The Role of Genetics in Narcissistic Personality Disorder

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Genetics may play a role in narcissism, especially when it comes to specific traits like entitlement or feelings of grandiosity, but researchers aren’t yet sure exactly what that role is. It can be hard to distinguish from other risk factors that make someone more likely to develop narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

Most experts agree that a mix of environmental, social, cultural, and genetic factors are involved in the development of narcissistic traits.

Can Narcissism Be Passed Down Genetically?

The research on whether narcissism is genetic is limited and inconclusive, partly because research on narcissism, in general, is limited and sometimes conflicting. “NPD is one of the least studied personality disorders,” said Dr. Kristen Casey, Clinical Psychologist at Evolve Psychological Services.

Even so, some large-scale studies have found evidence that genetics might play some role in the development of NPD:

  • A 2012 study, for example, found that NPD had the strongest evidence of heritability among Cluster B personality disorders—a category that includes antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and others characterized by dramatic or erratic thinking and behavior.
  • A study published in 2014 found evidence for a genetic influence in at least two traits of NPD: entitlement and feelings of grandiosity.

“Even if there is a genetic component to narcissism, it is unlikely that it would be solely responsible for the development of this personality trait,” explained Dr. Masica Jordan, Licensed Counseling Psychologist, Founder of Jordan Peer Recovery, and Professor at the University of Maryland’s Bowie State University.

“Societal and cultural factors may also play a role in the development of narcissistic traits,” Dr. Jordan added. So, too, can parent relationships and trauma.

Does Narcissism Run in Families?

Whatever role genes play in narcissism, NPD definitely can run in families. That’s because parents with NPD themselves are liable to create the exact conditions that put their children at risk of developing the disorder.

A narcissistic parent lacking awareness or concern of their child’s needs is likely to neglect those needs and is prone to excessive criticism, exploitive treatment, or violent outbursts.

“Children may learn narcissistic behavior patterns from their parents or may be influenced by the way their parents interact with them, causing them to develop NPD later on and exhibit narcissistic traits that will impact their offspring,” said Lauren Cook-McKay, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Vice President of Marketing at Divorce Answers. “This creates the cycle that causes narcissism to run in families.”

Growing up in a household with narcissists doesn’t guarantee that a child will end up with NPD but it creates a lot of the necessary conditions for developing the disorder.

What Kind of Childhood Creates a Narcissist?

There is no specific kind of childhood that guarantees someone will become a narcissist. Some of the most consistent risk factors for most subtypes of NPD is a childhood characterized by neglect, emotional or physical abuse, or a dysfunctional home life.

“As narcissism is basically a defensive mechanism, children foster such behaviors to deal with feelings of shame and inadequacy and protect themselves from what emotionally threatens them,” Cook-McKay explained.

While abuse and neglect are risk factors, it’s important to acknowledge that plenty of children who experience traumatic childhoods grow up to become relatively healthy adults.

Moreover, research has also found that some subtypes of narcissism are linked to positive, rather than negative, childhood experiences. Specifically, grandiose narcissism in which a person has an inflated sense of superiority and entitlement is linked with overindulgent or overprotective parenting styles.

“When children are consistently shielded from failure, criticism, and the consequences of their actions, they may struggle to develop empathy and an understanding of how their behavior affects those around them,” explained Becca Smith, Chief Clinical Officer at Basepoint Academy.

At What Age Does Narcissism Develop?

NPD is typically diagnosed in teens or young adults, but that’s partly because some narcissistic traits are common in many children so diagnosing too early risks misidentifying normal child development as a personality disorder.

“During these stages, children are learning to assert their independence and test the boundaries of their relationships with others,” says Dr. Jordan. While they typically shed these narcissistic tendencies as they mature, a lack of guidance and support during these key developmental stages can put a child at risk of carrying narcissistic traits into adulthood.

But, Dr. Jordan explains, “It is important to note that not all children who exhibit behavior associated with narcissism will go on to develop full-blown narcissistic personality disorder.”

Moreover, “Not everyone with narcissistic traits has a narcissistic personality disorder, a more severe and long-lasting form of narcissism,” notes Ellie Borden, Registered Psychotherapist, Clinical Director and Clinical Supervisor at Mind By Design Psychology and Coaching clinics.

“Narcissism is a complicated personality trait that changes over time,” Borden adds.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you or someone you know has NPD or displays narcissistic tendencies, you might be wondering if there’s any hope for a healthy relationship. Here are answers to common questions people have about NPD.

Can You Have a Happy Relationship With Someone Who Has NPD?

While most experts agree that it is possible to build a happy relationship with a person who has NPD, it takes a lot of work and, above all, the willingness of the person with NPD to recognize that they need help.

It’s equally important for their partner to set realistic expectations about the relationship and prioritize their own well-being. “If your significant other has NPD, you must put your emotional health first and set healthy boundaries,” cautioned Borden.

Dr. Jordan recommended the following strategies for navigating a relationship with someone who has NPD:

  • Seek professional support in the form of therapy or counseling
  • Set clear boundaries
  • Practice self-care
  • Communicate openly and honestly

“Ultimately, whether a relationship with someone with NPD can be happy and successful depends on the individuals involved, their level of commitment to the relationship, and the strategies and support they have in place to manage the challenges of NPD,” Dr. Jordan said.

Can NPD Be Treated?

Fortunately, many forms of therapy have proven helpful for managing NPD including:

  • Psychodynamic Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy
  • Group Therapy

“These therapies focus on helping the individual learn how to better manage their emotions and regulate their behavior,” Smith said. “It can also help them learn how to understand and empathize with others, as well as practice self-care so that they don't become overly reliant on external validation or admiration.”

The biggest obstacle to treatment is not the lack of options but the fact that having NPD can make it difficult to recognize that you need help in the first place. “Many individuals with NPD may not seek treatment at all, as they may not recognize the impact their behavior has on themselves or others,” Dr. Jordan said.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.