The Link Between Anger and Narcissism in Today's Youth - On Second Thought: from Iffy to Witty Thoughts
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The Link Between Anger and Narcissism in Today’s Youth

The Link Between Anger and Narcissism in Today’s Youth

There is increasing concern about levels of anger and violence in our individualistic American society. Increased violence, overt acts, such as mass shootings and violent crime among youth, and less extreme forms, such as bullying, raise public concern. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, youth homicide victims increased by 30% from 2019 to 2020. Mental illness is frequently blamed for anger and aggression; however, growing empirical evidence shows that narcissism, not psychiatric illness, is related to aggression and violence.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, denoted for his beauty. The gods condemned Narcissus to fall in love with his reflection due to his pride and unwillingness to love anyone other than himself. The cautionary tale has always warned against excessive self-love. In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined as comprising a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, attention seeking, and a lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood.

Narcissism is a stable personality trait that varies in degree by individual. Some aspects of narcissism, such as confidence and self-sufficiency, are healthy and adaptive. Empirical research supports that selfishness in children and the ability to consider the preferences of others are linked with the maturation of a brain region involved in self-control. Being self-centered is developmentally appropriate in young children. It is common for children to be less self-aware of others’ emotions and needs prior to developing skills like emotional regulation and empathy. There is the danger that this self-centeredness can develop into disordered behavior. Research reported in the 2015 Psychological and Cognitive Sciences journal links the development of narcissistic personality traits to social learning theory and is predicted by parental overvaluation, not by lack of parental warmth.

Anger is closely associated with narcissistic personalities, particularly vulnerable narcissism over grandiose narcissism. A 2021 meta-analytic review in the Psychological Bulletin found that all three dimensions of narcissism: entitlement, grandiose narcissism, and vulnerable narcissism, were related to aggression. The researchers found that narcissism is related to a 21% increase in aggression and an 18% increase in violence. This aggression may not be driven by an inflated sense of self or entitlement; it is heightened in individuals with fragile self-esteem. In 2017 in the Journal of Personality, the research identified that individuals with vulnerable narcissistic traits might possess a frangible sense of self associated with low self-esteem. They will respond to emotional threats with defensiveness and insecurity, grounded in inadequacy and incompetence.

Great responsibility rests on the educators, mental health professionals, and parents of today’s youth. Research has demonstrated that the development of personality disorders is influenced by early childhood experiences, both in parenting and how interpersonal experiences and personal accomplishments are enforced in schools and communities. A 2020 study in the journal Borderline Personality Disorders and Emotional Dysregulation found that childhood experiences of being overprotected, overvalued, and experiencing leniency in parental discipline were associated with higher traits of pathological narcissism in youth. The generation of “participation trophies” results from the notion that no child should be left out or feel like a failure at a young age. Research, however, suggests that the participation trophy may be causing narcissism and lowered inhibitions in children.

Establishing a mindset of reward for participation versus achievement sets the stage for entitlement and narcissism into young adulthood. Educators, parents, and mental health professionals are tasked with creating environments that challenge youth to try new things and develop the emotional fortitude that comes with struggling and failure.