When Delivering Praise Backfires

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A new study published in Child Development may have you questioning the way you provide praise to your children. You might be used to telling your child they did “an amazing job” or “that was terrific!” But the way you deliver praise might be impacting your child’s self-esteem.

The study conducted by Brummelman and colleagues (Brummelman, Nelemans, Thomaes, & Orobio de Castro, 2017) with elementary school children in the Netherlands tested two hypotheses of self-esteem – the self-deflation hypothesis and the self-inflation hypothesis. The self-deflation hypothesis holds that parents who try to boost their child’s self-esteem by giving them overly positive praise end up with children developing lower self-esteem (Brummelman, Crocker, & Bushman, 2016). On the contrary, the self-inflation hypothesis predicts that this inflated praise results in higher narcissism in their children; that is, children will believe their abilities are extraordinary based on feedback received from others. They try to maintain this persona by seeking greater external validation from others (Brummelman, Thomaes, & Sedikides, 2016). For the current study, the researchers considered praise to be inflated when it was very positive, containing an adverb (e.g., “You did incredibly well!”) or an adjective (e.g., “That was amazing!”). They followed children after an academic exercise with their primary caregiver over a year and a half, collecting measures of self-esteem and narcissism.

So which is it: does inflated praise result in low self-esteem or highly narcissistic kids?

Well, it depends.

Regardless of whether children started out with high or low self-esteem, parents’ inflated praise predicted lower self-esteem in children over time (supporting the self-deflation hypothesis). But, parents’ inflated praise predicted higher levels of narcissism in children, only when they started out with high initial levels of self-esteem. The authors concluded that inflated praise can have unintended consequences, negatively impacting children’s self-development.

In this study, non-inflated praise was not related to lowered self-esteem or higher narcissism. When non-inflated praise is delivered, it does not have an overly positive tone, it doesn’t pressure children to perform extraordinarily well, and it doesn’t leave them with the impression that they are better than others. The authors suggest that praise is still important, but parents should be cautious to not inflate their praise.

Then how should parents deliver praise?

If your child is struggling with self-esteem, contact us for a free consultation to discuss how we can help.

Andrea Stelnicki
MSc, Registered Psychologist

References

Brummelman, E., Crocker, J., & Bushman, B. J. (2016). The praise paradox: When and why praise backfires in children with low self-esteem. Child Development Perspectives, 10(2), 111-115. doi:10.1111/cdep.12171

Brummelman, E., Nelemans, S. A., Thomaes, S., & Orobio de Castro, B. (2017). When parents’ praise inflates, children’s self-esteem deflates., 88(6), 1799-1809. doi:10.1111/cdev.12936

Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., & Sedikides, C. (2016). Separating narcissism from self-esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(1), 8-13. doi:10.1177/0963721415619737

 

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