Typically, the narcissistic parent views his/her child as a kind of possession whose sole purpose is to continuously fulfill his/her (i.e. the narcissistic parent’s) emotional needs.
In order to keep the child in this role (i.e. the role of existing solely to meet the parent’s emotional needs), the narcissistic parent may exert power over the child in highly manipulative and controlling ways.
Because such parents are so possessive of the child, as the child grows older and starts to become more independent (especially during early adolescence), the narcissistic parent may feel threatened that his/her hitherto exclusive relationship with the child is becoming increasingly precarious.
Indeed, if the child begins to show signs of no longer fulfilling the role that the narcissistic parent has assigned to him/her, such parents may become deeply resentful of the child and start to punish him/her through emotional abuse (including directing intense rage toward the child).
The narcissistic parent essentially EXPLOITS their child, capitalizing on the fact that the child is biologically programmed to be dependent upon him/her (but especially the mother); as already alluded to, this enables such parents to exert enormous power and control over the child, a power which they ruthlessly abuse. Such parents feel little or no empathy (though pretends to have) for their child and are have scant regard for the child’s personal boundaries.
Narcissistic abuse tends to be covert in the sense that it takes place in the privacy of the family home; in public, the narcissistic parent tends to be extremely careful to present as good an image as possible (in an attempt to maintain the illusion of being superior to others), perhaps trying to act ‘the perfect parent’ to keep up appearances (as already implied, narcissists are exceptionally concerned about how others perceive them)’
The child of the narcissistic parent is doomed to failure in as far that whatever s/he does in order attempt to meet the parent’s emotional needs, it will never be enough as, in this regard, the narcissist is impossible to satisfy.
Unfortunately, when growing up with a narcissistic parent, the child is highly unlikely to realize that the parent is suffering from a serious disorder that results in highly dysfunctional parenting. This is because most children just accept their family circumstances as ‘normal’ given that they have no point of comparison (in most cases).
Even more sadly, if and when they do realize how dysfunctional their family environment was whilst they were growing up, perhaps in early to mid-adulthood, they may have already suffered a great deal of psychological damage which may well require extensive therapy to alleviate.
What Are The Main Characteristics Of The Narcissistic Parent?
Narcissistic parents may also display the following characteristics :
– extreme possessiveness of child (in the sense of owning, controlling, and using the child)
– uses emotional blackmail
– uses the technique of ‘gaslighting’ (i.e. they deny your reality e.g. by constantly telling you that your experience of your childhood was not as you claim/believe / perceived it to be) to the extent that you may even begin to question own sanity)
– blow all criticism way out of proportion / exceptionally thin-skinned
– can be sadistic / relish psychologically crushing the child with devastating verbal abuse / enjoy being cruel to the child and the feeling of power/omnipotence this may provide
– makes frequent use of ‘triangulation’ e.g. encroaches upon the child’s friendships to use to his/her (i.e. the narcissistic parent’s) advantage, including turning them against the child if necessary)
– lacks the capacity to love in any meaningful way the child (though may ‘act loving’)
– cares deeply about what others think so will present image of ‘perfect mother/father’ to the outside world (e.g makes sure the child is immaculately turned out to ‘prove’ to others what a ‘good’ parent s/he is.
– withdraws any pretense of ‘love’ / approval as soon child fails to please (especially by giving the child the ‘silent treatment’ )
– controls the child by instilling feelings of shame and guilt into him/her
– possesses a conscious or unconscious belief that child exists solely to fulfill his/her (i.e. the narcissistic parent’s) needs
– only wants the child to succeed in a way which benefits him/her (i.e. the narcissistic parent), NOT on his/her (i.e the child’s) own terms
– wants to keep the child dependent and needy so may derive satisfaction from him/her (i.e. the child) being emotionally upset as this puts the child in a weak position, makes him/her (i.e. the child) easier to manipulate, and provides the narcissistic parent with the opportunity to display false concern.
S/he (i.e. the narcissistic parent) is motivated NOT by the desire to alleviate the child’s suffering but by the wholly egocentric wish to demonstrate what a ‘good parent’ s/he is – as such, s/he may toy with the child’s emotions, alternating between ensuring s/he (i.e. the child) becomes emotionally upset and then acting as his/her ’emotional rescuer.’
– does not respect the child’s personal boundaries/right to privacy / may insist the child divulges highly sensitive information only to use this information against them at a later date
– becomes jealous and resentful if the child tries to become independent and successful (in a way that does not benefit the parent)
Potential Long-Term Harm Narcissistic Parents May Do To Their Children :
The harmful emotional impact such parents may have on their children can be profound; as an adult, the former abused child may suffer from a whole multitude of serious problems, including :
– invasive thoughts of emotional abuse
– anxious attachment (constantly fearful people don’t like us or will suddenly ‘turn on’ us as we believe we are, in our very essence, in some indefinable but undeniable way despicable and others will surely ‘sense’ this, too – ‘it’s simply a matter of time,’ we tell ourselves)
– equation of intimate relationships with making oneself unsafe and vulnerable; this may cause us to become self-protectively aggressive
– slowed down emotional development / arrested emotional development
– depression (frequently due to repressed anger which can, in turn, lead to physical illness)
– desperation to achieve high goals (in frantic attempt to bolster profoundly undermined self-esteem).
– self-blame and a perpetual feeling of being ‘a bad person‘ (connected to the narcissistic parent’s focus on the child’s ‘faults’ / ‘failings’ and ‘failure’ to meet his/her (i.e. the narcissistic parent’s) impossibly demanding needs)
– emotionally enmeshed relationship with the narcissistic parent and consequent profound uncertainty as to own identity and personal boundaries caused by the parent’s view of the child as an extension of him/herself (i.e. of the narcissistic parent’s self).
How Destructive Narcissists May ‘Parentify’ Their Children :
Narcissistic Parentification :
Parents who suffer from a destructive narcissist pattern (DNP) of behavior frequently ‘parentify’ their children whereby a kind of role reversal occurs and the child is expected to act as the parent’s parent (although this may well occur on an unconscious level rather than it coming about due to a parent’s conscious decision making).
Such parents are likely to:
– use their children to feed their constant need for positive attention
– use their children to feed their insatiable need for admiration
– need to be made to feel they are particularly special/important/superior to others
– lack empathy
– regard children as an extension of themselves rather than individuals with their own needs/interests/desires
– have shallow emotions (except for fear and anxiety)
– behave in a grandiose manner
– exploit others (including own children)
– be emotionally abusive towards own children
– expect emotional support from their children, even when child obviously far too young to provide it
– expect the child to bolster and endorse his/her sense of special entitlement
Such parents lack the capacity to nurture the child and put his/her needs above their own – it tends to be more a case of what they can ‘get out of their children rather than what they can give them.
Also, these parents lack empathy when it comes to their children’s feelings, whilst always expecting the child to fully sympathize and empathize with their own.
Furthermore, such parents lack patience when their children are demanding and incapable of holding their children in unconditional positive regard.
Additionally, DNP parents will find it very hard to relate to/tune into the child’s own rich emotional life.
Such parents, too, tend to set their children extremely high and exacting standards of behavior that are impossible to meet and then become very angry when the children inevitably ‘fall short’.
EFFECTS OF SUCH DNP BEHAVIOUR ON THE CHILD :
Being treated in such a way over a long period of time will frequently have a profound long-term effect upon the child. Indeed, without therapy, such effects can last for an entire lifetime.
As a result of this treatment, in adulthood the now-grown child may :
-constantly expect others to manipulate him/her and, therefore, have a cynical and distrustful attitude towards them
– have a high level of anxiety about the possibility of being trapped by, and enmeshed in, the emotional needs of others
– paradoxically feeling responsible for the needs of others and ashamed and guilty that they are unable to fulfill them
In order to prevent him/herself from being manipulated by others and being caught up in their needs the adult child who was brought up by the DNP parent is also likely to develop certain DEFENSE MECHANISMS. These defense mechanisms are likely to include :
– APPARENT INSENSITIVITY
Let’s look at each of these in turn :
1) DEFIANCE – this occurs when the individual does not want to do whatever it is that others are trying to get him/her to do. It occurs because painful memories of being manipulated as a child are triggered (either on a conscious or unconscious level) and the individual desperately needs to avoid being treated in such a way again.
2) REBELLION – whereas ‘defiance’ relates to the attitude that the individual adopts, ‘rebellion’ relates to the action they take.
Rebellion can be a healthy way to establish independence from parents but it can also be destructive if it becomes a kind of indiscriminate, reflexive, knee-jerk reaction to everything (including things that it would be in the person’s own interest to comply with).
3) WITHDRAWAL – an individual brought up by an DNP parent may constantly feel compelled to withdraw from :
– intimacy with others
– disapproval from others
– the needs of others to be ‘nurtured’
– the emotional intensity of others
– the emergence of own strong emotions
– criticism from others
Withdrawal can be emotional or physical.
It is used as a defense mechanism in order to protect the individual who was brought up by the DNP parent from those behaviors which trigger memories of how s/he was treated as a child which would cause intolerable levels of anxiety.
Unfortunately, because such defense mechanisms are automatic, they are very likely to occur even when the other individual poses no objective psychological threat and has no intention of exploiting them.
In this way, opportunities to form satisfying relationships are frequently missed.
4) SEEMING INSENSITIVITY – the individual who was brought up by the DNP parent may well, underneath, be a very sensitive person but s/he covers this up to protect him/herself due to his/her fear of being emotionally overwhelmed and manipulated by others. This can mean his/her inability to fulfill the emotional needs of others actually leaves him/her with a constant sense of guilt.
Furthermore, his/her defense mechanisms may lead him/her to be viewed by others as hard to understand and get to know, as well as cold, distant, and aloof.
Sadly and paradoxically, however, the individual, deep down, may well yearn for love and affection, validation, admiration, and have a strong desire to be free of his/her profound and pervasive fear of emotional intimacy.
How To Reduce Harm Done By The Narcissistic Parent
In order to minimize the psychological harm caused to children by narcissistic parents, EARLY, EFFECTIVE, THERAPEUTIC INTERVENTION IS OF FUNDAMENTAL IMPORTANCE.
Psychotherapists frequently stress the importance of drawing clear boundaries with narcissistic parents, limiting contact with them or cutting off contact altogether (with the support, ideally, of a therapist who has expertise in this area). They also frequently advise that truly narcissistic parents have a mental illness that will make it extremely difficult for us to change them and that, therefore, our energies should be focused on our own recovery.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).