How to Reparent Yourself If You’re The Child of a Narcissistic Parent

Children of narcissistic parents can suffer long-lasting effects in adulthood that affect their self-esteem, mental health, their susceptibility to re-traumatization, and emotional regulation. As a researcher specializing in narcissism, I’ve spoken to not only thousands of people involved in romantic relationships with narcissistic partners but also many adult children of narcissists who struggle with the harmful beliefs and traumas of their early upbringing. Many want to know how they can engage in reparenting practices that allow them to build a more solid foundation especially since they were raised by a parent that lacked empathy. Here are some powerful steps you can take to re-parent yourself if you were the child of a narcissistic parent. The second one is my personal favorite.

Identify and communicate with your inner parts.

When most of us think of reparenting, we think of nurturing our inner child. But what if I told you that we actually have multiple “inner parts” that subconsciously affect our behavior?  These inner parts all serve a function and can be maladaptive or adaptive depending on how we work with them. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Richard Schwartz, these inner parts include not just wounded parts that carry the weight of early traumas (also known as exiles) but also protectors and defenders that shield these wounded parts from exposure. They include “firefighters,” the parts that compel us to “numb out” our pain with various addictions or distractions and rescue us from experiencing our most brutal emotions. It also includes  “managers” that micromanage the tasks of daily living and wield control over our relationships to avoid abandonment or discomfort. When starting your reparenting journey, it is best to work with a trauma-informed therapist trained in Internal Family Systems Therapy to better identify the inner parts that may be causing distress in your life and work to open a line of communication among all of them. This will sound like asking your inner parts questions like, “What are you trying to protect me from?” and thanking it for serving its function.

Remind your younger “exile” inner parts that you will always be there for them and will not abandon them. Observe what actions each inner part has taken and how they have affected you. You can work with your parts to identify whether there are alternative actions that might serve the same purpose (for example, avoiding all social interaction and self-isolating to protect yourself may be replaced with group activities like group yoga or cycling that offer opportunity for social connection without as much pressure on the nervous system). You may also consider evidence-based therapies that process your traumas such as Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) as well as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to help hone your emotion regulation skills.

Incorporate safe play.

Many children of narcissists are parentified and given adult roles and responsibilities at a young age which causes them to lose out on play. Play allows us to connect with childlike wonder, spontaneity, and the carefree innocence and happiness we may have lost out on as children raised by a narcissistic parent. Psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown, an expert in the study of “play” and founder of the National Institute for Play, notes how play contributes to our creativity, curiosity, problem-solving, empathy, flexibility, imagination, and sense of belonging. He defines play as something that is “done for its own sake” which offers pleasure, relief, and allows for full engagement in an activity without any particular attachment to an outcome. In fact, he notes how sustained play deprivation can lead to diminished social competency and the development of empathy. Although there are certainly other factors that play a role in someone’s development, it’s clear that play can be a potential protective factor that helps foster the brain.  In fact, studies using animal models suggest that play may help with the development of the prefrontal cortex and the executive functioning that allows us to regulate our emotions, make decisions, and solve problems. While you may not be able to replace the “play” you lacked in childhood, you can still engage in safe play as an adult.

There are many types of “play” available to us as adults and it is not restrictive to any type of activity. Some play activities emphasize movement (like “rough and tumble” play or “body play” like jumping), others highlight objects (such as playing with toys, puzzles, or activities like sewing) while others are more cerebral and creative (e.g. storytelling, reading, watching our favorite series or a thrilling mystery) or social (e.g. playing football or video games with our friends). Dr. Brown identifies eight types of “play personalities” we may resonate with. This is based on what makes us feel most free, gets us easily absorbed in the activity whatever it may be so that we feel like we’ve lost track of time. What may be considered play for one person may be hard work for another, so it is deeply personal. For you, play may look like writing a short story, doing a puzzle, dancing, meditating in a beautiful landscape or while looking at gorgeous skyline views, or filling out an adult coloring book. For another, play may consist of board games with friends, walks with their dog or a Zumba class. Identify the play activities you feel most nourished by and start incorporating a couple of these activities into your schedule. Avoid “play” activities that might worsen traumas – for example, having a few margaritas during drinking games with friends may seem like a fun “play” activity but if substance use is making your triggers worse, it could create a barrier on your re-parenting journey. Make room for different types of safe and healthy play and converse with your inner child and inner parts about what makes them truly happy. Check in with your inner child and “appreciate” the happy moments together. You deserve to reclaim the joy and innocence of a childhood you never had.

Work with the inner critic and identify the harm that was caused.

Trauma therapist Pete Walker recommends working to defuse the inner critic when healing from the complex trauma of a childhood rife with abandonment, neglect, and abuse. This inner critic is the one that you may have internalized from the voice and criticism of your narcissistic parent. If you find yourself struggling with negative self-talk that resembles the criticism of your narcissistic parent, you may have an especially antagonistic inner critic that was instilled in you since childhood. Walker encourages harnessing our anger to place ourselves back into a self-defense state against this inner critic and stop this critical voice in its tracks, a technique he calls “thought-stopping.” You can also begin to slowly replace those thoughts with more positive ones. Recall the healthier feedback you’ve received throughout your life. Think often of the abundance of evidence against your negative thoughts. You’re allowed to be outraged at the inaccurate distortions you’ve been taught to believe about yourself. I hear from many survivors that a healthy, righteous anger has helped them tremendously in reclaiming their power, especially if they were raised by narcissistic parents who told them their valid anger or emotions were unacceptable. They feel unburdened and relieved when they are able to shift from self-blame and allow themselves to position the blame where it belongs: on the perpetrator. Permit yourself to identify all the ways your narcissistic parent (or parents) harmed you in your childhood, adolescence, and even how their impact affects you now in adulthood. Grieve the losses of your childhood. This acknowledgment can be a powerful step on your healing journey.

Steer away from self-abandonment: make it a daily practice to turn to self-nourishment, self-soothing, self-care and self-compassion instead.

Narcissistic parents push their children toward self-sabotage and self-neglect. Their hypercriticism becomes the anchor for which the child grows up believing they are never enough and do not deserve care. They key is recognizing the areas of your life where you practice self-abandonment and tending to them with extra attention. Check in with yourself daily: are you getting enough rest? What do you need right now? How are you feeling? What can we do today to help you feel better? An emotionally nourishing parent knows how to set healthy boundaries with their children while still treating them with unconditional positive regard: do the same for yourself. Honor and validate all of your emotions – especially the uncomfortable ones like anger. Know that each emotion has a right to be there and is a signal indicating the effect of your traumas or danger in the present moment. Your anger should not be suppressed: it will tell you when you’ve been violated. Find constructive ways to both express it and honor it. Engage often in rituals that promote gentle self-care and relaxation: self-soothe with peaceful music, warm blankets, and hot cups of tea or your favorite beverage. Read your favorite books, take bubble baths, and snuggle with your pet or watch cute animal videos. Anticipate your needs like a good parent would. If you know you always need extra energy in the morning, keep a glass of water beside your bed to hydrate and a cup of coffee ready and waiting so you don’t have to rush; if you are working late hours, give yourself plenty of snack breaks with your favorite food and “nap times.” It’s those little habits that remind you that you are worthy of being taken care of.

Get into the habit of speaking to yourself lovingly and gently (i.e. “I know, that was so unfair. It was wrong of them to do that. You are so worthy and deserving of so much more”). This self-validation can be an especially effective tool if you’ve experienced chronic gaslighting and invalidation in childhood. Use mirror work exercises to speak to yourself and compliment yourself while looking into your eyes – this will train you to practice self-compassion in a way that puts you in the perspective of the “observer” rather than the “internal judger.” When possible, keep the promises you make to yourself while also allowing room for mistakes to build self-trust. If you told yourself you’d work on your physical fitness but are finding it difficult to get out of bed, start working toward smaller goals – like taking a walk in nature instead of throwing yourself immediately into cardio and weightlifting at the gym. “Build up” to the bigger steps. Or if you told yourself you’d make an effort to learn new things, start with a book before signing up for an entire seminar. If you’re working to get out of a toxic relationship, start by detaching slowly and making a safety plan to leave. Congratulate yourself for looking out for yourself.

Celebrate yourself and all your wins – big and small.

Narcissistic parents train you to criticize yourself – you have to swing the pendulum the other way to train your brain to notice the good. Make a list of your positive qualities, strengths, achievements, and healthy praise you’ve received from empathic people. Refer to that list every day to remind yourself of who you truly are. At the end of each day, make a note of what you were grateful for and what you were happy to accomplish. This will get you into the mindset of, “I am making so much progress,” and look to the bright future ahead rather than focusing on any perceived shortcomings. Think of your lost childhood and all the positivity that awaits you as an inheritance you deserved to receive and are reclaiming in adulthood. You deserve to thrive.

About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.