During toddlerhood, children experience increased control and mastery over their own bodies. They also realize that they can manipulate their parents’ emotional reactions and feel empowered and omnipotent. Power struggles emerge between parent and child.
Rachel, aged two and a half, shows off her new mobility skills as she swings high on her garden swing. Her mother, worried that she will hurt herself, yells at Rachel to stop. Rachel feels as though her mother’s reaction is a fundamental threat to her self-image as an autonomous individual. Subsequently, she is willing to implement her narcissistic power and defiantly carries on swinging high. This triggers a strong reaction in Rachel’s mother, who feels threatened by her daughter’s emerging otherness. She tries to re-establish her self-familiarity, shouting louder at her daughter to stop. A duel has begun; both parties are no longer enjoying their previously-shared joint space. A battle of narcissism versus narcissism (NvN) has begun.
The stark otherness
Both must face the stark otherness that separates them. Her mother realizes that one method for diverting Rachel is to suggest an alternative activity, and says that the two of them could go inside and bake biscuits together. This is met with a positive response, and both individuals can relax again. They have both returned to their sense of familiarity.
An hour later, Rachel’s mother leaves the room to undertake chores. Rachel decides to play with blocks. Both parties move smoothly to their own private space, later to remember (unconsciously) the narrative of NvN, reunion, and ultimate separation.
From the age of two years the immunisation of an individual’s self, of autonomy and his adaptation mechanisms are all vital. The child begins to use phrases like “I want,” and “No, no” as he confronts his parents’ imposed limits of what is and is not acceptable. Should a parent express anger or criticise the toddler, this will be interpreted as narcissistic injury – which is taken by the injured party to mean that he is incapable – or as ego grievance, which is interpreted as a judgment that the child has something “wrong.”
The emotional immune system
The emotional immune system of the child (his healthy narcissism) works to restore an individual’s sense of familiarity. His skills (the ego’s) to initiate or activate adaptation mechanisms play a key role. They allow the toddler to erect internal boundaries around what he can and cannot do. In this way, family rules are internalized – promoting his grasp of reality – whilst still preserving his sense of self as an autonomous being. He comes to understand to what extent his parents will tolerate NvN struggles, and in doing so, may choose to disobey their instructions.
The “No No” Child
Rachel’s father tells her that they are going out to the zoo. He finds her shoes and prepares to put them on his daughter’s feet, but the latter cries: “No, no, I do it!” She can see that her father is frustrated – it takes her a long time to put the shoes on – but she is determined to exert her personal autonomy. Soon, her father’s frustration increases and he says that unless she hurries up, the zoo will be closed. Rachel is upset and throws a tantrum. The NvN battle has begun. Rachel has succeeded in locating her father’s rage, and makes the discovery that he cannot control her stubborn nature. In a final twist, Rachel tentatively asks him whether he still loves her ( she means probably despite their conflict). Her father responds that yes, of course he does. They are both made more comfortable, he helps her with her shoes, and they go out. For now, their sense of familiarity is repaired.
When a child discovers that his parents are not always unbreakable, he worries that his power may harm them. His emotional immune system (his healthy narcissism) acts as a protective mechanism by propping up his image of his parents as at least as powerful as he is. As we progress through life, mastery, power and autonomy are a consistent source of delight and ego assertiveness. However, the latter may morph into a powerful addiction, which can come at a the high cost reality testing and poor decision-making.