Parents tend sometimes to overvalue their children, particularly daughters. Offering them inflated praise for their tiniest accomplishments, or even non-accomplishments, they are subconsciously creating both boys and girls who are narcissists-in-the-making, according to a mental health specialist.
Dr. Lea Sawaya, PhD, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), clarifies to Annahar's NAYA that parents are often unaware that certain words they use while speaking with their daughters can over-inflate their ego instead of enhancing their self-confidence.
"It's very important to motivate and encourage little girls, identify their weaknesses to reinforce them and turn them into strengths. This should not be, however, done exaggeratedly to make sure they don't grow up with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder," Sawaya told NAYA, explaining that overestimation and overvaluation (That’s incredibly beautiful! versus That’s nice!) can be harmful.
"Telling your girl how 'exceptional,' 'special,' and 'unique' she is, does not let her gain healthy self-esteem," she added.
Two kinds of praise: Personal and effort-based
Sawaya differentiates between two types of praise: personal praise and effort-based praise.
By definition, personal praise focuses on children's natural and innate abilities as well as talents they were born with, while effort-based praise acknowledges achievements and the hard work exerted to make things done.
"Instead of telling a girl 'Wow, you're great at math,' or 'You're the smartest kid,' tell her 'I am so impressed at how hard you worked to solve this equation.' Such a comment would be more empowering as it urges her to take pride in her accomplishments, and most importantly, does not put her under pressure as is the case in the first two examples," Sawaya said in what she also dubbed as "praising the process or the strategy instead of the person."
In the same context, Sawaya warned of the dangers of only complimenting a girl's physical appearance.
"Parents are usually ignorant about the moral and psychological damages they might cause to their daughter when they tell her 'You are the prettiest'," Sawaya told NAYA. "By saying so, we are pushing little girls to only value their looks, therefore, all that they will care for when they grow up is how to be more beautiful and how to use this beauty to succeed in life and reach higher positions."
She also mentioned how some girls – victims of their parents who keep on telling them they are superior to other children – often face deception in society.
"Parents telling their daughters 'You have the best singing voice,' or 'You are definitely going to win this competition' will see them being deceived when finding out that others might perform better," Sawaya added, suggesting using expressions such as "you can do it," "you are practicing well," "you are improving."
Narcissism: A trait coupled with other disorders
Narcissistic children believe they are entitled to privileges and expect constant admiration from their surroundings.
Sawaya noted that these children become aggressive when they fail to obtain the admiration they crave for. She also added that it had been scientifically proven that there was a link between narcissism and a number of psychological problems such as eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, anxiety, depression, addiction, and low self-esteem. Narcissism can also harm their professional, social, and emotional lives.
The opposite side of the spectrum: What if we don’t praise them at all?
According to Psychology Consultant Rouba Sarkis, not praising young girls, especially those among them with weak personalities, leads to increased rates of behavioral problems, parent-child conflict, and depression. It also creates barriers between them and their parents.
“We’d never want to say praise is bad; overpraise is,” Sarkis told NAYA. “We want parents to praise moderately. We know that positive reinforcement – noticing a good behavior and acknowledging an achievement – leads to optimal outcomes.”
A 2007 study led by Paul Hastings, now Chair and Professor of Psychology at the University of California, found that parents who praise their two-year-olds for good manners help them become more socially skilled.
Gulnar Wakim, PhD, specialist in social sciences and gender studies, supports the idea that praise motivates young girls, and provides them with better social skills.
Wakim pointed out that this specifically applies to Arab societies, where boys are more encouraged and supported than girls.
"In this case," she said, "a girl's source of motivation should come in the first place from her family, which is the small society. Parents play a big role in bolstering and/or undermining their daughters' self-confidence and self-esteem. Showing and telling them how supportive they are can be very helpful in this regard."
Similarly, Sarkis mentioned that praise enhances a girl’s self-image, explaining how it intertwines with self-esteem.
"People with high self-esteem are generally self-promoting, choose challenging tasks, and seek out situations to demonstrate their abilities, thus get more positive feedback, and the cycle continues so do the accomplishments," she said. “Praise is helpful for girls with high self-esteem as well as for those with low self-esteem. In the second case, compliments should be directed towards actions, and qualities, and in no or very rare occasions towards the looks.”
“Being pretty is not a skill to be cultivated and learned, while actions are," she added.
Social media: Is it influencing little girls?
Nowadays, parents, especially those affected by social media trends, tend to overdo everything related to their daughters – from their birthday celebrations to the gifts they offer them, the way they dress them, and how they recognize them as "the best" and inflate their sense of worth.
In this regard, Sawaya said that "parents who shower their daughters with attention are not a better example than those who neglect them."
"What we witness on social media today is very dangerous," she stressed. "Girls are not living their childhoods properly. In the time they are supposed to be performing outdoor activities or other types of activities, they are busy asking their moms what they uploaded on Instagram and how many likes and comments the photos are getting."
An-Nahar is not responsible for the comments that users post below. We kindly ask you to keep this space a clean and respectful forum for discussion.