With so much talk these days about the trait of narcissism, its correlation to (lack of) empathy and the fear of one’s vulnerability being at the root, let’s take a look at our teenagers, who are grappling with this inner dilemma developmentally.
Teenagers are selfish. Narcissistic by design. That’s where they are developmentally. They are being forced to find out who they are outside of their families of origin: the task of every teen. They are not supposed to care what we think of them. This is normal.
For some teens, this is demonstrated by going directly against the values of their parents. For others, this means exploring concepts they are curious about that their parents deem as being socially or even generally unacceptable on some level. Their behavior often seems shallow and careless. They are wired for risk-taking, which again is natural. Many parents find this quite difficult to deal with, kids being interested in things they find unsavory (I.e. sex, substance abuse and other risk-taking behaviors). The scariest part for the parents is, the teenage brain is NOT equipped yet to handle forethought and considering consequences, often resulting in poor decision-making. This is odd for parents bc as younger children, many of these same kids could think about consequences and had decent impulse control…but the brain of a teenager is considered “under construction”, and so much of what we thought our kids had learned as younger children “goes underground”…to resurface at some later point.
Despite them pushing us away, our teens need us involved in their lives. Why? Aren’t we supposed to “let them go”? Yes, we are. However, what comes with that task is also giving them a soft place to fall when the times get hard. Accepting them when they make poor decisions, not shaming them. Shaming and negative, emotional outbursts will drive our kids more inward, suppressing their vulnerability, and fanning the flames of future narcissistic tendencies. And, despite how they may act toward us, we still influence them, perhaps now more than ever.
If we want our kids to develop compassion and empathy for others, we must teach them how. We do that by modeling our acceptance of them at their most vulnerable, and teaching them that we all have vulnerabilities of some kind…it’s a part of being human.