Although there are many different types of bullying that our kids can be exposed to, a certain amount of attention needs to be drawn to narcissistic bullies and why they can be so dangerous.
Stephanie is a 14-year-old girl who is funny, sweet, caring and sensitive. She has a group of classmates at school that are genuinely good friends to her (and vice versa). So, she feels as though she cannot complain even though there is just one problem that never seems to go away. The group ‘leader’ in this friendship circle is Stephanie’s best friend, and she seems to have regular problems with Stephanie for reasons that nobody, let alone Stephanie herself, can understand.
Today was a big day for Stephanie, she had gone to the hairdresser the day before and gotten a brand-new haircut. She was very pleased with her new look and couldn’t wait to show it off at school. It’s important to remember here that most teenage girls struggle tremendously with body confidence due to media influences and societal expectations – so they need all the positive support they can get! On arrival, Stephanie’s friends all came to greet her and gave her a wave of compliments on her new look.
Confronting a narcissist
Stephanie was overwhelmed with her friends’ support, and eventually, she saw Ruth walking towards the group. She pulled Stephanie aside and asked to talk to her in private. With cold eyes, a straight face and flushed cheeks, Ruth sternly uttered, “You need to know the truth, your hair looks like absolute s**t and no one in the group has the courage to tell you. You look that bad. They feel sorry for you, Steph. Now it’s just going to be an absolute embarrassment for me to be seen with you and I don’t know if I can do it.”
A tear started forming in Stephanie’s eye as she took in her best friend's words. “Oh, please! Don’t cry! For f***sakes*, you always make me look like the bad guy. You know better than to go and do something this stupid without telling me first. I know exactly what suits you and what doesn’t. Now you’re just going to have to look like an absolute idiot until it grows out.”
Stephanie felt the pit of her stomach empty. She felt hollow, nauseous, and shattered. She didn’t know what to say, so she stuttered the words, “I’m sorry, Ruth…” and walked away.
The intention behind using expletive language in this context is not to offend any reader, but instead, to show that we are aware of how serious bullying amongst teenagers can really get. Stephanie's story was taken from a real-life situation that a young teenage girl experienced and the dialogue was reported verbatim. Unfortunately, bullying is a difficult subject to approach no matter which angle you choose to take. And at The Bully Shield, we would like to show our readers that we are aware of the true difficulties many young bully victims have to deal with. In light of this, we have chosen to use this explicit wording, not to emphasise bad behaviour, but to allow bully victims to feel heard and show them that there are solutions to their concerns.
Insecurity and confusion
The next day when she got to school, Ruth started up a conversation as though nothing had happened. “Why are you so weird today, Steph?” asked Ruth. “You can’t tell me you’re still upset about yesterday? Please get over it. You honestly can never take criticism from someone who’s just trying to help you. All I did was explain why you had made a mistake.”
This is the kind of situation that makes Stephanie go to school every day hoping that she won’t say or do anything that will make Ruth upset or angry. Even though it happens on a weekly basis, Ruth seems heavily dependent on the friendship and always ‘forgives’ Stephanie for whatever she did. All this does is confuse Stephanie even more.
Stephanie feels trapped in the friendship. Anything she says or does can be manipulated and she has to put up with a lot of backlash when it does.
The characteristics of a narcissist
You’re likely to encounter various narcissists throughout your life. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if you told us that you have already dealt with narcissistic bullies in the office, or even in a partnership. This is why it’s worth getting a better understanding of the characteristics of a narcissist, especially since many narcissists, who may also be officially diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, often become abusive.
The characteristics of a narcissist can vary, and it’s unlikely that one person will display all the traits. But according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), one would need to show signs of the below-mentioned characteristics persistently before they could be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
The main characteristics of a narcissist include:
- Someone who thinks very highly of themselves, especially in relation others, and has a sense of entitlement. They will often fantasise about their own power, success, and intelligence.
- Someone with either very low self-esteem, or very high self-esteem. Either way, they will always project themselves as being unique and special. They only want to associate themselves with people who they believe are of their same high calibre. And often feel as though they deserve special treatment from everyone else.
Someone who feels envious of other’s achievements, possessions or qualities, or believes that others are envious of them. For this reason, they won’t hesitate to take advantage of someone else in order to achieve a goal.
Someone who likes to overstate their own achievements and talents. They want to be thought of as ‘the best’. They are always looking for compliments from others and always enjoy flattery.
Someone who exploits the people who are close to them to benefit themselves (be they friends, family members or a partner). Narcissists generally struggle to have healthy relationships with others because of this.
Someone who is very arrogant, rude, and abusive around others. They won’t identify others’ feelings and needs, and often just lack empathy.
Someone who is incredibly sensitive and can feel hurt or rejected regardless of whether they’ve been provoked or not. They don’t handle criticism very well and will try to humiliate and shame whoever criticised them.
No matter what traits are revealed in someone who you think is a narcissistic bully, the most important thing to ask is, “How does their behaviour benefit them?” Remember, a narcissist’s main goal is to boost their own sense of self-worth through their actions. They are not afraid to use others to achieve this.
How to spot a narcissist
How to spot a narcissist can be easy when you know the cyclic patterns to look out for. The original cycle of violence, developed by Lenore E. Walker, shows us how a bully can influence an abusive relationship so that it ends up being tolerated over time.
While this cycle of abuse and tolerance is quite accurate, it doesn’t necessarily imply the abuser, or bully, is a narcissist as well. To know how to spot a narcissist in a friendship, we need to take things one step further.
Narcissistic bullies will always:
At the start of a relationship, a narcissist can be very charming, kind and considerate. They offer great emotional support up front and dive headfirst into creating a serious attachment to the other person.
These are not friendships that develop slowly over time. A narcissist will make an immediate bond with another person and will portray themselves as loyal and trustworthy from the get-go.
After the idealisation (or honeymoon) phase of the friendship. A narcissist will start to devalue the victim, either to their face or behind their back. During this stage, the narcissist is likely to have stints of rage where they become verbally, physically or emotionally abusive.
It usually triggers the victim to tread on eggshells around the narcissist. Since the narcissist is an expert in manipulating and extorting situations to benefit themselves, it's common for the victim to question their perception of what is really happening. This is an extremely draining process and often leaves the victim feeling lost and alone.
This is an interesting part of the cycle as it doesn’t always happen. Often, neither the narcissistic bully nor the victim will choose to end the relationship. So the cycle of idealisation and devaluation continues perpetually.
However, if the narcissist chooses to end the friendship, then it’s usually as quick as switching off a light with no explanation granted. Whereas if the victim chooses to end the friendship, then ideally it needs to be a ‘no contact’ clean break to be effective. A narcissist will often try to sneak back into their victim’s life by using the original idealism techniques that they started with.
Now let’s take a look at Stephanie’s case and see why Ruth is, in fact, a narcissistic bully:
It’s clear that Ruth is bullying Stephanie. There’s no reason for Stephanie to be attacked and verbally abused because of a new hairstyle, and she knows this. But instead of Ruth being straightforward about the attack, she has manipulated Stephanie into thinking her violent act was constructive criticism. This has only made Stephanie doubt herself and her value, especially since everyone else had been so supportive.
Maybe she was an idiot for not consulting Ruth first? Evidently, she deserved to be criticised because her best friend surely wouldn’t say things like that if she didn’t have Stephanie’s best interests at heart?
Finally, Ruth made it clear that she didn’t want to be seen with Stephanie because of her bad haircut, yet she continued talking to her the next day as though nothing bad had really happened. And if Stephanie were to bring it up again, it would have been her own fault for being too sensitive.
Ruth is able to 'maintain a friendship’ with Stephanie, while continuously bullying her and making it look like it’s her own fault.
How to deal with a narcissist
Before you learn how to deal with a narcissist, you need to first understand how a relationship like this could impact your child's wellbeing.
Firstly, your child is likely to be extremely confused and quite afraid of their friend’s behaviour. This hot and cold abuse, manipulation and violence can leave them feeling:
- Misunderstood by you, as a family member, or even by their friends as you cannot directly see what’s happening.
- Bombarded with various conflicting emotions. They don’t know whether to feel scared, sad, happy, angry, nervous or loving towards their friend.
- Anxious or depressed if the relationship continues for an extended period of time. It can create problems such as night terrors, post-traumatic stress disorder and an overall feeling of worthlessness.
- Confused and out of touch with reality due to the lying and manipulation. This can also make it very difficult to for them to explain their issues to you as a parent.
- Very alone. Most victims of this kind of bullying like to seclude themselves from everyone around them and keep to themselves.
If you see this behaviour within your child and can identify enough traits within their trouble-causing friend to warrant calling them a narcissistic bully, then you need to proactively look at resolving the situation.
A fair warning: Helping your child break the cords of this friendship will probably not be easy, but it will be well worth the battle in the end.
Here are some tips to help make the transition easier:
1. Don’t underplay the situation.
One of the most destructive things you can do as a parent is to dismiss the severity of your child’s problem. You may have good intentions at heart, but telling your child to simply get over the situation or give their friend another chance isn’t useful when dealing with a narcissist. Instead, be patient and give your child the opportunity to speak openly about how they’re feeling in a safe and non-judgemental space.
2. Connect with other sufferers so that your child doesn’t feel alone.
There are many ways to connect with other parents and children who are going through the same thing. It’s comforting to exchange stories with others who can sympathise with you. Not to mention that you can suggest realistic coping techniques to each other that you have gained through experience. Nothing helps boost your confidence more than having people supporting you while you conquer your fears.
3. Help your child understand what a narcissist is and how their friend fits the description.
This will help your child actively start keeping their distance from the individual. First and foremost, they need to stop feeling at fault or guilty for things that they know they shouldn't. You’ll immediately see a change in your child’s attitude as it will help alleviate their sense of confusion and disorientation.
4. Stay calm and teach your child to keep their distance.
Narcissists feed off others’ emotions, and the more your child feeds anxiety, fear and unhappiness into that relationship, the more fuel it gives the narcissist to continue being a bully. Try teaching your child to remain calm when they’re confronted with narcissistic rage – this will immediately help to diffuse the fight. You should also urge them to start keeping their distance emotionally. By keeping sensitive information from the narcissist, they will have less ways to be manipulative or hurtful. Your child may have been open in the past, but they’ll need to understand that by keeping their distance they’re protecting themselves.
5. Don’t forget that this narcissistic individual may need help
Narcissists are often insecure and unhappy individuals, so remember that they still need compassion. Although it’s not your own or your child’s responsibility to insist that they see a medical professional, there’s also no need to be rude or cold. Remind your child to keep calm, polite and diplomatic during an encounter, but also not to feed the conversation after they’ve cut ties.
Karterud, S., Øien, M. and Pedersen, G (2011). Validity aspects of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, narcissistic personality disorder construct. Comprehensive Psychiatry [online] Volume 52 (Issue 5). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21193181 [Accessed 5 October 2018].
Walker, L E (2009). The Battered Woman Syndrome, 4th edn, Springer Publishing Company, New York.
Fanti, K A. and Henrich, C C (2014). Effects of Self-Esteem and Narcissism on Bullying and Victimization During Early Adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence [online] Volume 35 (Issue 1). Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0272431613519498 [Accessed 6 October 2018].