Having a narcissistic parent.
Being the child of a narcissistic mother or father is difficult, to say the least. Narcissistic parents expose their children to a lot of emotional, mental, and sometimes also physical abuse. The narcissistic parent uses a lot of mind games to get what he or she wants, to make a child feel guilty or ashamed for things he or she didn’t do, and to take credit for the child’s success.
On top of that, the narcissistic parent wears two masks: one for the outside world and one for at home. For the outside world, the narcissistic parent usually comes across as being friendly, charming, and social. At home, however, the narcissistic parent shows a whole different side of him or herself. At home they can be spiteful, jealous, angry, easily upset, and controlling. For a child it’s confusing, frustrating, and very painful to see their narcissistic mother or father behave so differently in public, because no-one will ever believe that this ‘wonderful person’ is, in fact, such a horrible parent.
For more information:
- What is narcissism?
- NPD symptoms.
- NPD test.
- How to live with a narcissistic person?
- Having a narcissistic mother-in-law.
- Having a narcissistic boss.
- Facts about narcissism.
- Online treatment for narcissism or guidance for those living with a narcissist.
- Take me to the homepage.
At Barends Psychology Practice, treatment for children of narcissists is being offered. Contact us to schedule a first, free of charge appointment. (Depending on your health insurance, treatment may be reimbursed)
Why do narcissistic parents behave the way they do?
For a child of a narcissistic parent it’s extremely difficult to understand why their parent behaves the way they do. Their parent does not show love, interest, kindness or devotion to them like any other parent would to their child. Instead, they can be manipulative, selfish, mean, uninterested, uncaring, and sometimes even cruel. But why?
In short: narcissistic people experienced a traumatic childhood and needed to find coping mechanisms to survive. Their coping mechanisms aim at staying as far away as possible from any emotional pain.
Explanation: As a child, the narcissist experienced abuse in several ways: emotional abuse, emotional neglect, sexual abuse, and/or physical abuse. Abusing parents often are emotionally unavailable, which leaves a child craving for attention, reassurance, love, and affection. Unfortunately, talking about emotions with the abusive parent is difficult, if not impossible. When a child grows up in such conditions it needs to find ways of coping with their own emotions (sadness, anger, frustration, resentment), needs (affection, love, attention), and desires (to feel appreciated, accepted, reassured, loved, cared for).
An effective short term coping mechanism is to ignore these emotions, needs, and desires. By pretending they do not exist, a child protects itself from all the emotional pain. If there is pain, the child wants it to go away. Often, bullying is a good way to make yourself feel better (you get attention, feel powerful and are in control).
Their positive behaviour never gave them affection, love and attention, so they turn to negative behaviour (lying, manipulation, threatening) to achieve this. Their desires will not be met, so they become very sour and jealous of others, unable to give someone else what they so desperately need.
Narcissistic people suffer tremendously from their childhood trauma’s and this pain is too much for them to carry, so they pretend it’s not there or they keep lashing out to other people to ease their own pain. Another coping mechanism is to switch off empathy. When they showed their emotions as children they got rejected, so showing emotions is something they learned not to do. They are afraid someone will take advantage of their vulnerability (something they do all the time).
How do narcissistic parents see their children?
Narcissistic parents see their children as extensions of themselves. As long as you mean no threat to your narcissistic mother or father, and as long as you can make them proud, they are OK towards you, or continue to ignore you. But the moment you become difficult or don’t meet their expectations, you become an obstacle; a problem they usually don’t like to deal with.
Unfortunately, according to the narcissistic father or mother, their children aren’t authentic individuals who need to explore and develop, who have needs and desires. Instead, their children should do whatever they think is important and whatever makes them feel proud. However, there is an exception:
Golden child vs. scapegoat.
Golden Child: Sometimes narcissistic parents treat a son or daughter as a golden child. A golden child can’t do anything wrong, is the smartest and the best at everything they do. This is what the narcissistic parent believes and will enforce in their child, and can have its own repercussions over time. The golden child is the extension of the narcissistic parent. According to a narcissist he or she is perfect, so the extension of themselves (the golden child) must be perfect too.
Scapegoat: Sometimes they treat their son or daughter as the scapegoat of the family. Everything the scapegoat does is wrong, not as good as it should be, and they always have to take the blame (even if they aren’t the ones to blame). The scapegoat stands for everything that is not perfect in the family. That child can’t be good at anything, because he or she represents all that is wrong and bad. A narcissist is perfect according to him or herself, so whenever things don’t go that well, it must be because of someone else.
Being the golden child or the scapegoat is more common in families with more than 1 child. Sometimes the narcissist picks a new golden child or a new scapegoat, sometimes the golden child will always be the golden child and the scapegoat the scapegoat.
Wearing two masks.
As mentioned before, narcissistic mothers and fathers behave differently in public compared to the way they behave at home. But why do they do that?
Narcissists come across as being very arrogant and over-confident people, but they are not. They are insecure and need constant admiration and attention.
In public, they come across as social, charming, funny, and friendly, as that is the easiest way to get a confidence boost: friendly and charming people get more attention than bitchy and moody people. In public, it’s easier to brag about your own achievements or that of your golden child. This is exactly what narcissists are looking for. If you don’t admire them, praise them or give them ‘enough’ attention, they will dislike you.
At home, however, they behave completely different. That’s where you see the real narcissist. Home is where they emotionally, mentally, and sometimes physically abuse you as a child. They do this because it makes them feel good about themselves, it makes them feel powerful, in control, and superior to you. They need this to feed their ego. If you, as their child, can make them feel good about themselves, you may not experience many problems… but the moment you pose a threat to them, you stand out in something or you don’t behave the way they want you to, they will punish you! And that is what makes it so difficult for a child: you don’t know when you behave the way your narcissistic parent will want you to. As a child, it makes you walk on eggshells all the time. You are afraid of doing just that little thing that will enrage your mother or father. You can feel the tension at home, and from one moment to the other everything changes. They use different ways to punish you: by ignoring you as a child, by threatening you or making you feel guilty (˝because you can’t play the piano well, mummy looks like a fool˝), or by excessive parental control.
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How do narcissistic parents abuse and punish their children?
There are several ways for a narcissistic parent to punish and abuse his or her child. Here are a few common ways narcissists use.
- Emotional blackmailing: The narcissistic mother or father must get what he or she wants. To get what a narcissist wants he or she will use emotional blackmail. There are a few ways in which they make you, as their child, do whatever they want you to do. Here are a few examples to illustrate that:
– ˝If you will tell your dad about this, we will divorce and that’s Your fault˝ – they want to you shut up about it, forever!
– ˝Because I got pregnant with you I can’t do fun stuff anymore˝ – they want you to feel guilty and do whatever they say to make it up to them.
– ˝If you become the best in class, I will love you like never before˝ – they want you to study extremely hard.
– ˝If you continue like this, you’ll give me a headache˝ – they want peace.
- Excessive parental control: By controlling every step you take and everything you say, you stay dependent. Being dependent of them means that they remain in control. Raising a child like this can cause serious self-esteem problems, autonomy problems and can make them indecisive and insecure about many (easy) decisions.
- Claiming your success: If you become successful, achieve something good or are attractive, your narcissistic parent will most likely say that it’s because of them that you achieved it. And on top of that: you should be happy and grateful to have such a parent. This way you will never feel like you really achieved something… you will always feel like you owe it to your parents. At the same time, your parent wants to claim your success and that means you have to perform far above average. This brings additional stress!
- No recognition of emotions: Your narcissistic parent will not recognize your emotions, your needs or desires. They will not and sometimes even cannot feel empathy for you. In other words: whenever you have needs, desires, questions or simply something to share, it’s likely they will (1) ignore you/it, (2) counter it with a story of their own, (3) use that particular need or desire against you, or (4) make you feel guilty for having needs, desires, etc.
- Lying to the child / can’t be trusted.
- Neglecting the child’s needs.
- Ignoring the child/ makes the child feel as if the child is of no importance to them.
- Ignores the personal boundaries the child has.
- Makes sure the child becomes dependent of the parent.
- Manipulates and punishes for pleasure.
- Being very in-consequent: saying A today and saying B tomorrow.
- Using everything you share with them against you, sooner or later.
- Insulting the child.
- Denying the child’s identity.
- Makes the child feel like he or she is insane.
- Makes the child start doubting about himself (gaslighting).
- Makes the child feel guilty for not listening to or obeying the parent, or to obtain something (e.g. money or a favor).
On top of that they also use a lot of mind games to get what they want. To read more about these particular mind games, go to: dealing with a narcissist.
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Which problems do the children of narcissists have when they become adults themselves?
It’s no surprise that children of narcissists have a huge chance of developing mental health issues themselves. Growing up without unconditional love, without the attention, care, and devotion a child needs, is extremely difficult. Add in the narcissist’s mind games, selfishness and their need for admiration, and you can be certain that their children will develop several big issues. A few of them are:
- Childhood trauma, or complex PTSD.
- Negative self-image (feeling like you are always doing everything wrong).
- Co-dependency (defending your mum or dad’s behaviour (often) subconsciously).
- Intense shame (not being able to meet your mom’s expectations).
- Underdeveloped identity (they have to ignore their own needs and desires).
- Not able to love unconditionally/ having trust issues (subconsciously they are waiting for someone to let them down).
- Anxiety issues (especially when developing friendships or romantic relationships).
- Often have unhealthy relationships (partners that resemble the narcissistic parents).
- Becoming narcissistic yourself (especially if you are the golden child).
- Having to accept that your parent doesn’t love you like other parents love their children.
Dealing with these mental health issues on your own may be very difficult. A few counseling sessions with a therapist can be very helpful in regard to accepting the situation, dealing with childhood trauma, negative self image, underdeveloped identity and anxiety issues. You can contact us for a free of charge first session, however, you can also try to recover on your own:
How does self-recovery work?
There are 5 stages of self-recovery children of narcissists need to face. It’s common to bounce back and forth between these stages.
Accepting the fact that your narcissistic parent can’t be there for you like other parents can, is a very difficult step to take in recovery. For every child it’s difficult to realize that your mother or father doesn’t love you unconditionally, shows very little empathy, and only cares about him or herself. A good way to speed up this process is to stop comparing your parents to the parents of your friends, and to understand that your mother or father has a mental disorder. Talk about your childhood with a professional or a good friend, someone who will not judge, someone who can understand you. Talking about your past and about the fact that your mother or father is different speeds up the process.
Denial is a defense mechanism, something you needed as a child to survive and to keep developing yourself. As everybody needs love and empathy, it’s extremely difficult for a child to have parents who are incapable of giving that. Parents are supposed to be ‘perfect’ so there must be a different reason why they are behaving the way they do… Now that you are an adult, it’s time to stop denying and to face your parents’ incapabilities. Remember, you did not do anything wrong. Your parents are the ones who weren’t able to give you what every child needs.
Ever since you are a toddler you have been trying to win your narcissistic parent’s love, but you never succeeded. Every time you try something new to make your mother proud of you, you do things like she wants you to do them, just to avoid conflict. Unfortunately, it’s the hope that kills you; the hope that your mother or father will change and becomes the parent you so desperately longed for. Try to ignore the hope, try to see every positive gesture from your father or mother as a nice surprise.
Children of narcissists usually feel anger when they realize their emotional needs weren’t met and that this neglect has negatively affected their development. Anger is a very simple and sometimes effective way to deal with frustration and feelings of helplessness. Suppressing anger is counter-productive and can result in acts of rage. If you allow yourself to be angry from time to time, and you have someone to talk to, someone who understands where your feelings are coming from, then you will get better over time.
Sometimes depression kicks in. Children of narcissists can feel sad, empty, and worthless, because they realize that they will never have a normal parent-child relationship, that they will never be loved the way they wanted to be, and that they will have to deal with their parents forever. Although it’s normal to feel depressed from time to time when you are processing all of this, try to do whatever possible to drag yourself out of these feelings. Read: coping with depression to see how you can deal with feelings of depression yourself.