A father who puts his 11-year old daughter on the bathroom scale and tells her that no man will ever love her if the line goes above 150lbs, but then he says he’s “only telling her this for her own good”…
A mother who seems like the perfect, well-regarded soccer mom, sweet and helpful to other parents and kids out in public but who rages and screams at her children and husband at home when they displease her…
A father who plays blatant favorites among his children and who only shows any of them love when they do what he wants or when they act like he wants them to…
A mother who deliberately makes her kids feel confused by telling them something didn’t happen when it objectively did, invalidating their experience and helping them learn they can’t trust themselves…
Do any of these scenarios feel familiar? Do they make you angry or feel uncomfortable? Do they remind you of anyone you know?
Each of these sample vignettes describes a narcissistic parent, or, rather, common actions a narcissistic parent may inflict upon their children.
And in each of these examples (assuming they’re not just one-off experiences), the impact on the children can be profound.
This is a painful, complex, and deeply important topic to talk about because the relational collateral damage of having been raised by a narcissistic father or mother can be vast, hugely impactful, and sometimes intergenerational in continuity if left unhealed and unaddressed by the adult child.
So in today’s post, I want to talk about what a narcissist is, the potential consequences of narcissistic parenting on children, and share suggestions and resources for recovery if you identify with having been raised by a narcissist.
What defines a narcissist?
It’s important to clarify that narcissism – excessive interest and pre-occupation in oneself – exists on a spectrum of severity and that all of us as humans are narcissistic to some degree.
And while sometimes narcissism is developmentally appropriate (think toddlers who still haven’t figured out the world doesn’t revolve around them), for others who fall on the more severe end of the narcissism spectrum or who possess the full criterion of narcissistic personality disorder, this would not be considered developmentally appropriate.
So there is narcissism as a trait (with variance falling across a wide spectrum), and then there is a narcissist, or, for the sake of this article, someone who meets the criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM).
The clinical criteria of someone with NPD include:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates accomplishments and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate accomplishments).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”*
*American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
According to the DSM, prevalence rates for NPD “range from 0% to 6.2%” of the population and, of those diagnosed with NPD, “50-70% are male.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)
Official criteria and statistics aside, I’ll add that in my professional experience, there is no one single, universal profile of a narcissist.
A narcissist can be a leader of the free world, or a mediocre small business owner, a washed-up old con man, a homebody recluse, a brilliant and accomplished academic, or a stay at home mom. Narcissists can be male or female and found, indiscriminately, across work sectors, races, and socioeconomic strata.
Ultimately, though, regardless of this profile variance, narcissists are defined by an almost exclusive, self-serving focus on themselves and firmly entrenched psychological defenses that guard against almost intolerable feelings of shame stemming from a deeply wounded psyche.
Simply put, deep down, narcissists feel terrible about themselves, and do whatever they can to make themselves feel better.
This leads the narcissist to cope through a variety of ways, ultimately seeking to make themselves appear and feel more important and special than, at their core, they truly feel.
Unfortunately, in the pursuit of trying to appear more special and important, they often relationally wound those around them, particularly their spouses and their children.
What can make being raised by a narcissist so damaging?
The psychological effects of childhood neglect and emotional abuse are, fortunately and unfortunately, well documented.
We know that children have core developmental needs that include consistent attachment, mirroring, attunement, and positive regard from their primary caregiver(s) in order to help them establish a stable, cohesive, and positive sense of self and to help them learn secure relational attachment.
We also know that when children don’t consistently receive this, or when they instead receive consistent invalidation, frequent insecure attachment experiences, a lack of empathy, or outright hostility from their caregiver(s), this will impact them in myriad ways.
Unfortunately, parents with NPD possess character traits that are almost antithetical to being able to provide their children what they need to emotionally and mentally develop and thrive.
- Narcissists can struggle with being able to focus their attention and orient towards someone else instead of towards themselves (a refocusing parenting begs of us);
- Children’s normal and natural childhood needs can be a “bother” to a narcissist;
- The moods of a narcissist may be highly variable and explosive in nature if their fragile emotional regulation skills are challenged (which is inevitable with children);
- Narcissists can often seek to put their children down to make themselves feel better and/or play favorites among their children, seeking to stabilize themselves through manipulation of the family dynamics;
- Seeing the child as an extension of themselves, a narcissist may attempt to control the appearance, pursuits, and trajectory of the child so that they align with the image the narcissist is personally trying to display to the world;
- Narcissists may only show love to a child when they perform or act in ways that are pleasing to the narcissist, disallowing a child’s authentic experiences and individuality to come forth;
- Instead of displaying and providing consistent support for their children, a narcissist may invert the dynamic and expect validation, support, and esteem stabilization from their children, therefore parentifying them;
- A narcissistic parent, confronted with a child who is particularly strong-willed, defiant, or independent, may rage, abuse, or even disown the confrontational, scapegoated child.
And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There are myriad ways in which narcissistic parenting can manifest.
However, despite how the individual actions of the narcissist show up, and whether the child was raised by a single narcissistic parent or in a blended or married family that colluded with the narcissist, it’s safe to assume that any child – whether this child was the favorite or the family scapegoat – doesn’t escape the ill impacts of being parented by a narcissist.
So what can the ill impacts of being parented by a narcissist look like?
Again, while the impacts on the child will vary as widely as the ways in which narcissistic parenting may manifest, some of the impacts may include:
- Absorbing and deeply believing in dysfunctional and destructive emotional templates of what love looks like;
- They can learn their worthiness is dependent on how they act and what they do, not on who they are or that they are worthy just for existing;
- They may struggle with setting healthy and appropriate boundaries;
- They may struggle or fail to recognize healthy romantic partners and even be drawn to dating or marrying narcissists themselves;
- Adult children of narcissists may fall into caretaking and rescuing roles, seeking validation and worthiness from taking care of others and people pleasing;
- They may neglect their needs and wants, or even be “needless and wantless”;
- They can have a hard time trusting that their feelings and thoughts are valid and that their needs will ever be met;
- They may deeply struggle with their self-esteem and with maintaining a stable and cohesive sense of self;
- Adult children of narcissists may attempt to cope with their emotional pain from a childhood of neglect and emotional abuse through addictive and self-destructive substances and behaviors;
- Also, adult children of narcissists may possibly grow up to become narcissists themselves.
And again, this list is in no way exhaustive of all the psychological impacts being parented by a narcissist may have on someone.
The impacts will vary and will depend on the context of the child or adult child, how strong their sense of self was, whether they had stabilizing, functional relationships with other adults in their childhood, whether they were the scapegoat or the favorite child, how much or how little contact they had with the narcissist, etc..
Ultimately though, the adult children of narcissists will likely face complex psychological healing tasks as a result of their parenting experiences.
So how does one begin healing after being parented by a narcissist?
Healing from narcissistic parenting.
The healing work required by adult children of narcissists will likely include the following tasks:
- Educate yourself. Whether this is through books (see my reference list below) or through professional support, you will likely need to begin learning about what narcissism is, how it can show up in parenting, and what the possible impacts of it can look like. The first step in any healing process is bringing awareness to what is, and I find that psychoeducation about narcissists can be deeply illuminating as you begin to make sense of your past.
- Confront your personal history of trauma and neglect. I strongly recommend working with a therapist or other trained professional as you begin to remember, talk about, and make sense of your past. And, sidenote, don’t necessarily look to your own family of origin for an accurate reflection of your personal history if you have memory gaps or questions. They may not be willing or able to validate your personal history based on their own trauma with the narcissist.
- Grieve what you did not receive. Inevitably, in the course of educating yourself and confronting your past, you will need to grieve what you did not receive which, essentially, was a chance to truly be a kid. This grieving process may take quite some time, it can, at times, often feel endless, but it’s so valid and necessary to your healing process.
- Work through the developmental milestones you may not have achieved. Often as children of narcissists we don’t fully get the chance to be children or teens with our own identities, needs, wants, and preferences. We may also have missed out on certain development milestones like lifestyle experimentation, dating, or even pursuing the education or career we wanted due to the impacts of psychologically unhealthy parenting. It’s therefore part of your healing work to begin working through any developmental milestones in conjunction with your personal history confrontation and grieving work.
- Setting boundaries. Either with the narcissist(s) still in your life or with those you may be over accommodating and catering to. Learning what healthy boundaries are and how to set them with others is critical for those recovering from narcissistic parenting.
- Seek out healthier, more functional relationships. At first, these may feel hard if not impossible to recognize and you may not trust yourself that you can actually draw these kinds of relationship into your personal life. That’s okay. Start with your relationship with your therapist (a trained professional whose job it is to show up in a healthy, functional way) and allow them to help show you what could be possible in healthier relationships. Over time, may influence who you attract into your personal life.
- Focus your healing and recovery work on developing a more cohesive and stable sense of self. For most adult children of narcissists, our core healing work revolves around developing a more cohesive and stable sense of self, learning to love and value ourselves for who we are, not for who we think we “should” be to win approval. A poor sense of self can impact every area of our lives, from our physical and mental health, to our relationships, our career advancement, it can even impact your bank account. So focusing your work with your therapist on cultivating and developing a more cohesive and stable sense of self can be a wonderful way to focus your healing work.
Further resources you may want to look into to support your healing journey may include:
- Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in their Struggle for Self by Elan Golomb
- Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed by Wendy T. Behary LCSW
- Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyn McBride
- Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward
- Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life by Linda Martinez-Lewi
- The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self-Healing and Getting the Love You Missed by Jasmin Lee Cori MS LPC
Wrapping This Up.
This post is not meant to demonize narcissists.
At the end of the day, narcissistic parents likely developed this way because of what they were modeled by their own parents.
And so it goes through the generations until one person of one generation decides to consciously and intentionally break the cycle.
My hope is that if you saw yourself in this article, whether as a child of a narcissist, or possibly as a narcissist yourself, that you will make the choice to break the cycle for yourself and whatever family or legacy you create and leave behind.
If you would like support in doing this, I encourage you to reach out.
And until next time, take very good care of yourself.