The Obscene Price We Pay for Narcissistic Parents

Aneta Pawlik/unsplash

Source: Aneta Pawlik/unsplash

As a mother of a high school student-athlete, I am aghast, as I imagine many of you, by the recent college admissions scandal. Federal prosecutors allege 50 individuals, including 33 parents, were involved in a scheme comprised of either cheating on standardized tests or bribing college coaches and school officials to enroll students as college athletes—even if the student had never played that sport.

Whether you classify the 33 parents as helicopter, snowplow, or Axis II (diagnostic label for narcissism, sociopathy and borderline, etc.), the fallout to our collective mental health extends beyond yesterday’s news.

When we hear about a rigged system, whether it's academic, athletic, occupational or political, our belief in a healthy world view is contradicted. Sure, certain races and socioeconomic groups have traditionally benefited from privilege and wealth, but we want to conclude that hard work, discipline and integrity still matter. A healthy world view reminds us that no matter the obstacles before us, we can problem solve our way to the other side.

Building confidence. Use descriptive praise to build confidence. An example would be “I like the way you picked up your toys. You’re so helpful,” instead of “that’s great.” Praise strengths unrelated to talking as well such as athletic skills, being organized, independent, or careful.

But when shot callers egregiously abuse their power, we are left with the toxic truth: All roads lead to narcissism.

The narcissist cannot abide parental failure because their children are viewed as extensions of themselves. In order to save face and avoid facing reality, they cheat, lie and bulldoze their way toward adulation. Other people's feelings don’t matter as the quest for success comes without consideration of those left in the dust.

As a psychotherapist I have a hard time wrapping my head around the mental health clinician who allegedly diagnosed some of these kids with a disability, thereby enabling them to bypass the time limits of standardized testing. Many of my clients with legitimate diagnoses which qualify them for academic accommodations, opt to tough it out rather than risk the label of "taking advantage" of the system.

Faking athletic credentials is to mock weary parents whenever our exhausted kids start homework at 9:30 p.m. because the high school game went into overtime. Or the endless hours spent traveling to sporting events, while their kids toil as "influencers" on Instagram, or partiers on YouTube.

Narcissists simply do not care. They disregard your kid and mine as blithely as they summon others to do their dirty deeds. Hard work is for people too dumb to game the system, and disadvantaged members of society are disadvantaged "by choice."

Keep the tube in the family room. Research has repeatedly shown that children with a TV in their bedroom weigh more, sleep less, and have lower grades and poorer social skills. P.S. Parents with a television in their bedroom have sex less often.

Additional costs to the "side door" college admissions scandal:

—The honest, genuinely talented youth denied admission because some undeserving rich kid with bogus SAT scores or photoshopped physical prowess finessed their way onto the water polo, rowing, or tennis teams.

—The what ifs? pondered by these kids at a critical time in their social, emotional, occupational and identity development.

—The takeaway lessons gleaned by vulnerable youth and families about how to get an edge in life.

—The racial disparities ever-present as non-whites are reminded that a color blind society doesn't exist. Included are the sad stories circulated on Twitter about black mothers jailed for lying about their residency so their kids—who actually wanted an education—got into a better public school district.

—The sheer number of anxious and depressed college students struggling to keep it together while high-profile parents abuse the high-pressure atmosphere of higher education.

Narcissistic parents and corrupt officials have flouted the system for years. The irony is by cheating their kids into elite colleges, they label their progeny as mediocre at best, and embarrassingly deficient, at worst. Color me Freudian, but their ill gotten gains speak more about their own fragile egos and lackluster skill sets, more than anything.

Abide by the three rules of homework. Number one: "Eat the frog," says Ted Theodorou, a middle-school social studies teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. That's shorthand for "Do the hardest thing first." Rule number two: Put away the phone. Homework time can't be totally tech-free (computers, alas, are often a necessary evil), but it can at least be free of text messages. Rule number three: As soon as assignments are finished, load up the backpack for tomorrow and place it by the door. This is a clear three-step process that kids can internalize, so there's less nagging from you. (Yes!)

Speaking of psychology, playwright David Mamet, had this to say about actress Felicity Huffman, indicted for falsifying her daughter's test scores:

“That a parent’s zeal for her children’s future may have overcome her better judgment for a moment is not only unfortunate, it is, I know we parents would agree, a universal phenomenon.”

Hmm...I would argue that some of us believe in a different universality. Namely, teaching our kids how to handle emotional upset and holding them responsible for their actions. Even if this means enrolling in a community college, spending weekends on SAT test prep or facing the hard truth that they’ll never become elite athletes.

Alas, at the end of the scandalous day we learn that cheaters do get caught. Narcissism be damned. The world as we know it, makes sense, after all.

The question remains, who gets ensnared?