissists have normal, even superior, intellectual development while remaining emotionally and morally immature. Dealing with them can give you the sense of trying to have a reasonable discussion with a very clever six-year-old -- this is an age when normal children are grandiose and exhibitionistic, when they are very resistant to taking the blame for their own misbehavior, when they understand what the rules are (e.g., that lying, cheating, and stealing are prohibited) but are still trying to wriggle out of accepting those rules for themselves. This is the year, by the way, when children were traditionally thought to reach the age of reason and when first communions (and first confessions) were made.

Having a narcissist for a mother is a lot like living under the supervision of a six-year-old. Narcissists are always pretending, and with a narcissistic mother it's a lot like, "Let's play house. I'll pretend to be the mother and you pretend to be the baby," though, as the baby, you'll be expected to act like a doll (keep smiling, no matter what) and you'll be treated like a doll -- as an inanimate object, as a toy to be manipulated, dressed and undressed, walked around and have words put in your mouth; something that can be broken but not hurt, something that will be dropped and forgotten when when something more interesting comes along. With narcissists, there's also usually a fair element of "playing doctor," as well -- of childish sexual curiosity that may find expression in "seductive" behavior towards the child, such as inappropriate touching of the genitals, or it can also come out as "hypochondriacal" worries about the child's health and/or being most interested and attentive when the child is ill (thus teaching the child that the way to get Mother's kind attention is to get sick). Having a sick child can also be a way for the narcissistic mother to get the sympathetic attention of authority figures, such as doctors and teachers.

Selected Characteristics of Normal Six-Year-Olds

[Based on Your Six-Year-Old, by Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg.]

The items below are not intended to be a comprehensive description of six-year-olds, but only the selected bits that seem to be related to adult narcissists' traits discussed elsewhere [and, yes, I really did compile the traits list weeks before finding this little book]. Besides being difficult and bewildering, six-year-olds are also wonderfully warm and enthusiastic, fine companions, active, curious, intellectually ambitious, philosophically speculative, very interested in the world and how it works, fond of novelty and amusement -- games, music, stories, outings, adventures.
     My interest here is in pointing out that many of the narcissistic characteristics that are abnormal in adults are completely normal at six years of age and that the survival of these childish characteristics into adulthood is, essentially, immaturity rather than bad intentions. But bear in mind that, while everyone who grows up passes through this stage of development, most of us spend only a few months this way before moving on to more integrated behavior. Narcissists, on the other hand, apparently spend the rest of their lives in this state of highly volatile ambivalence and uncertainty. I don't mean to play down, in any way, the very bad effects adult narcissists have on their own children, but, for those who've survived being raised by narcissists, it may give a different way of looking at family history. [See "It's A Good Life" for one person's idea of what it would be like if a six-year-old ran the world -- and, I'll add, what life may seem like to a six-year-old with a narcissist for a parent.] It has also bothered me that the little clinical literature I've found is quite hostile to narcissists; I certainly know that they can be utterly impossible, but the truth remains that the narcissists I've known were genuinely lovable about half the time -- the problem being that they want to be treated as "special" in ways that they just ain't special and will hate you for loving them for what they regard as the wrong reasons (though most of the rest of us are far less demanding and are simply pleased when attractive, decent people love us for any reason, special or not).

 "Six can, oh so often, be expansive and out-of-bounds, contrary, violent, live with."(p. 4)

 "Your typical Six-year-old is a paradoxical little person, and bipolarity is the name of the game. Whatever he does, he does the opposite just as readily. In fact, sometimes the choice of some certain object or course of action immediately triggers an overpowering need for its opposite." (p. 1, the first paragraph of the book) [Emphasis in original]
 "Six's reversals are truly something to be reckoned with." (p. 2)
 "I love you" rapidly changes to "I hate you." (p. 2, 6)
 stubborn and can't make up mind (p. 2)

 "The child is now the center of his own universe." (p. 2, 15) [Emphasis in original]
 delighted by any silly thing that calls attention to himself; may do silly, show-offy things to call attention to himself when he feels neglected or shut out (pp. 71-72)

 arrogant (p. 7)
 self-important ("extremely aware of the importance of being Six") (p. 22)
 demands rather than asks (twice on p. 6, 16)
 thinks own way is always right (p. 7)
 once started, will stick to a course of bad behavior or bad judgment regardless of the inevitability of being punished for it (p. 7)
 asks to be flattered and praised as "good," even ("rather sadly and touchingly") following his worst behavior (p. 6)

 can't accept criticism (p. 7)
 feelings are hurt over very small criticisms, comments, failures (p. 6)
 "He is so extremely anxious to do well, to be the best, to be loved and praised, that any failure is very hard for him." (p. 6)

 wants to win every time (p. 4, 21, 45)
 poor sport, can't stand to lose (p. 7, 16)
 argumentative and quarrelsome (p. 21)
 defiant, pert, fresh, snippy (p. 6, 17)
 competitive, combative (p. 20)
 belligerent, verbally and physically aggressive (p. 21)
 threatens, calls names, gets physically violent (p. 21)
 violent temper tantrums may require physical restraint because of striking out (p. 29)
 jealous, envious (p. 7, 21)

 to make sure of winning, will cheat or make up own rules (pp. 21-22, 45)
 complains that others are cheating and not following the rules (p. 45)
 some are very cruel to younger children (p. 22)
 does not always tell the truth (p. 16)
 will not admit to wrongdoing (p. 41) [Note: A technique is given for getting the facts out of kids that also works with narcissists: instead of asking if they did it, ask how they did it.]
 goodness means the things explicitly required or allowed by parents or other authority figures; badness means the things explicitly disapproved of or forbidden (p. 66)

 little forgiveness (p. 22)
 very critical of others' conduct (p. 22)
 expects friendships to be resumed immediately following tremendous complaint and conflict (p. 22)

 wants to boss (p. 21)
 "Many children think their father knows everything -- even what goes on at home while he is at work."(p. 16)
 thinks his teacher knows the best and only right way of doing things; may not know which rules to follow when school rules differ from home rules (p. 18)

 "highly undifferentiated -- everything is everywhere" (p. 7)
 can't always tell the difference between "yours" and "mine," and so often steals (pp. 39-41)

 "random and unconstructive expenditure of energy" (p. 31)
 more interested in merely handling or using tools than in what is accomplished with them (pp. 53-54)
 less interested in actual final products than in whatever he may be doing at the moment(p. 56)

 "Sixes love to dress up and pretend they are somebody else...." (p. 49)

Introduction | What is a personality disorder? | Narcissistic Personality Disorder
How to recognize a narcissist | Traits discussed | "Now We Are Six" | "It's a Good Life"
What's normal? | Further reading | Attachment | Narcissus in art | Aftermath | Beyond | Music
Feel free to drop me a note with questions or comments.
©1998, 1999 by Joanna M. Ashmun.