Children of narcissists often feel confused, sad, and misunderstood as they navigate life. You may not recognize the severity of your childhood family dynamics and how it truly impacted your well-being. Subsequently, you may have known something was wrong while growing up, but you weren’t sure how to identify the problem accurately.
This article dives into the main traits of a narcissistic parent. We will explore how this challenging personality disorder can affect you in both childhood and adulthood. We will also review how you can take care of yourself, break the narcissistic cycle, and reach out for the help you need. Let’s get to it!
What is a Narcissistic Parent
A narcissistic parent has narcissistic personality disorder, a condition defined by overinflated egos, lack of empathy, and the intense need for attention and validation. These parents tend to be erratic and abusive towards their children.
Instead of embracing their child’s individuality, they have rigid expectations about behavior. Likewise, they often rely on their children to provide identity and success.
Interested in a Free 15-minute consultation?
Characteristics of a Narcissistic Parent
In recent years, narcissism has become a catchphrase for many different terms: confidence, sociopathy, and the rising phenomenon of social media selfies.
While many people have narcissistic traits, true narcissism is a complex clinical condition that fundamentally impacts someone’s behavior. Exact statistics are unknown, but mental health experts theorize that approximately 5% of the population has narcissistic personality disorder.
Having a relationship with a narcissist can result in many consequences, including physical abuse, infidelity, emotional abuse, and chronic gaslighting. This relationship can affect your self-esteem, relationships with others, and your sense of safety in the world.
How It Can Affect You in Childhood
Narcissism can affect every area of a child’s well-being. The emotional toll can undoubtedly stunt your growth and development. Let’s review some common experiences.
Many narcissists pit their children against one another. Each child tends to have a specific role within the family dynamic.
For instance, the narcissist often has a preferred golden child who embodies perfection. They place this child on an enormous pedestal and give them immense praise for their academic or athletic performance.
At the same time, another child often takes the role of a scapegoat. They point to the scapegoat as the “problem” of the family and may exaggerate every minuscule mistake as a massive flaw.
Of course, both roles have their challenges. The golden child often experiences intense pressure to perform. This cycle can result in control issues, perfectionism, and low self-esteem. The scapegoat tends to feel unloved and unimportant. They may try to continue winning the narcissist’s approval, or they may give up and rebel completely.
Narcissists struggle to make meaningful relationships with other adults. As a result, they often rely on their children for emotional support.
Your parent may have dumped their issues onto you and sought your advice instead of reaching out for appropriate resources. As a young child, this experience may have been comforting. After all, most children want to help their parents! But it also forces children to grow up quickly, and it takes the attention away from their needs.
Fear of Abandonment
This fear often starts in early childhood. Infants rely on their parents to attune to their intrinsic needs. They verbalize these needs through crying and other nonverbal expressions. If a narcissist misreads these cues repeatedly, the child grows up feeling unsafe and unloved, which can perpetuate fears of abandonment.
Moreover, narcissists often make angry threats about leaving their children when they do something wrong. These threats can be direct (you’re the reason we are getting divorced, and I won’t be seeing you anymore!), or they can be more subtle (I won’t support that, so you’re on your own!).
Lack of Consistent Structure
Starting from a young age, children thrive with schedules. They need to understand their limits and feel confident in predicting what lies ahead for them.
In a healthy home, parents set and implement healthy boundaries for their children. The boundaries respect the child’s autonomy while also keeping them protected. The structure is natural- the children follow a basic routine that allows for flexibility as needed.
But in narcissistic homes, the boundaries tend to be chaotic, overly strict, or entirely nonexistent. For example, your parent may have been in a different mood each day. They might have thrown new rules at you without telling you about them beforehand.
Sense of Fake Love
Narcissists often want to present as loving and compassionate towards their children. They try to act like they are perfect parents by purchasing beautiful homes, taking lots of photos for social media, or cooking great dinners when other people visit.
But when it was just you and your parent? The reality felt much different. The love felt superficial and hollow – they seemed to care more about their image than how you actually felt.
How It Can Affect You in Adulthood
The effects of narcissism often don’t disappear once you leave the home. In fact, many adults only begin to truly recognize the narcissist’s impact as they begin maneuvering their way into life. Here are some common issues these individuals can face.
Failure to Launch
Many narcissists rely on their children for emotional validation. They want to be needed and loved. For this reason, they typically feel threatened as the child becomes more independent.
To compensate for this fear, your parent might do many things for you. For example, they might still pay your bills or make your doctor’s appointments. They may send out resumes on your behalf or offer to let you stay at their house rent-free.
Even if their motives feel generous, it’s usually because they want to maintain some control over how you live your life. This pattern causes high levels of dependence. And once you make a decision that contradicts their preferences, they will likely become reactive.
Lack of Identity
Many children of narcissists feel trapped in what their parents want for them. They may be discouraged to pursue their own interests or preferences. If it doesn’t fit within the parent’s mold, it can’t exist. This pattern can persist into adulthood, especially if you continue having a close relationship with your parents.
As a result, you may struggle to know who you are or what you like. You might feel directionless or helpless. This problem can manifest as generalized anxiety, immense indecisiveness, or dependence on others to make decisions for you.
It’s no secret that parents play a critical role in modeling healthy relationships. They teach their children how people should respect and communicate with one another. Children watch these dynamics and integrate the patterns into their relationships.
If you regularly observed a parent shouting, insulting, or arguing with other people, what tends to happen? You may perceive that behavior as normal. You might assume that all relationships follow that same pattern, even if they don’t start that way.
Therefore, many children of narcissists struggle with relationships later in life. You might inadvertently find yourself repeating awful cycles of abuse. Your intimate partners may resemble the narcissist. Or, you may end up acting abusively towards others to restore the power and control you never had.
Whether it’s compulsive gambling, or overeating, many children of narcissists struggle with unhealthy behaviors later in life. These behaviors often act as substitutes for love. They also help numb pain and trauma.
Many narcissists struggle with compulsive behavior themselves. If you grow up observing this pattern, it makes sense that you would adopt these behaviors yourself.
Children often grow up contorting their entire lives to satisfy the narcissist. They learn to stay out of the way when the narcissist is upset. They also know that their needs tend to come last, especially if the narcissist isn’t getting what they want.
As an adult, you may find yourself placating others. You might fear conflict and try to avoid it altogether. Instead of voicing your opinion, you might wait for others to speak first, just to make sure you won’t upset anyone.
Real Examples & What It Looks Like
Narcissism isn’t always obvious, especially if you feel loving and grateful towards your parents. Here are some real examples of what this personality can look like.
I never said that! You must be imagining things! Or maybe you’re thinking about your mother. She would say something like that.
Narcissists often gaslight other people. Gaslighting refers to a form of abuse that distorts reality. The narcissist aims to make you feel like you’re the crazy one. They will deny saying or doing certain things. They may also blame you for their behavior, insisting that you caused them to do something they didn’t want to do.
You can’t play soccer. You’re not fast enough. I think you’d be great at baseball! I have the sign-up form ready and filled out.
Narcissists want things done their way. If they like baseball, they will want you to play baseball. If they eat a vegetarian diet, you probably won’t ever want to eat meat in their home. They have little tolerance for people who think differently than them, and they will often protest if you decide to act against their wishes.
Of course, I love you! I sacrificed so much for you! I worked twelve-hour days to put food on the table. How can you be so ungrateful?
Narcissists view love as transactional and conditional. They will prove their love by how they provided you financially or physically. They will also often throw these sacrifices in your face to induce guilt if you attempt to share your feelings about their behavior.
You can’t wear that. It makes you look fat and unkempt.
Narcissists tend to be obsessed with appearance. They feel preoccupied with how they (and their children) look to the outside world. Unfortunately, they often place children on restrictive diets, and they tend to criticize and exaggerate every physical flaw.
You’re my only real friend! I love you so much. I’m sorry that I said that!
Many narcissists do apologize, but their apologies aren’t about accepting personal accountability. Instead, their goal is to manipulate you into maintaining the status quo. If you try to set a boundary, they will work extremely hard to convince you to change your mind- even if that means “apologizing” for doing something wrong.
You don’t understand what my parents were like. You have had it so easy.
Many narcissists recognize experiencing trauma or abuse during their childhoods. They often point to these experiences to rationalize their behavior. That said, even if the stories are legitimate, it doesn’t excuse or make up for the pain they are inflicting on you.
How To Break The Cycle By Getting Help
The first step is recognizing the issue. Labeling narcissism can be challenging, but this awareness gives you a chance to heal. If you want, you can still love the narcissist without tolerating their abusive behavior.
It may be beneficial to read more about narcissism and its impact. Education can be empowering- it shows you that you aren’t alone in how you feel. Subsequently, it can help you understand yourself and your needs better.
Ultimately, there isn’t a right-or-wrong way to move forward. Some people choose a no-contact approach where they remove the narcissist from their lives. Others embrace setting more boundaries and limiting what they share with their narcissistic parent.
Regardless of your circumstances, many people benefit from seeking professional support to recover from narcissistic abuse. Working with a therapist can help you understand the impact of your childhood. They can also teach you appropriate boundaries and coping skills for managing this relationship.
Being raised by a narcissistic parents can feel frustrating and lonely. Remember that you are not responsible for their behavior. That said, you are responsible for your recovery. You can learn how to live a meaningful life despite your childhood.