Understanding narcissistic parents
The effects of childhood trauma, including emotional neglect or abuse in childhood, can have alarmingly potent effects on our psyche as we enter adulthood, even to the extent of rewiring the brain (van der Kolk, 2016). The children of narcissistic parents, those who meet the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, know this all too well, having been raised by someone with a limited capacity for empathy and an excessive sense of grandiosity, false superiority and entitlement (Ni, 2016). Children of narcissistic parents are programmed at an early age to seek validation where there is none, to believe their worthiness is tied to the reputation of their families, and to internalize the message that they can only sustain their value by how well they can ‘serve’ the needs of their parents. They have lived an existence where love was rarely ever unconditional, if given at all.
This is not to say that childhood survivors of narcissistic abuse cannot rise above their childhood conditioning; in fact, they can be stronger survivors and thrivers as a result of the resilience they are capable of developing and the ways in which they channel their traumas into transformation (Bussey and Wise, 2007). It takes real inner work and bravery to unravel the traumas that we’ve had to endure as children as well as address any retraumatization as adults. Being able to understand our relationship and behavioral patterns, as well as any negative self-talk that has arisen as a result of the abuse, can be revolutionary in challenging the myths and falsehoods we’ve been fed about our worth and capabilities.
As children of narcissistic parents, we often learn the following from a very young age:
1. Your worth is always dependent on conditional circumstances.
As the child of a narcissistic parent or parents, you were taught that you were not inherently worthy, but rather that your worth depended on what you could do for the narcissistic parent and how compliant you were. The emphasis on appearance, status, reputation is at an all-time high in households with a narcissistic parent. Due to the narcissistic parent’s grandiosity, false mask and need to be the best, you were probably part of a family that was ‘presented’ in the best possible light, with abuse taking place behind closed doors.
Within the home was a different story than the one presented to the public: you may have witnessed the horrific dynamics of seeing one parent verbally or even physically abuse the other, been subjected to the abuse yourself, and/or experienced both parents working together to undercut you and your siblings. If you ever dared to threaten the perfect false image or did anything to speak out about the abuse, you were most likely punished. The emotional and psychological battery children of narcissistic parents endure when going against the expectations and beliefs of the family can be incredibly damaging and have life-long effects on their self-image, their agency and their faith in themselves. They are taught that they are not independent agents, but rather objects that are here to serve the narcissistic parent’s ego and selfish agendas.
2. You need to be perfect and successful, but you should never be rewarded for it or feel ‘enough.’
Narcissists are masters of moving the goal posts so that nothing their victims do is ever enough. As childhood abuse survivors, we are no exception to that rule. Our accomplishments are rarely acknowledged unless they meet an arbitrary criteria for “what looks best to society,” or confirms the narcissistic parent’s own grandiose fantasies. Our abusive parent is never genuinely proud of us unless he or she can claim credit for that particular success. Some narcissistic parents can even envy or look down upon the success of their children, especially if that success enables that child to become independent of their parents, outside of their realm of power and control.
It is not uncommon for these types of parents to attempt to sabotage the success and happiness of their children if that success interferes at all with their grandiose self-image, their own ideas of what ‘happiness’ should entail (usually whatever makes them look good rather than what makes their children feel good) or their compulsion to micromanage and control every facet of their children’s lives.
In the sick mind of the narcissistic parent, it would be better if their children did not exist, rather than unable to do their bidding and ‘perform’ the identity that the parent wishes their children to embody or achieves the exact goals they want their children to achieve. Even if they were the perfect daughters or sons, the goal posts would again shift and their level of perfection would still never be good enough in the eyes of the narcissistic parent.
3. There is always someone better, and you must beat them – starting with your own siblings.
Children of narcissistic parents are often turned against their siblings in a competition to vie for the affection and love they always craved but never received. Narcissistic parents are well-known for ‘triangulating’ children against one another as an attempt to unnecessarily compare them, demean them and feed their own sense of power and control over their children.
Usually there is a golden child and a scapegoat, and sometimes the roles are reversed depending on what the narcissistic parent needs to meet their agenda (McBride, 2011). Scapegoated rebel children are often truth-seekers who desire an authentic connection with their family members, but fail to remain silent about the abuse that occurs when they do not meet the absurd expectations of their parents. The golden child, on the other hand, is usually lauded as the ‘standard,’ but this too can quickly take a turn should the golden child ever exercise his or her agency and do something outside of the parent’s control. We are taught at a very young age that we will never be good enough, that we must always compare ourselves to others, and fail to acknowledge our inherent worthiness and value.
As adults, we learn that we do not have to compete with anyone in order to be worthy or valuable, nor do we have to necessarily be the best at everything. Cultivating a sense of unconditional self-love, as well as an appreciation of our unique skills and abilities, can go a long way in combating these harmful internalizations from abuse and replacing them with a healthy level of pride and self-sufficiency.
4. Contempt is a part of love and ‘normal’ in a relationship.
Narcissistic parents can subject their children to periods of idealization when they need them, quickly followed by contempt and terrifying narcissistic rage when they ‘disobey’ and threaten their excessive sense of entitlement (Goulston, 2012). The condescension, contempt and hatred with which a narcissistic parent uses to berate their children is not only immensely hurtful, it retrains the mind into accepting abuse as a new normal (Streep, 2016).
This pattern of idealization and devaluation teaches us that love is unstable, frightening, and ultimately unpredictable. It causes us to walk on eggshells, fearful that we may displease others. It also desensitizes us and makes us tone-deaf to verbal abuse later on in adulthood (Streep, 2016). Although we may learn to identify emotional and verbal abuse, we will be less likely than someone who had a healthy upbringing to recognize how damaging it can be or how unacceptable it truly is, because it unfortunately is ‘familiar’ to us as the only version of love we’ve been shown. We may become ‘trauma bonded’ to our abusive parents and more prone to bonding with abusive partners in adulthood as a result (Carnes, 1997). We may even go to the other end of the spectrum and shut out anyone who resembles our parents in tone or attitude – some of this may be hypervigilance, but much of it is self-protection and intuition about the behaviors that have traumatized us in the past.
Children of narcissistic parents can re-sensitize themselves to the fact that abuse is not a normal or healthy part of any relationship by addressing their people-pleasing habits, doing important boundary work, and replacing old narratives of unworthiness with empowering ones about the type of love and respect they truly deserve. They can essentially ‘reparent’ themselves in a safe, protective space (Walker, 2013).
5. Your emotions are not valid.
Narcissistic parents, much like narcissistic abusers in relationships, pathologize and invalidate our emotions to the point where we are left voiceless. We are not allowed to feel, so we end up going to extremes: we either become repressed and numb or we become rebel children who ‘feel’ too much, too soon. Our emotions become overwhelming either way, because our grief is not processed in a healthy way, starting from childhood. In adulthood, we gain the opportunity to validate our own emotions and recognize that what we feel, and have felt all along, is entirely valid. We learn how to process our emotions, our trauma, and the grief of being unloved as children and adolescents. We learn that we have opportunities to detach from our abusive parents, whether it be through Low Contact (minimum contact only when necessary) or No Contact at all. We experiment with using our agency to separate ourselves from the identity erosion that has occurred in our childhoods. We learn to separate the narcissistic parent’s harmful beliefs about us and our own burgeoning faith. Most of all, we learn that it is okay to believe in ourselves and to welcome good things into our lives. We learn that we are deserving of all that is good.
It is important to remember that as children of narcissistic parents, we carry the legacy of our wounds, but that these wounds can become portals to deeper and richer healing. We do not have to burden the next generation with our wounding, but rather use it as a way to nurture and validate future generations. We have options as to how we can channel this trauma for our own growth, rather than our destruction. These wounds cannot heal if they are not addressed or if we refuse to be awake; at the same time, our timeline for healing will be unique and our journey cannot be compared to that of others. Self-awareness and self-compassion is needed more than ever.
As children of narcissistic parents, we have to learn to protect ourselves from further abuse and set up a plan to better engage in self-care. Falsehoods about parents always being loving and having our best interests at heart simply do not cut it when it comes to manipulative, toxic and abusive parents. These parents are incapable of empathy and are likely to ‘hoover’ you back only when they need to use you as a source of narcissistic supply (Schneider, 2015). We must allow ourselves to grieve for the loss of our childhood and embrace the truth that our parents may have never loved us, or wanted the best for us, but that we can ‘reparent’ ourselves the best ways we know how – through empathy, compassion, self-acceptance and self-love. Make no mistake: when you are the child of a narcissistic parent, the idea that you never deserved this love, is perhaps the biggest lie of all.
This article adapts themes and ideas from my books, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself and POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse.