Imagine a mother who seems like the perfect parent out in public but who rages and screams at her children and husband at home when they displease her… or a father who deliberately makes his kids feel confused by telling them something didn’t happen when it objectively did, invalidating their experience and helping them learn they can’t trust themselves…
These are both examples of parents who have narcissistic traits. Like many personality traits, narcissism is normally distributed among the population, meaning that most people fall somewhere along the middle of the spectrum, while only a few reach the extremes. Pathological narcissism, in the form of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is actually quite rare, impacting only 1% of the population according to PsychologyToday.
Someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) will likely;
- Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Have a sense of entitlement and requiring constant and excessive admiration
- Expect to be recognised as superior, even without the achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerate their achievements and talents
- Be preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, brilliants, or having the perfect relationship
- Monopolise conversations
- Belittle or looking down on people they perceive as inferior
- Expect special treatment and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
- Take advantage of others to get what they want
- Have an inability or unwillingness to recognise the needs and feelings of others
- Be envious of others and believing that others are envious of them
- Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful, or pretentious
- Insist on having the best of everything, i.e the best car or office.
Narcissists have trouble handling anything that is perceived as a criticism or penetrates this image that they have cultivated of themselves. When this happens they can become angry, belittle others, have difficulty regulating their emotions, and experience covert feelings of shame, vulnerability, and humiliation.
Growing Up With A Narcissistic Parent
Being raised by a narcissistic parent gives rise to the belief “I am not good enough.”
Generally, narcissistic parents are possessively close to their young children. Their children are seen as an extension of themselves, and become a source of self-esteem for the parent; “look at how perfect my children are, didn’t I do a good job!” The children become a means to gain attention from others.
The children learn to fit into the molds that their parent creates for them, and this can lead to anxiety for the child who constantly pushes aside their own personality in order to please the parent.
The child of a narcissistic parent must adhere to the parent’s agenda in order for their life to be stable. Asserting their own feelings or thoughts can lead to problems with the parent that might include anger, tears, or punishment. Through this, the child learns that their feelings and thoughts are unimportant, invalid, and inconsequential, and will often stifle their own feelings in order to keep the peace at home.
Narcissists aren’t always cruel. They can very often be kind, but this kindness almost always comes with conditions. The child will often come to understand that their parent’s kindness leads them to feeling beholden to their parent. Whether it is overt or covert, the sentiment “If I do this for you, you owe me” always comes with acts of kindness. Kindness, and love, are conditional.
A narcissist’s behaviour can be difficult to handle at the best of times, so for a child it can feel extremely unpredictable and unsettling. Young children can’t just get up and leave their family, so they nurture hope by sacrificing their own self-esteem and blaming themselves. The child internalises the belief that they are the problem; “If I was better at this or that, then my parent would love me more.” The parent’s own belief that they are the perfect parent only compounds this belief as they believe that any resistance or negativity that they experience from the child is the child’s fault.
The difficulty of growing up with a narcissistic parent is that the child often doesn’t realise that there is anything wrong. When we are growing up, we only know what we are exposed to by our families. It can be years later that the child, often now an adult, begins to make sense of their childhood. This realisation is often aided by a friend or partner who is able to recognise the peculiar or bizarre parenting of the narcissist.
Traits of Adult Children of a Narcissistic Parent
1. Indecision and Guilt
Adult children of narcissistic parents fear that they will hurt someone else by choosing to do what’s right for them. They have been ‘trained’ to consider their parent’s needs first and foremost, and it is therefore hard for them to consider their own needs without feeling selfish for doing so. This indecision and guilt can be paralysing for years.
2. Internalised Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgement.
Growing up with a narcissistic parent can leave the adult child feeling that they have very little to offer, even when the contrary may be true. Growing up, their talents and skills may have been downplayed, ignored, or co-opted by the narcissistic parent who will have felt threatened by their child’s skills.
Even when the now adult experiences success, they may feel that they don’t deserve it and this can give rise to imposter syndrome.
3) Love and Loyalty
Even after growing up amid lies, manipulation, and abuse, it can be really difficult for adult children of narcissists to step away from caring for and loving their narcissistic parent. They will likely feel guilt for trying to step away or input boundaries, and may even enter into relationships with partners who show narcissistic traits. A love that is based on manipulations and conditions is something that is known to them, whereas a love that is unconditional might seem quite terrifying.
4) Strength and Resilience
Very often, adult children of narcissistic parents display a great ability to show compassion and love for others, are able to form loving relationships, and to learn to love and care for themselves. It is possible to recover from growing up with a narcissistic parent, and this will be discussed later in this article.
5) Chronic Self-blame
Whether or not the parent is openly abusive to the child, they are almost always emotionally tone deaf, and are too preoccupied with themselves and their own concerns to hear the pain of their child. As discussed earlier, in order to try to maintain the family unit, the child (even if they are now an adult) shies away from blaming their parent and instead takes all the blame on themselves; “If I was better at…”, “If I wasn’t such a difficult child…” and so on.
This can continue into adulthood, where the adult child continues to take the blame for things that aren’t always their fault. They become the scapegoat in many situations purely in order to keep the peace.
Echoists and Narcissists complement each other and you can read more about Echoism here. Essentially, narcissistic parents can explode into anger or burst into tears without much warning, which forces their children to take up as little space as possible in order to avoid triggering one of these emotional outbursts. It can feel like walking on eggshells; trying to do everything possible to avoid their parent having a meltdown.
7) Insecure Attachment
Adult children of narcissists are likely to become insecurely attached to their parent; never experiencing that safe base that they need in order to feel comfortable exploring their environment.
The neglect, manipulation, or emotional absence of a parent can leave their child questioning how safe they will be able to feel in other people’s hands. This leads some adults to become fiercely independent, not trusting that anyone else can be relied upon. However it can lead others to cling to their partners for love and demand the attention of their significant other at all times.
8) Parentified Child
Children who grow up with a narcissistic parent will have organised their whole life and personality around the happiness of their parent, and will then grow up organising their life around the happiness of others – many of them working in the helping professions. You can read more about parentified children here.
How You Can Move Forwards
There are many different ways that you can move forwards and heal from being raised by a narcissistic parent. I would recommend that you don’t attempt to do this alone; whether you enter into a therapeutic relationship or work through your recovery with a partner is up to you. Working through this healing process with another family member could cause problems, so proceed with caution.
Here are some key steps that you can take to begin the healing process;
1) Recognise. As with anything, the first step is awareness. We can’t move on until we know what has caused us pain. If you are reading this article then it is probable that you suspect that one of your parents had narcissistic traits or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
2) Study. Educate yourself about NPD and the impacts that it can have on the family system. Scour the internet, read text books, and talk to therapists who understand narcissism.
3) Recount your experiences. This exercise can be difficult, so I would definitely recommend that you get support with it. For each sign and symptom of NPD, recall and write down your own experiences from childhood or adulthood that match.
For each of these memories, the narrative needs to be re-written with a new dialogue of “My parent is a narcissist and is treating me this way because of that.” There is no blame in this new dialogue; not for you, and not for your parent. This is a way of re-framing your experiences in the light of new information, and extricating the blame from yourself.
4) Identify. During the previous step, it is highly likely that some abusive, traumatic, and neglectful behaviour on the part of the narcissistic parent becomes evident. As painful as it might be, you will likely be able to identify emotional abuse and neglect (guilt-tripping, manipulating), and even psychological abuse (gaslighting or the silent treatment). You might also find examples of physical abuse, financial abuse (neglect or excessive gift-giving). It can be extremely helpful to work through these memories with a counsellor.
5) Grieve. there can be a lot of grieving involved in this type of healing. Both grieving for the childhood that you didn’t get, and also grieving for the image of your parent that has been shattered. As mentioned, growing up we only know what we know. And so, when you grow older and realise that other children had a very different childhood from your own, you might feel jealous, hard-done-by, and angry that you didn’t get to experience this.
You might have grown up protecting your parent, or idolising them, only to realise that they have actually caused you some harm. This can be quite de-stabilising and we may find that we need to grieve for the image that we used to hold of our parent.
6) Work through developmental milestones. It is very likely that, growing up, you missed some pretty important developmental milestones, and now is the time to start experiencing them and learning. Now is the time to explore your own identity, to experiment with your sexuality, with dating, with choosing what you want to study and what you really want to do with your life. You will very likely have to learn to ask for what you need (you can start off small, i.e. by asking for directions), to learn how to identify your emotions which were kept buried for so long, and to learn how to set healthy boundaries.
7) Understand. Finally, it is important to understand and come to accept that your narcissistic parent won’t change. As much as you might want to confront them, or as much as you do confront them, it is very unlikely that the parent will change their ways.
Confronting a narcissistic parent can cause some quite big arguments in families as, as mentioned earlier, a narcissist will feel great shame and vulnerability that their perfect image is being penetrated. This can lead to them becoming extremely defensive and angry.
It is also important to acknowledge, and maybe even forgive, your other parent. If one of your parent’s is a narcissist, it is likely that the other is an enabler. By going along with and/or excusing the narcissist’s abusive behaviour, enablers essentially normalise and sustain it. Sometimes enablers also assist the narcissist in their dirty work, condoning and perpetuating their abuse. By not naming the abuse and not protecting their kids from it, enablers become complicit, even if they are also victimised by it.
If you’d like professional support in coming to terms with your childhood experiences, then get in touch with us at The Awareness Centre. We have a team of counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologists offering sessions seven days a week from our centres in Clapham and Tooting. Email us on [email protected] or call 020 8673 4545 for an initial discussion and to book your first appointment.
I think this explains my mom and dad (enabler and narc)
I’m 49 and have been divorced twice. The first lasted 16 years, the second not even a year as he became abusive right away. Both marriages in learning were narccasits. Covertly and Grandiose. So I started looking into….. Why. Why did I end up with those types of men? Then I came across this article. I think this is my dad!!
Thank you so much for taking the time to leave this comment. I’m so glad that this article resonated with you and that it might help you to understand yourself and your relationships a little better. It’s so important to do the work on ourselves in order to have healthy and fulfilling relationships. Good luck.
Not sure how to say this, but my husband and his siblings grew up with a very abusive, manipulative, devaluing Narcissist dad. And now into his adult life his dad still try’s to control not only him but me his wife and our family. I have realized that his dad is truly a Narcissist but I dont think my husband realizes that. And his mother passed away 2 yrs ago but while she was living she to endured the behavior of his dad and always did her best to make sure her kids knew what it felt like to be loved and would always make them feel like they were worth so much and was important to her and to the world. And would try her best to somewhat the best she could to keep his dad from controlling him and me and our family. And my husband always made sure to treat me better then how he grew up . Always showing love towards me , communicating , gratitude and how much I meant to him.
Well since his mom passed away 2 yrs ago , it’s like he has literally gave up trying to be better . He doesn’t like to communicate with me , he not much for showin love ,puts me down and makes me feel worthless and it’s like he’s becoming like his Narcissist dad that he never ever wanted to be like.
And if I try to open his eyes and explain to him that he’s acting like his dad he gets so mad. His dad literally controls his life and uses and manipulates him and I try to tell my husband that is not right and he needs to cut ties and that that behavior is not normal and that he is bound to his dad and explain to him that his dad does not love him. He says , Well dad does stuff for me , even tho he says I always owe him that’s dads way of showing kindness and love.
His dad dont like me because I dont let him control me and I stand up to him and tell him what I think . But the sad part is his dad has literally made my husband and his siblings believe that he loves them only but only if he get something in return from them after he’s done something nice or helped out.
It just sickening to me cuz I love my husband and I no he deep down inside he can be and is a good guy . But he cant stand his dad but the daily manipulation and being around his dad and only parent he has left that has been a horrible example his life I fear is turning him into be narcissist himself . And all I want to do is just help my husband someway to come to realize that his dad a Narcissist and the only freedom he’s gonna have is if he cuts ties completely from his dad . And I honestly think my husbands behavior will get better again if he’s not around his dad constantly.
But I’m bit sure how to go about helping him to see that and I think he should even get help himself and counseling ect but for him to realize how important this is , is hard for him to see.
Any tips on what I can do ??
Thank you so much for leaving your comment, and I’m so sorry that you are going through such a hard time at the moment. You are completely right that your husband needs to realise that he needs counselling himself, rather than being pushed into it – no matter how much you believe he would benefit from it. It might be worth seeking out some professional support for yourself as it seems that you are holding a lot of emotional stress with everything that is going on. If nothing else it will help you to cope with the current situation, and potentially be an example to your husband as to what professional support can do for him in the future. I wish you all the best.
At 46, I’m having psychotherapy in order to come to terms with the narcissism of both my parents, which to some extent is still going on.
My mother died last year, and I now have to fight her family over the will. My father still will not discuss what went on whilst I was growing up. Recently, I wrote him a letter detailing the things I could never forgive him for. It is useless being a yes-person and pretending things are wonderful when they are not, and no, nowhere does it say I am obliged to forgive. He knows where I am, and if he gives a damn, he can bloody well put pen to paper and write. As one of my friends who is also estranged from her father says, it is not one’s job to run after parents. I myself think, “Dad, if you after all these years still don’t want to discuss anything, then we cannot have any sort of understanding or interaction, because what we have is meaningless anyway. And you can take that or leave it!”
Yup, both my parents’ view of life was “it’s every man for himself, and if that includes throwing one’s children under the bus, then so be it”. Why people would go to so much effort to have a child only to knock them down is a mystery to me – the mind boggles.
I have been designated the family scapegoat for years and years (and years), but I now feel that I can only be designated the scapegoat in the family, work, life, whatever you want to call it, if I let myself be. If I remove myself from the scene, with any luck they will start tearing each other apart, and good riddance! Why would I want to be around people who are false, rude and disrespectful? And that goes for so-called “friends” too, by the way!
Hello, and thank you so much for leaving this comment on here. It’s great to see that you are in therapy to deal with the impact that all of this has had on your life. There can often be a lot of guilt around becoming estranged from a parent, but you also need to consider your own mental health and protect your own energy as well, which is sounds like you are doing. I wish you all the best for the future and your continued work with your therapist.
Thank u very insightful
Hi Rebecca, thank you for reading our blog post and for taking the time to comment. We are so glad that you found it insightful.
Thanks for the article and info! I know it was a good amount of effort to put together…
The info was very helpful and relevant to me and my situation, with one very big exception, therapy. Given the current state of health care in the US, it just not a viable option. I guess I am on my own yet again. Although not due to narcissistic parents, but rather due to dysfunctional government.
Oh well, at least now I am in control!
Hello, and thank you for taking the time to leave this comment. I am glad that you found the blog post helpful, but we do understand that for one reason or another, therapy isn’t always an option; whether it is personal finances or a wider societal issue. Despite this, there are always options, perhaps by finding support through others in a similar situation, finding support in friends and loved ones, or accessing professional support virtually. I wish you luck with this.
I have questioned whether this is my mother for several years, wondering why it was so difficult to communicate my needs and feelings and why I felt I had emotional defences up around her. I’m now losing my father and have seen she has no capacity think about our feelings. If I try to express feelings she is either angry, tearful or has to demonstrate why it is so much harder for her. There’s no motherly comfort. And she has never apologised for anything ever!
Hi there, thank you for leaving your comment on this blog. I hope this blog proved helpful. I’m so sorry to hear about your father, and the way that your mother is handling the situation. If you would like us to match you with a counsellor who can help you to work through this, please do get in contact with us.
I believe my daughters boyfriend may be experiencing this now. He is 17 and he is very needy and does lash out at her sometimes. Recently he was hit by a car and hurt pretty badly, (he was a run away when this happened and the guardians knew where he was) now he is placed back with them and it seems he is always upset and crying. They gave him a dog and are now taking it away from him because they don’t like my daughter, and they say he is too worried about her to have the dog. How can I help him?
Thank you for taking the time to leave this comment, and sorry to hear that your daughter’s boyfriend is going through a difficult time. It is hard to say what you can do to support him, as I’m not sure whereabouts you are living and therefore which local authority you are under. However, it would be a good idea to find out more from him about what has been going on and, if he has a social worker, it might be an idea to encourage him to speak to them. I wish you all the best.
Thank you for writing this post. I’m 52 years old, the eldest and only girl of three children of a narcissistic father. Your article made a lot of sense about my personality traits, why I give too much, why I have always undervalued myself and never felt good enough. My narcissistic father ostocised me from the family, ruined my family relationships by spreading lies about me because I walked away from his controlling behavior and became the only fiercely independent child. I gained two degrees even though my father didn’t want me to educate myself because he and my middle brother aren’t educated. This led to them both feeling inferior and your bullet points at the start of the article describe my controlling father, my jealous, attention seeking middle brother and his wife and their behavior towards me, down to a tee. My family except my mother have excluded me from the family for over 30 years now and although I have no children of my own, my brothers and their wives forbid me seeing my nephews. My middle brother and his wife stopped me seeing their sons when they were four years old even though they loved seeing me and staying over at my house. I didn’t realise that siblings of narcissistic parents could also become narcissists. My brothers behavior became worse when as a late teenager my father told him that, if he worked in the
the family business instead of going to college, my father would eventually give him the family business. My narcissistic father used to bully my mother and I to work in the business and although, I had a full time job he would make me feel guilty for not helping in the business seven days a week. When my brother returned home he would tell my father that he needs to tell me to get away from the business especially, when money was involved and my father would always oblige. I only found out a few years ago that he was paying both of my brothers for working in the business and not me. It was only when I recently visited the dentist who told me that my teeth didn’t need extracting but years of stress and anxiety had taken their toll on by body and I grinding my teeth at night had caused the muscles iin my mouth to collapse that was leading to the toothpain I’ve suffered over the past year and a half. He also informed me that all my body muscles were full of lactic acid and that if I didn’t get CBT or help from my GP I would continue on a downward spiral. I tried many times with the father to Mend our relationship and for me, the final straw was when I told him that I’m homeless and he never even bothered to ask if I was ok or offer me a spare room in his house during the pandemic. I do get tearful at the thought of never having had a childhood, a father or family I could trust. Yes, it’s true that friends or relatives who have never grown up with a narcissistic father can’t help you with something they’ve never experienced and finding someone who understands has been extremely difficult. I have had counselling in the past one was so drunk she fell asleep during the session and then, tried to blame me because what I was telling her was ‘too heavy’ and the second was a lovely person but gave me no insight.
Thank you so much for sharing everything that you have shared here, and I’m so sorry to hear of all of the heartache and stress that you have been through. I’m glad that you have found this article helpful and that it explained a lot of behaviours both within yourself and your family members. I do hope that you try counselling again and find someone that works for you as there are many wonderful therapists out there. If you would like us to match you up with one of our therapists, please do get in touch.
This article is so insightful. I’ve had a growing realisation that what I’ve experienced was a narcissistic parent.. my mother. I’ve always said privately to friends that my step father just allows her to get away with it and to read here that he’s an enabler .. wow my stomach has just dropped out. My mothers getting old now. We barely speak. I said sorry to her in the English way of trying to smooth over the past but it was like adding fuel to the flames. I will be gutted and traumatised when she dies…that we could never resolve things. The things I could tell you. Ultimately she’s controlling and fragile. I find it all so sad. Gutting. Awful. Like what’s the point of it all. I feel defeated and hollow. But it’s good to know that it is a thing and I hope to god I don’t repeat any of this behaviour. If you have written other articles please can you link them.
Thank you for taking the time to leave this comment, and so sorry to hear about your family situation. If you’re interested in reading more about this, you can click the link in the category list on the right-hand side of the page that says “narcissism” or search for it in the search bar at the top of the page. If you would like us to match you with a therapist who can help you to process things that have happened within your family and upbringing, please do get in touch.