The Impact of Growing Up With A Narcissistic Parent
Updated: May 22, 2022
Imagine a mother who seems like the perfect parent out in public but who rages and screams at her children and husband at home when they displease her… or a father who deliberately makes his 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…
These are both examples of parents who have narcissistic traits. Like many personality traits, narcissism is normally distributed among the population, meaning that most people fall somewhere along the middle of the spectrum, while only a few reach the extremes. Pathological narcissism, in the form of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is actually quite rare, impacting only 1% of the population according to PsychologyToday.
Someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) will likely:
Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
Have a sense of entitlement and requiring constant and excessive admiration
Expect to be recognised as superior, even without the achievements that warrant it
Exaggerate their achievements and talents
Be preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, brilliants, or having the perfect relationship
Belittle or looking down on people they perceive as inferior
Expect special treatment and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
Take advantage of others to get what they want
Have an inability or unwillingness to recognise the needs and feelings of others
Be envious of others and believing that others are envious of them
Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful, or pretentious
Insist on having the best of everything, i.e the best car or office.
Narcissists have trouble handling anything that is perceived as a criticism or penetrates this image that they have cultivated of themselves. When this happens they can become angry, belittle others, have difficulty regulating their emotions, and experience covert feelings of shame, vulnerability, and humiliation.
Growing Up With A Narcissistic Parent
Being raised by a narcissistic parent gives rise to the belief “I am not good enough.”
Generally, narcissistic parents are possessively close to their young children. Their children are seen as an extension of themselves, and become a source of self-esteem for the parent; “look at how perfect my children are, didn’t I do a good job!” The children become a means to gain attention from others.
The children learn to fit into the moulds that their parent creates for them, and this can lead to anxiety for the child who constantly pushes aside their own personality in order to please the parent.
The child of a narcissistic parent must adhere to the parent’s agenda in order for their life to be stable. Asserting their own feelings or thoughts can lead to problems with the parent that might include anger, tears, or punishment. Through this, the child learns that their feelings and thoughts are unimportant, invalid, and inconsequential, and will often stifle their own feelings in order to keep the peace at home.
Narcissists aren’t always cruel. They can very often be kind, but this kindness almost always comes with conditions. The child will often come to understand that their parent’s kindness leads them to feeling beholden to their parent. Whether it is overt or covert, the sentiment “If I do this for you, you owe me” always comes with acts of kindness. Kindness, and love, are conditional.
A narcissist’s behaviour can be difficult to handle at the best of times, so for a child it can feel extremely unpredictable and unsettling. Young children can’t just get up and leave their family, so they nurture hope by sacrificing their own self-esteem and blaming themselves.
The child internalises the belief that they are the problem; “If I was better at this or that, then my parent would love me more.” The parent’s own belief that they are the perfect parent only compounds this belief as they believe that any resistance or negativity that they experience from the child is the child’s fault.
The difficulty of growing up with a narcissistic parent is that the child often doesn’t realise that there is anything wrong. When we are growing up, we only know what we are exposed to by our families. It can be years later that the child, often now an adult, begins to make sense of their childhood. This realisation is often aided by a friend or partner who is able to recognise the peculiar or bizarre parenting of the narcissist.
Traits of Adult Children of a Narcissistic Parent
1. Indecision and Guilt
Adult children of narcissistic parents fear that they will hurt someone else by choosing to do what’s right for them. They have been ‘trained’ to consider their parent’s needs first and foremost, and it is therefore hard for them to consider their own needs without feeling selfish for doing so. This indecision and guilt can be paralysing for years.
2. Internalised Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgement.
Growing up with a narcissistic parent can leave the adult child feeling that they have very little to offer, even when the contrary may be true. Growing up, their talents and skills may have been downplayed, ignored, or co-opted by the narcissistic parent who will have felt threatened by their child’s skills.
Even when the now adult experiences success, they may feel that they don’t deserve it and this can give rise to imposter syndrome.
3) Love and Loyalty
Even after growing up amid lies, manipulation, and abuse, it can be really difficult for adult children of narcissists to step away from caring for and loving their narcissistic parent. They will likely feel guilt for trying to step away or input boundaries, and may even enter into relationships with partners who show narcissistic traits. A love that is based on manipulations and conditions is something that is known to them, whereas a love that is unconditional might seem quite terrifying.
4) Strength and Resilience
Very often, adult children of narcissistic parents display a great ability to show compassion and love for others, are able to form loving relationships, and to learn to love and care for themselves. It is possible to recover from growing up with a narcissistic parent.
5) Chronic Self-blame
Whether or not the parent is openly abusive to the child, they are almost always emotionally tone deaf, and are too preoccupied with themselves and their own concerns to hear the pain of their child. As discussed earlier, in order to try to maintain the family unit, the child (even if they are now an adult) shies away from blaming their parent and instead takes all the blame on themselves; “If I was better at…”, “If I wasn’t such a difficult child…” and so on.
This can continue into adulthood, where the adult child continues to take the blame for things that aren’t always their fault. They become the scapegoat in many situations purely in order to keep the peace.
Echoists and narcissists complement each other (an echoist is the opposite of a narcissist - someone who shuns the limelight and far prefers staying in the shadows). Essentially, narcissistic parents can explode into anger or burst into tears without much warning, which forces their children to take up as little space as possible in order to avoid triggering one of these emotional outbursts. It can feel like walking on eggshells; trying to do everything possible to avoid their parent having a meltdown.
7) Insecure Attachment
Adult children of narcissists are likely to become insecurely attached to their parent; never experiencing that safe base that they need in order to feel comfortable exploring their environment.
The neglect, manipulation, or emotional absence of a parent can leave their child questioning how safe they will be able to feel in other people’s hands. This leads some adults to become fiercely independent, not trusting that anyone else can be relied upon.
However it can lead others to cling to their partners for love and demand the attention of their significant other at all times.
8) Parentified Child
Children who grow up with a narcissistic parent will have organised their whole life and personality around the happiness of their parent, and will then grow up organising their life around the happiness of others – many of them working in the helping professions.
How You Can Move Forwards
There are many different ways that you can move forwards and heal from being raised by a narcissistic parent. I would recommend that you don’t attempt to do this alone; whether you enter into a therapeutic relationship or work through your recovery with a partner is up to you. Working through this healing process with another family member could cause problems, so proceed with caution.
Here are some key steps that you can take to begin the healing process:
1) Recognise. As with anything, the first step is awareness. We can’t move on until we know what has caused us pain. If you are reading this article then it is probable that you suspect that one of your parents had narcissistic traits or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
2) Study. Educate yourself about NPD and the impacts that it can have on the family system. Scour the internet, read text books, and talk to therapists who understand narcissism.
3) Recount your experiences. This exercise can be difficult, so I would definitely recommend that you get support with it. For each sign and symptom of NPD, recall and write down your own experiences from childhood or adulthood that match.
For each of these memories, the narrative needs to be re-written with a new dialogue of, “My parent is a narcissist and is treating me this way because of that.” There is no blame in this new dialogue; not for you, and not for your parent. This is a way of re-framing your experiences in the light of new information, and extricating the blame from yourself.
4) Identify. During the previous step, it is highly likely that some abusive, traumatic, and neglectful behaviour on the part of the narcissistic parent becomes evident. As painful as it might be, you will likely be able to identify emotional abuse and neglect (guilt-tripping, manipulating), and even psychological abuse (gaslighting or the silent treatment). You might also find examples of physical abuse, financial abuse (neglect or excessive gift-giving). It can be extremely helpful to work through these memories with a counsellor.
5) Grieve. There can be a lot of grieving involved in this type of healing. Both grieving for the childhood that you didn’t get, and also grieving for the image of your parent that has been shattered. As mentioned, growing up we only know what we know. And so, when you grow older and realise that other children had a very different childhood from your own, you might feel jealous, hard-done-by, and angry that you didn’t get to experience this.
You might have grown up protecting your parent, or idolising them, only to realise that they have actually caused you some harm. This can be quite de-stabilising and we may find that we need to grieve for the image that we used to hold of our parent.
6) Work through developmental milestones. It is very likely that, growing up, you missed some pretty important developmental milestones, and now is the time to start experiencing them and learning. Now is the time to explore your own identity, to experiment with your sexuality, with dating, with choosing what you want to study and what you really want to do with your life. You will very likely have to learn to ask for what you need (you can start off small, i.e. by asking for directions), to learn how to identify your emotions which were kept buried for so long, and to learn how to set healthy boundaries.
7) Understand. Finally, it is important to understand and come to accept that your narcissistic parent won’t change. As much as you might want to confront them, or as much as you do confront them, it is very unlikely that the parent will change their ways.
Confronting a narcissistic parent can cause some quite big arguments in families for, as mentioned earlier, a narcissist will feel great shame and vulnerability that their perfect image is being penetrated. This can lead to them becoming extremely defensive and angry.
It is also important to acknowledge, and maybe even forgive, your other parent. If one of your parent’s is a narcissist, it is likely that the other is an enabler. By going along with and/or excusing the narcissist’s abusive behaviour, enablers essentially normalise and sustain it.
Sometimes enablers also assist the narcissist in their dirty work, condoning and perpetuating their abuse. By not naming the abuse and not protecting their kids from it, enablers become complicit, even if they are also victimised by it.
I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent
I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours,
self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems
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