It is a standard yearning of narcissists to be the center of attention, as they seek out excessive admiration in order to guard against their deep- rooted insecurities.
For a narcissistic parent, this intense desire goes against the essential foundation of child rearing, where the primary focus must often be on the child. With an insatiable need to be perceived as superior and an exaggerated sense of entitlement, their children are seen as extensions of themselves, either reflecting their grandiosity or serving as targets for their own intolerable feelings of inferiority.
Although narcissism is exemplified in specific ways depending on the individual, narcissistic parents tend to have the following common tendencies:
- They violate boundaries, so there is a lack of privacy and respect for the child as a separate person.
- They place their children in one of two interchangeable roles: scapegoat or golden child.
- They invalidate their children’s feelings, particularly strong ones like anger, frustration and excitement.
- Because they have to be right, they will externalize blame.
- They exhibit a lack of empathy, which interferes with their ability to stay attuned to their children’s needs.
- They often experience jealousy and resentment toward others (including their children).
- They place great importance on superficialities.
- They are demanding and critical of their children’s physical appearance, behavior and performance.
- They hold their children responsible for making them happy.
Not surprisingly, these tendencies can create challenging circumstances, pressured relationships and psychological torment for the narcissist’s children. The degree of narcissism exhibited by the parent, the child’s inherent psychological disposition and the presence of environmental stressors and supports will determine the severity of impact. Some common psychological and behavioral outcomes for children who grow up with a narcissistic parent include:
- Emptiness and chronic loneliness
- Low self esteem
- Difficulty regulating emotional and behavioral responses
- Discomfort experiencing feelings (both positive and negative)
- Development of a false self
- Oversensitivity to criticism
- An extreme need for external validation and attention
- Anxiety disorders
- Hypervigilance (constantly on guard for possible threats)
- Substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors
- Shame issues
- Insecurities around physical appearance, possessions and achievements
- Difficulty setting personal goals
- Volatile relationships reflecting problems with healthy attachment
Often when children of narcissists enter therapy, they feel truly seen for the first time in their lives.
As their feelings are validated as opposed to their external presentations, they are granted the permission for introspection that can lead to a solid sense of self that is separate from that of their parent. Within the supportive, contained and safe structure of the therapeutic relationship, they can begin to process the impact of having a narcissistic parent on their social and emotional functioning. They can also decipher links between their current dynamics and their childhood conditioning in order to move forward beyond the grip of the past.
Treatment offers opportunities not only to gain a thorough understanding of their personal histories, but also to learn specific techniques to support emotional regulation, gain knowledge about maintaining appropriate boundaries when interacting with others, develop beneficial habits to promote self-esteem and adopt healthy strategies for facing challenges. Therapy can provide a reparative experience that creates a gateway to greater stability, healthier relationships and a strong sense of autonomy and self worth.