We all have a little bit of a narcissist within us. Wait, what? Yes, we all have a certain level of preoccupation with ourselves that drives our behavior. And like most human characteristics, narcissistic traits are developed usually at a very young age. So, it’s no surprise that many of us have narcissistic mothers (or fathers for that matter) — leaving us worried if we too are unconsciously exhibiting narcissistic behavior towards our own children.
Of course, it’s the degree of self-centeredness that defines whether someone has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or not. In other words, it’s normal to have goals, crave attention, and feel pride. But when these become excessive and other, more problematic, traits start to crop up — greed and apathy among them — it becomes time to set boundaries. And determining whether you grew up learning from a narcissistic parent is probably your first step toward stopping the cycle of generational narcissism. Not sure how to tell? Knowing things narcissistic mothers say can help.
It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to narcissistic mothers and the interactions they have with their children. To that end, Scary Mommy asked Lena Derhally, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Facebook Narcissist, for insight on this complex topic.
What are some traits of a narcissistic mother?
According to Derhally, narcissistic mothers often see their child as an extension of themselves — with little interest in who their child actually is. “A narcissistic mother may force the child into certain activities they see as acceptable while depriving the child of activities they enjoy. For example, their child may hate ballet but the narcissistic mother will force the child to keep doing it, even if it makes the child miserable,” explains Derhally.
The love of a narcissistic mother will often feel conditional, which translates to their child not feeling accepted, loved, and validated for who they are. “Narcissistic mothers make everything about them,” says Derhally, “so if the child feels hurt by something the narcissistic mother did, the mother may cry and make a big scene, taking the attention away from the child and making it all about her.”
Other traits of narcissistic mothers, says Derhally, include a focus on appearances, withholding love and affection, withdrawing and ignoring, criticizing and shaming, disinterest in the child, and gaslighting.
Would a narcissistic parent recognize they might be a narcissist?
Because narcissism exists on a spectrum, Derhally explains that there will be varying degrees of insight depending on where the mother falls on that spectrum. Still, if you’re worried you could be a narcissistic parent saying things that are potentially damaging to your child, you probably aren’t a narcissist. Says Derhally, “Most narcissistic parents do not worry at all about what they say to their child and how they may impact and hurt them. True narcissistic parents do not worry what their child thinks or feels, because they are only consumed with how they think and feel. Narcissistic parents almost always view themselves as the victim and certainly do not recognize themselves as a narcissist.”
In fact, a narcissist may take some pleasure out of being cruel. In parenting, this could manifest as “punishing the child in various ways with little empathy for the child.” For a narcissistic mother, this sort of behavior is rationalized away — they believe their child “deserves the cruelty directed at them.” Derhally elaborates, telling us, “This is also a form of manipulation and a way that narcissistic parents control their children. They may withdraw and withhold love, or make the child do things to prove they are worthy of their parents' love.”
You may be thinking, No, I would never do these things to my child! I would know the difference. According to Derhally, you might be right — but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re entirely free and clear of narcissism. “A parent that may have narcissistic traits but is not necessarily a narcissist may have the ability to recognize that they have problematic traits and then worry and have guilt about how this may impact their child,” she says.
What should you do if you fear you — or your mother — might be a narcissist?
“If you fear you might be narcissistic or possess some traits, the first thing to do is to take heart that you are aware that this is a problem to begin with,” says Derhally. “The best thing to do is to seek professional help with a therapist to explore your childhood and how narcissism and narcissistic traits may be a carefully crafted defense mechanism you have used over the years to protect yourself.”
If it’s your mother you fear may be the narcissist, realize — first and foremost — that you did nothing wrong. “There is nothing you did, and there is no child that deserves any of the narcissistic abuse inflicted on them by a parent. Seeking help from a professional to set boundaries and reclaim some of the self-esteem a narcissistic parent may have deprived you of is a great start,” emphasizes Derhally, adding, “Understanding that therapy can be cost prohibitive, there are also many wonderful books, podcasts, and YouTube channels dedicated to helping children of narcissistic parents.”
What are some examples of things a narcissistic mother might say?
- “That never happened. You must have imagined it.”
- “I do so much for you, and you never show appreciation!”
- “You should try being more like your [another person]. They’re so wonderful.”
- “Why can’t you just get over it already?”
- “Don’t waste your time. It’s probably too hard for you.”
- “You’re always so busy with your own life that you don’t even think about me.”
- “I’m so tired of doing everything for you.”
- “You’re gaining weight and won’t be able to fit your new clothes soon.”
- “I’m going to have to punish you if you don’t do exactly what I say.”
- “Be quiet. Nobody cares what you have to say.”
- “Aren’t you glad that worked out for you because I helped you?”
- “Stop being so sensitive.”
- “You could have done better on your test if you studied harder like I told you.”
- “Hurry up or I’ll start without you and you’ll be left out of the activity.”
- “You’re so slow. Because of you, everyone has to wait.”
- “Why don’t you like this meal? I worked hard on it. You’re so selfish!”
- “That sport/activity is for faster/more creative kids.”
- “You’re really annoying me. Be quiet!”
- “You messed up your new shoes already. Don’t you care how hard I work?”
- “No offense, but your new relationship won’t last.”
- “You’re not doing that right! Here, just let me do it!”
- “When I was a kid, I never would never have done that.”
- “Your marriage is a wreck. I’m not surprised since you’re so selfish.”
- “I’m a better parent than you’ll ever be.”
- “You’re such a slob. Just look at your room. You didn’t get that from me!”
- “I’ve always been really good at this. I’m surprised you’re not.”
- “I already accomplished that goal by your age. What’s taking you so long?”
- “That’s not the way to do it, but go ahead and try your way. Then you’ll see I’m right.”
- “Just listen to me and save yourself the time of doing it wrong.”
- “You don’t deserve to be happy.”
- “You should try my recipe. It’s much better than yours.”
- “Everyone else is having fun but you. What’s your problem?”
- “I know you think you’re so smart!”
- “I’ll give you something to really cry about!”
- “Can’t you see that I’m busy? I don’t have time for you right now.”
- “Don’t even ask me! The answer is no.”
- “I’m the only person who could ever really love you.”
- “I gave up my whole life for you, and you only care about yourself!”
- “You would be so pretty if you just lost a few pounds.”
- “I’ll never understand how I gave birth to a child like you.”
Lena Derhally, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Facebook Narcissist