Growing up with a parent who has narcissistic tendencies can be a real struggle. The effects on relationships and children’s understanding of the world can be devastating. Not only is it difficult for the child to feel at-ease themselves, it can also make it hard for them to develop and maintain healthy relationships later in life.
- Features of a Narcissist
- The Child of a Narcissistic Parent
- Destructive behaviors of a narcissistic parent
- Parents making themselves the center of things
- Emphasis on how the child’s behavior affects the parent
- Shaming the child
- Making the child responsible for the parent’s feelings
- Ridicule of a child’s natural inclinations toward empathy and compassion
- Adult Children of Narcissists
- Fallout from having a narcissistic parent
- Being a fixer of others problems
- Difficulty choosing supportive partners
- Underdeveloped sense of self
- Difficulty managing anger or disappointment
- How to handle having a narcissistic parent
- ALWAYS Remember the Nature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Focus on yourself and your own growth
- Recognize your own trauma history
- Cultivate self-compassion
- Get your own therapy
- Learn to set the terms of engagement with your narcissistic parent
- Understand the limitations of the narcissist
- Learn to recognize gaslighting
- Be patient with yourself
- Confronting a narcissistic parent may prove to be unproductive
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Features of a Narcissist
Rather than getting caught up in whether someone meets the clinical threshold for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, let’s focus on understanding the qualities of someone with narcissistic tendencies. That’s more common.. and probably more useful to a wider range of those who have suffered narcissistic abuse.
Here are some basic characteristics of a narcissist. This list is not all-inclusive, but these are the most common narcissistic traits. In my opinion, these are the most destructive.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation designed to undermine your sense of reality, allowing the narcissist to paint himself as the rational, sane one in the relationship. They manipulate, lie, and criticize to make you question your own perspective, intelligence, and maybe even your own sanity. Then, when you’ve begun to question yourself and your understanding of reality, the narcissist portrays himself as the rational authority in the relationship. It’s an intricate and disconcerting process.
The narcissist is an expert in “pushing your buttons.” They push you off-center and then incite conflict that gets you to lose your cool. Then they say things like “You just need to calm down”, or “Let’s just be rational here.” And who is the bastion of this calm and rational behavior? They are, of course!
It’s a way of dominating a relationship. They establish you as the crazy one and themselves as the sane one. While the pattern of conflict can feel unstable to you, it’s how the narcissist copes with the chaos that lies deep within his own psyche. For many narcissists, gaslighting is their superpower.
Lack of empathy
Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand the feelings of others. The narcissist may not have received much empathy early in life, so it’s a very foreign concept to them. Not only does a narcissist lack empathy, they can often respond with ridicule or hostility when it’s offered to them.
Grandiosity and Self-importance
The narcissist is the center of his own universe. He views himself as special, and can only be understood by others who are equally intelligent, capable, or important. (Nobody actually meets this standard in the narcissist’s mind.) He can seem haughty or arrogant at times.
There can be dismay or even tantrums when others don’t give him the consideration he demands. Narcissists often have an inflated sense of their own importance, but that never deters them from causing drama when others fail to adhere to their own set of unwritten rules.
Not only does a narcissist lack empathy, they can often respond with ridicule or hostility when it’s offered to them.
Excessive focus on status
The narcissist parent may view himself as above others. Whether real or imagined, he can view himself as misunderstood because of his stature, and he is more intelligent, capable, and important than those around him. Criticisms of others can center on these topics, calling others stupid or focusing on their mistakes.
He notices outward expressions of stature, such income, attire, social standing, or professional success. No matter what his actual achievement in these areas, he views himself as better, and can be envious of those who bypass him.
The Child of a Narcissistic Parent
Children with a narcissistic father or mother can have a real uphill battle. Children don’t have the insight or understanding to recognize the signs of a narcissistic parent. After all, parents are the ultimate authority in the world to a child.
Plus, if a child were ever to question the behavior of a narcissistic parent, they may be rebuffed so severely that it could be damaging to them. This dynamic can plant the seeds of codependency in the child that can take years of work as an adult to unpack.
As a result, children don’t necessarily realize they have narcissistic family members until much later in life. It’s a sad reality, but without therapy and another adult to support and protect them from the narcissist, children really have very few options. Sadly, the child will have to be very resilient and probably seek therapy to learn to tend to their own needs, overcome low self-esteem, and heal from the childhood trauma that grows out of having a narcissist mother or father.
Destructive behaviors of a narcissistic parent
Parents making themselves the center of things
Birthday parties, little league games, piano recitals – for the narcissistic parent, these aren’t about the child’s hard work and achievement. It’s about what a good parent they want to be perceived as, and how much they sacrifice so the child can have these things. In the moment when the child should feel special, loved, and accepted by everyone around them, the parent hijacks their moment, leaving the child deflated and shamed or embarrassed for thinking they might get the attention they crave.
Emphasis on how the child’s behavior affects the parent
The narcissistic parent’s filter is not whether they’re raising a good person or not. It’s how the child’s behavior reflects on them and affects their daily lives. So, instead of admonishing a child for bad behavior in the context of some moral standard, a narcissistic parent is more likely to say something like “I don’t need this”, or “Don’t you know how difficult this is for me?”
Scolding the child often has nothing to do with whether they’re doing the right thing, which can be confusing as young children grow older. It can make it difficult to develop their own clearcut sense of ethics.
Shaming the child
Shame is a key weapon for the narcissist in keeping children in check. It’s not the behavior that gets criticized when the child acts up or makes mistakes, it’s the child. Their value as a person can be called into question.
It’s not unusual for the narcissistic parent to say things like, “I’m so ashamed of you”, “You’re such an embarrassment to me”, or “You always do x, y, z…”. If there are multiple children, it may be that one child is held up as the “golden child” who can do no wrong, and the other is blamed for everything wrong in the family unit.
Making the child feel small is a form of emotional abuse that keeps them in the parent’s narcissistic thrall. The only path to feeling whole is through the approval of the parent, which is never earned through achievement. It’s earned through doing things that make the parent look good.
Making the child responsible for the parent’s feelings
Narcissistic parents can find many ways to make children responsible for their own feelings. Blaming and other forms of emotional blackmail are common. From a young age, the child of a narcissist learns that their primary job in the family is to tend to the parent’s needs. To the narcissistic parent, the children’s needs are secondary to their own.
This can lead to confusion that persists throughout the child’s life, cultivating codependency that can wreak havoc on their ability to form quality relationships, set boundaries with others, and be good parents to their own children later in life.
Ridicule of a child’s natural inclinations toward empathy and compassion
Children are born to be loving, sweet Humans. When children practice showing kindness, empathy, and compassion to others, the ideal response would be to praise these instincts in them to cultivate a good person.
The narcissist typically has a poor understanding of these concepts. Empathy is really a pretty scary thing . After all, if someone really understands how they feel deep down, their internal pain and weakness will be revealed and their primary coping mechanism will be destroyed. They lose their power.
Because they’re threatened by this inclination they really don’t understand, narcissists go to their defensive playbook – they ridicule. I’ve even seen narcissistic parents shame their children for wanting to do good in the world for the sake of doing good. Of course, this is both devastating and confusing for the young child, and it can take years of adult therapy to unpack these emotions and finally begin to create a well-developed sense of self.
Adult Children of Narcissists
When adults finally do the math on their narcissistic parents, it’s definitely a WTF moment. It can be like instantly understanding something that you never understood before. It changes your relationship with your parents, and can make it more contentious.
Finally recognizing and naming your parent’s narcissism is a shock to your system. It can send you into therapy to process your newfound insight. Naming it is not healing from it – it’s just the beginning of the process. We often have a long process of overcoming anger, resentment, and the loss of the childhood that never was.
Plus, if you aspire to maintain a relationship with your narcissistic parent (it’s still a significant part of your family of origin, after all), this becomes a whole new set of challenges.
Your insight won’t change their narcissistic behaviors, and shining a light on them can often lead to brutal conflict. It’s a very personal choice whether to engage on that level or not, but recognizing the behaviors can at least help you know when you’re being manipulated and deal with it.
Resentment of your successes
The narcissist needs to be the one who receives adoration in the family, and tends to get pretty resentful of anyone who steals their thunder.
It can be a shock to bring news of a promotion, a development in a relationship, or anything else, only to be met with negativity or (often thinly veiled) criticism.
Your successful career is only useful to the narcissistic parent when they can use it to build themselves up. Once you’re an adult, it’s not unusual for them to just be threatened by it.
Inciting holiday blow ups
This one is HUGE for the narcissistic family member. It’s Gaslighting 101, and holiday family gatherings are a perfect opportunity. Everyone is together, often in the cramped confines of someone’s house, and emotions can run high anyway.
While we can be happy to see family members after an absence, old conflicts and resentments naturally get stirred up, even under the best of circumstances. Then, enter the narcissist.
There’s a captive audience, everyone is trying to be on their best behavior, and alcohol is often a major part of the activities. The impulse to “stir the pot” is often overwhelming for the narcissist. It puts them at the center of attention and gets everyone else good and riled up.
They can have little conversations off to the side “just to let you know” that put relative against relative. The narcissistic parent may also simply say incendiary things just to see what happens.
Then, they get to swoop in and play the calm, sane one. The more others get upset, the more the narcissist thrives. Inciting chaos in the family draws others into the fray. While they may play the calm one on the outside, this actually validates the internal chaos the narcissist feels due to a lifetime of rejection and pretending to be better than they really are.
Hijacking the attention at family events
No event is off-limits when the narcissist wants to make it about them. Your celebrations, your children’s birthday parties, sports games, concerts, plays – all give the narcissistic parent/grandparent plenty of options to make themselves the center of attention.
With older adults, it can take several new forms. While there may be inciting conflict and discord, or physically inserting themselves into pictures or conversations they’re not invited to be in, there are other ways. Of course, older adults can have more health problems or aches and pains. These can be exaggerated to draw attention from the adult child or young grandchild.
Fallout from having a narcissistic parent
Make no mistake, narcissistic abuse at the hands of a parent is a form of childhood trauma.
Even if you weren’t beaten, molested, or neglected, these are traumas that confuse and manipulate the child. These hinder our ability to grow into self-assured adults with solid boundaries, able to form quality relationships with outstanding life partners.
Anything that inhibits a child’s natural development into a well-adjusted adult is traumatic. We often don’t figure these things out until we start therapy for other reasons as adulthood. Sometimes it takes a therapist naming the family dynamic for you to see it. That’s ok, because it’s so horribly confusing from within that dynamic, that it can take someone outside the family to see it clearly.
The fallout can be profound and persistent. Here are some ways having a narcissistic father or mother can affect us later in life.
Make no mistake, growing up with a narcissistic parent is a form of childhood trauma.
Relationally speaking, narcissistic and codependent people fit together like a Rubik’s cube. The narcissist wants to be the expert, to be adored, and to have the power. I’ll go into codependency in another post, but in a nutshell, codependent people depend on others for their own emotional state. They’re a kind of emotional tofu, taking on the flavor of whomever they’re close to.
Codependent people can’t stand to have others upset with them, and struggle to distinguish between others’ feelings and their own. So, when someone else is critical or angry with them, they take that on and give it instant credibility. This is incredibly hard to tolerate, and leads easily to shame.
For all these reasons, codependent people tend to be people pleasers. They think they can earn love by tending to others’ needs and can’t tolerate the disapproval of others.
So, the codependent person is an easy target for the narcissist. They become dependent on him for emotional direction, and it quickly becomes a quagmire of manipulation that completely lacks proper emotional boundaries. In these ways, the narcissist and codependent meet each others relational preferences perfectly.
It’s not unusual to have one narcissistic parent and one codependent one. In these cases, the child learns from BOTH parents that their best course of action is to play to the narcissist’s demands and buy into their manipulations. After all, that’s the only way they can earn the love of the narcissistic parent.
[Pro tip – There is no paradigm where authentic love is earned. It’s given freely or it isn’t.]
Being a fixer of others problems
Do you proudly proclaim that you’re “a fixer?” Do you spend your time and energy trying to fix other people’s problems and make them happy? This is classic codependent behavior, and you may have had this cultivated by a narcissistic parent.
I’m not talking about altruism, which is doing good in the world. I’m talking about trying to repair other people’s lives so you earn their love (see, above on this).
If you have a narcissistic parent, you may have grown up being blamed for their problems and made responsible for their happiness, so you might come by it honestly. When this occurs, we can take those habits out into the world and try to do it with others. If it’s how you learned to relate at home, why wouldn’t you?
One problem is that not everyone wants to be fixed. Codependents can expend a LOT of energy manipulating others into a dynamic where they can then fix their lives. People unwilling to participate in this arrangement can have pretty negative responses to these attempted manipulations, so it can become really difficult to form healthy relationships.
Difficulty choosing supportive partners
If you grew up with the understanding that you wouldn’t receive emotional support from others, you’ll tend to choose partners who fit that mold. You may want a supportive partner and understand the concept on a cognitive level, but cultivating that on an interpersonal level can be much more difficult. Sometimes you get lucky and stumble across a partner who just gets it.
The rest of us may have several failed relationships with poorly matched partners in our histories. As we learn about how to cultivate relationships based on authenticity and mutual support, we tend to attract others who want that too. It takes time and effort, but it can happen.
Underdeveloped sense of self
The child of a narcissist can struggle to develop appropriate boundaries and a clear sense of their own identity. With a narcissistic father or mother, the entire identity in childhood is constructed around catering to the needs and desires of the narcissistic parent. Daily activities, special events, disciplinary corrections, everything.
If you spend the first 16-18 years of your life being manipulated and taught that your job is to tend to the need of the other primary person in your life, why would you know anything different when you go out into the world? When we try to partner with others, one of two things tends to happen:
- We find people who are willing to con-conspire with us in recreating this dynamic in our adult relationships, and the pattern of manipulation and inappropriate boundaries persists, or
- The people we try to co-opt into these patterns want none of it, and those relationships fail.
When we struggle to understand who we are and how we fit into the world, it can be really difficult to create the lives we imagine in our minds. This is the struggle of the adult child of a narcissist. While codependency has its history in families facing addiction, it’s also rampant in families with a notable narcissist in the mix.
Difficulty managing anger or disappointment
What disappointment coping skills are modeled by the narcissistic parent?
When these are modeled for the child, they are what the child will deploy in their own lives. It’s pretty effective in getting your way, but not so helpful in building and sustaining relationships.
Also, realize that children of narcissists can have skewed understandings of emotional cause and effect. Upsetting the narcissist (and suffering all the consequences) can be unpredictable, and until you understand their motivations, can be difficult to understand.
When we struggle so to understand how disappointment and frustration occur in our primary caregivers, we fail to develop proper understanding of our own emotions in these instances. Of course, we never receive encouragement or acceptance for our own feelings in the family of origin, so we fail to manage them as adults until we discover proper means of expressing and processing them.
How to handle having a narcissistic parent
With all the struggles and frustrations of having a narcissistic parent, there is hope. There are ways to heal and defend against manipulation. Here are some of my Ninja techniques to help you along this path.
ALWAYS Remember the Nature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Even if you’re dealing with a narcissist who doesn’t necessarily meet the full clinical diagnosis, you still may be experiencing qualities that are so ingrained in the person that they’re considered to be part of the core personality. It’s not just what they do, it’s a function of who they are.
Any meaningful change in the interpersonal dynamic may have to come from you. In many cases this may be met with hostility and ridicule, so it takes really strong armor to reset the dynamic with a narcissist. It’s not a matter of getting them to change their behavior. It’s about deciding where your boundaries are and learning to enforce them.
Focus on yourself and your own growth
Again, I can’t emphasize it enough… Do not expect the narcissist to make meaningful change. It’s on you, and in the end YOU are responsible for your own emotional health.
To heal from having a narcissistic parent, one major task is to understand that nobody MAKES you FEEL a certain way. You are responsible for your own emotions and reactions, and you can choose to take the bait or not. You have to do the work on yourself to get clear on this.
Simple but definitely not easy. After a lifetime of being responsible for someone else’s happiness and contentment, learning to only be responsible for your own requires undoing decades of training. (Some would say grooming.)
If you’re not already there, get hip to this simple fact: Their feelings are not your feelings.
When you learn to focus your energy on your own personal growth and mental health, you’re released from the responsibility to being responsible for theirs. Getting there is a long, arduous journey, but so powerful when it becomes real to you.
You can’t change them, but you can focus on yourself and rewrite the terms under which you’re willing to engage with them.
Recognize your own trauma history
This bears repeating: Growing up with a narcissistic parent can be traumatic. It inculcates in us a set of understandings that challenges our ability to grow into happy, relationally successful adults. It hijacks our childhood and infiltrates our adult life.
We may feel pain and resentment about these experiences so deeply that we flash back to them. It’s not uncommon to experience confusion about the nature of unconditional love.
We often mourn the loss of the childhood that never was. The relational fallout in adulthood from misdeeds and injuries is foisted upon us as children. This is trauma.
We can heal from trauma, but it takes intentionality and persistence. You’re a rock star for engaging the process. Never forget that.
Self-compassion is the kryptonite of shame. It is the secret weapon for any situation where we feel less-than.
Again, simple but not easy. We have to understand that self-compassion is a skill. It’s something we can learn and improve on.
Whether it’s with a therapist, meditation teacher, yoga teacher, or in your own reading and journaling, cultivating self-compassion will help you heal and get armored up to defend against the manipulations of a narcissist.
Here are my two favorite books about compassion for the self and others:
You can check out all our recommended books on our Resilient Self Book List here.
Get your own therapy
Remember, it’s you that needs to grow for this to change. You may find it helpful to locate a good therapist to walk through this with you.
A therapist can help you with coping skills and help keep you grounded. Don’t forget that the narcissist is good at creating emotional quicksand. They thrive on your instability. A therapist can help you find and remain on solid ground.
Plus, they will provide the empathy and compassion you’ve needed all along. This is SO helpful in the healing process! It feels weird to receive it at first, but as you adapt, it feels awesome.
Need help finding a therapist? Check out Psychology Today for a searchable list of qualified therapists in your area.
Learn to set the terms of engagement with your narcissistic parent
This is big. While you can’t change their behavior, you can decide when and if you accept it. Interacting with someone else is a choice, and when things get out of control, instead of continuing old habits, you can leave. You can set boundaries.
Remember, there’s often a price to pay with a narcissist when you set boundaries. They can try to punish you or lure you back into old patterns. But, if you want things to change, you have to be the agent of that change.
Work with your therapist to learn how to communicate your boundaries. Then, just as a parent or teacher has to follow-through on the if-then mandates they place on children, you have to follow through on the ones you set with your narcissistic parent.
Narcissists don’t understand empathy, but they do understand mandates. They just don’t like them. But again, say it with me….
Their feelings are not your feelings.
Understand the limitations of the narcissist
It’s helpful to educate yourself about the nature of narcissism. Read the DSM diagnostic criteria, seek out books and other input to educate yourself about what makes a narcissist tick. The better you understand them, the less you’ll be beholden to their manipulations.
Here’s a go-to book for understanding the narcissist:
Learn to recognize gaslighting
You also need to become an expert on gaslighting, because that’s the weapon of choice for the narcissist. There are plenty of good web resources, and I’ll post a comprehensive guide to gaslighting in the near future.
Be patient with yourself
Insight is a funny thing. While it can be empowering, it can also lead to frustration. As you undertake the journey of healing from experiencing a narcissistic parent, and then re-setting the dynamic so you can maintain a relationship with them, it’s easy to be impatient. Once we think we understand it, we want to be able to fix it immediately.
The best thing to do is take a deep breath and give yourself a break.
How long do you think it takes to un-learn fundamental self understandings that have been beaten into you since childhood? While we’re all unique in this regard, it’s probably best to try being patient with yourself.
It’s definitely a two steps forward, one step back proposition. Just expect that and don’t be surprised when you backslide a little. Such is the nature of personal development.
Honestly, I tend to be suspicious of the “Eureka!” moment, where everything is suddenly different. While we can have that in our understandings, I don’t think making real change to our daily habits happens quite so suddenly. Those are a function of practice… of those small tasks you undertake intentionally on a regular basis. They’re the granular adaptations we begin to do, turn into habits, then allow them to help us enact powerful change that persists over time.
That takes time.
Confronting a narcissistic parent may prove to be unproductive
It’s an alluring fantasy to think about letting it all fly to the narcissistic parent, calling them out on the years BS. We may even imagine that parent seeing the light, apologizing, and getting some great therapy to be the parent you always needed.
That’s nice in theory. Unfortunately, even highly intelligent narcissists often have very low personal insight. They believe their own BS, and tend to reject anyone who’s not willing to play along with them.
Therapists know that narcissists make challenging candidates for therapy. So often they don’t think they have a problem, and they’re smarter than you, anyway.
So, while I understand the desire to confront the narcissistic parent about the pattern of abuse over time, it may ultimately prove frustrating and unproductive. They aren’t likely to get it, and may just just use the conflict to flip the script on you, gaslight you, and suck you back into the old routines.
If you want to confront the narcissist, you may want to be really clear in your intention, because a true narcissist typically won’t hear it, won’t understand it, and won’t change. Maybe you want to do it because expending that energy is somehow helpful to you. Just remember the old saying, “I love beating my head against a wall because it feels so good when I stop.”
To that end, our energies are often better spent focusing on ourselves, cultivating relationships that fill us up, practicing self-compassion, and learning to set and maintain boundaries. That stuff is the secret sauce.
You can’t change the narcissist, but you can change yourself.
As you move along your journey, I wish you well! What questions do you have? What else would you like me to write about?