A narcissistic parent is a parent affected by narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder. Typically narcissistic parents are exclusively and possessively close to their children and may be especially envious of, and threatened by, their child's growing independence. The result may be what has been termed a pattern of narcissistic attachment, with the child considered to exist solely to fulfill the parent's wishes and needs. Commonly narcissistic parents attempt to force their children to treat themselves as though they are their parents' puppets, or else be subject to punishments such as emotional abuse. Relative to developmental psychology, narcissistic parenting will adversely affect children in the areas of reasoning, emotional, ethical, and societal behaviors and attitudes as they mature. Within the realm of narcissistic parenting, personal boundaries are often disregarded with the goal of moulding and manipulating the child to satisfy the parents’ expectations.
Narcissistic people with low self esteem feel the need to control how others regard them, fearing they will be blamed or rejected and personal inadequacies exposed. They are self-absorbed, some to the point of grandiosity; and being preoccupied with protecting their self image, they tend to be inflexible, and lack the empathy necessary for child raising.
The term “narcissism,” as used in Sigmund Freud’s clinical study, noted behavioral observations such as self-aggrandizement, self-esteem, vulnerability, fear of losing the affection of people and of failure, reliance on defense mechanisms, perfectionism and interpersonal conflict.
Narcissism tends to play out inter-generationally, with narcissistic parents producing either narcissistic or codependent children in turn. Whereas a self-confident parent, the good-enough parent, can allow a child its autonomous development, the narcissistic parent may instead use the child as a means to promote their own image. The father or mother concerned with self-enhancement, with being mirrored and admired by a son or daughter, may leave the latter feeling a puppet to his parent's emotional/intellectual demands.
To maintain their self-esteem, and protect their vulnerable true selves, narcissists need to control others' behavior, particularly that of their children seen as extensions of themselves. Thus narcissistic parents may speak of carrying the torch, maintaining the family image, or making mother or father proud and may reproach their children for exhibiting weakness, being too dramatic, or not meeting the standard of what is expected. As a result, children of narcissists learn to play their part and to perform their special skill, especially in public or for others; but typically do not have many memories of having felt loved or appreciated for being themselves, rather associating their experience of love and appreciation with conforming to the demands of the narcissistic parent.
Destructive narcissistic parents have a pattern of consistently being the focus of attention, exaggerating, seeking compliments and putting their children down. Punishment in the form of blame, criticism or emotional blackmail, and attempts to induce guilt, may be used to ensure compliance with the parents' wishes and their need for narcissistic supply.
Children of narcissists
Children of a resistant, more stubborn temperamental parent may defend against being supportive of others in the house. They could possibly observe how the selfish parents get their needs met by others, and learn how manipulation and using guilt gets the parent what he or she wants. They may also develop a false self and use aggression and intimidation to get their way. It is important to note that the opposite may also be true. Not all children of narcissists become aggressive, fake, manipulative adults. Instead, they may invest in the opposite behaviors if they've observed them in friends and other families. When the child of a narcissistic parent experiences safe, real love or sees the example played out in other families, they can very readily learn the difference between their life and that of a healthy family bond. For example, the lack of empathy and volatility at home may increase the child's own empathy and desire to be respectful. Intense emotional control and disrespect for boundaries at home may increase the child's value for emotional expression and their desire to extend respect to others. Although the child does see the parents behavior, it is important to remember they are often on the receiving end of the same behavior. When an alternative to the pain and distress caused at home presents itself, it is possible and maybe even likely the child will focus on the more comforting, social safety-inducing behaviors.
Some of the most common issues in narcissistic parenting are due to the lack of appropriate, responsible nurturing which ultimately contributes to the possibility of a child feeling empty, insecure in loving relationships, developing imagined fears, mistrusting others, experiencing identity conflict and an inability to develop a distinct existence from that of the parent.
Sensitive, guilt-ridden children in the family may learn to meet the parent's needs for gratification and try to get love by accommodating the whims and wishes of the parent. The child's normal feelings are ignored, denied and eventually repressed in attempts to gain the parent's “love”. Guilt and shame keep the child locked into this developmental arrest. Their aggressive impulses and rage could become split off and are not integrated with normal development. These children develop a false self as a defense mechanism and become codependent in relationships. The child's unconscious denial of their true self, presuming this defense mechanism is relevant in the victims life, perpetuates a cycle of self-hatred, fearing any reminder of their authentic self.
Narcissistic parenting may also lead to children being either victimized or bullying themselves, hypersexual in nature (media driven), having a poor or overly inflated body image, tendency to use and/or abuse drugs or alcohol, acting out (in a potentially harmful manner) for attention.
All of the aforementioned research, however, must be considered as preliminary within the growing field of mental health. One must acknowledge the many layers of psychological reaction in children who have been emotionally abused by their parent(s). Specifically in cases of narcissistic abuse, it is as likely for a child to observe manipulation and aggression and engage in it later in life as it is for a child to experience the pain caused by such behavior, and instead focus on developing the opposite behavior.
The only thing that is absolutely certain is that the child of the narcissistic parent is a victim of emotional abuse. How that affects each individual will have general trends, but it will always vary from person to person. With the right support and resources, children of narcissists are capable of having and maintaining healthy, fulfilling relationships. If you are the child of a narcissistic parent and you believe it is impacting your quality of life, you are not alone and there are many resources available, such as ASCA (Adult Survivors of Child Abuse) and professional therapy.
Short term and long term effects
Having a narcissistic parent has many effects on a child - most especially a growing child. Due to their vulnerability, the effects of a narcissistic parent is most evident in their children. People that show traits of narcissism often feel the need to control others. Because a parent's role often involves guiding their children and often being the primary decision maker in the child's life, especially at a young age, a narcissistic parent will often abuse this power and become overly possessive and controlling. This possessiveness and excessive control dis-empowers the child; the parent sees the child simply as an extension of themselves, some would say, as "their puppet". With time, this affects the child's imagination and level of curiosity, and they will often develop an extrinsic style of motivation. This heightened level of control is attributed to the narcissistic parent not allowing for the "process of separate development."
Narcissistic parents are quick to anger. This trait makes their children more at risk of physical and emotional abuse. In order to prevent this anger and further punishment, children of narcissistic parents will often resort to complying to their parent's every demand, no matter the extent. To please a narcissist, you must conform to all their beliefs and essentially cater to their varying needs. Without doing this, one will often find themselves in conflict with a narcissist. This not only affects the child's well-being, but also affects the child's ability to make logical decisions on their own. The child will often lack self confidence and the ability to gain total control over their lives as adults. Identity crisis, loneliness, and struggles with self expression are also common effects seen in children that have been raised by a narcissistic parent. The struggle to discover one's self as an adult stems from the great amount of projective identification that the now adult experienced as a child. Projective identification can be explained as having someone else's identity and traits projected onto another, usually due to a close relationship. As a child, one may never get the opportunity to experience their own identity as a result of projective identification.
Though each individual differs based on other life experiences, children of narcissistic parents often go on to have character traits such as: introversion, kindness, agreeableness, and a keen interest and empathy for people who are mentally ill.
Mental health effects
Studies have found that children of narcissistic parents have significantly higher rates of depression and lower self-esteem during adulthood in comparison to those who did not perceive their caregiver to be narcissistic. These outcomes are a result of the narcissistic parents using their children to "promote their own grandiose self-images" and a way for them to "regulate their own emotional experiences. Also a contributing factor to the higher rates of depression are the narcissistic parent's lack of empathy towards their child. The child's desires are often denied, their feelings restrained, and their overall emotional well-being often ignored.
Because children of narcissistic parents learn to eventually submit and conform, they lose touch of themselves as individuals and will likely have very few memories of ever feeling appreciated or loved by their parents simply for being themselves. Instead, they associate the love and appreciation to conformity. Often times, the only way to receive good treatment from a narcissist is by distancing yourself from them. Unfortunately, this is often not an option for their children, especially in their developing years. However, some children of narcissistic parents resort to this option during adolescence if they grow to view the relationship as toxic.
- Sons and Lovers is considered to have explored a narcissistic mother.
- The Metamorphosis is considered to cover a narcissistic father.
- Sylvia Plath's difficulties have been associated with a need to please a narcissistic father through public display.
- The novel Loverboy by the author Victoria Redel is written from the perspective of a mother exhibiting characteristics of extreme narcissistic parenting.
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- S. Kavaler-Adler, The Klein-Winnicott Dialectic (2013) p. 211
- Redel, Victoria (2001). Loverboy : a novel (1st Harvest ed.). San Diego: Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-600724-5.
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- Hotchkiss, Sandy & Masterson, James F. Why Is It Always About You? : The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism (2003) – see Chapter 9 – The Narcissistic Parent
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- Payson, Eleanor The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family (2002) – see Chapter 5
- Pinsky, Drew The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America (2009) - see Chapter 8
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