Imagine growing up in a home where one of your parents couldn’t truly love you. Where every time you looked to them for encouragement, you were told that you were stupid for even trying. A parent who viewed every act of independence as a threat and met each accomplishment in your life with jealousy instead of joy or praise. This is what it is like to live with a narcissistic parent.
How to spot a narcissist parent:
According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissistic personality disorder is defined as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders adds further insight, classifying the nine criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. An individual must meet only five to be clinically diagnosed as a narcissist.
The criteria are:
- grandiose sense of self-importance
- preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- belief they’re special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
- need for excessive admiration
- sense of entitlement
- interpersonally exploitative behavior
- lack of empathy
- envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them
- demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes
What does this mean for their relationships?
Since narcissists can’t develop the ability to empathize with others, they can never learn to love.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t change when narcissists have children. The narcissist parent sees their child merely as a possession who can be used to further their own self-interests. They often have issues with boundaries, both physically and emotionally, and unload a lot of emotional baggage onto their kids. This makes children the narcissistic parent’s primary source of comfort — and sometimes their punching bag. This may mean the parent pressures and pushes the child to overachieve as a way to lift their own sense of self to themselves and in front of others. They care less about their child’s mental health needs and more about a sports prize, honor roll status, or degree.
Narcissists also view the world in a binary manner: Things are either viewed as special/ideal/perfect or worthless/harmful/garbage. There is no in-between, and they treat their children according to those extremes.
This leaves their children wanting desperately to please them (to be on the “love” side of the spectrum, rather than the darker, more hateful side) and they’ll even let their narcissistic parent control their lives, just to keep things running smoothly. Likewise, as long as kids cater to the narcissist’s needs and make them feel good about themselves, they’re more likely to respond positively, making the child’s home life more harmonious.
But as kids grow up, they become stronger, more confident, more brave. Narcissistic parents see their children’s independence as a direct threat to the control they want or need over their lives.
Out of desperation to retain control, narcissists will try to deliberately sabotage their child’s sense of self-worth. Some of the common tactics they use include creating unhealthy competitions, using guilt and blame, giving ultimatums, and/or putting their child down (by telling them they’re fat, ugly, useless, stupid, etc.) to try to keep their child’s confidence low.
Long lasting effects for adult children of narcissists
It’s not surprising that many kids who grow up in these types of unhealthy environments develop feelings of guilt and low self-esteem that they later carry into adulthood. Kids raised by narcissistic parents are less likely to develop a realistic self-image.
It is brutal to grow up this way.
As children of narcissists become adults, they have to learn there’s a difference between real love and narcissistic “love.” And that includes coming to terms with the fact that what they’ve experienced is actually emotional abuse and constant gaslighting.
After that, it’s an uphill battle for children to accept that their parent’s narcissistic actions aren’t their fault or responsibility, as is true with any form of child abuse. If the relationship with their narcissistic parent is to continue, adult children of narcissists need to establish clear, firm boundaries — and stick to them.
Many adult children find that the most healthy option for them is to sever the relationship altogether. The cycle of abuse and control doesn’t end because you’ve left the nest. Narcissists can’t turn themselves off.
Insightful quotes about narcissistic parents
“By undermining you they make sure that if you complain about the narcissistic parent nobody will believe you, because they already have a certain negative image of you. Again, this abusive behaviour is just how narcissists live day to day. The plotting and manipulation is necessary to twist others around their false image.”
― Diana Macey, Narcissistic Mothers and Covert Emotional Abuse: For Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents
“Even though many victims of narcissistic parents recall they knew something was wrong with their seemingly good parent when they were very young, as they grew up they still ended up blaming themselves for being fundamentally flawed and never good enough.” ― Diana Macey
Kids of narcissistic parents
Kids raised by narcissistic parents grow up with the feeling they’ll never be able to please them. They’re constantly belittled and treated as if they’ll never be good enough. But it’s the parent, not the child, who has the problem — a personality disorder that renders them physically incapable of empathy and love.
If you grew up with a narcissistic parent, you know the struggle. Just remember that, as an adult, you are in control now, and you are not obligated to endure their abuse or mistreatment. Set your boundaries and stick to them, or break up with your parent so that you can live your best life. You’re worth it.