Written by Dr. Eric Perry, PhD
“Having a narcissistic parent is like living life as a human doormat.” ~ Anonymous
Children come into the world much like new-born ducklings ready to imprint on their caretakers. They are innocent blank slates waiting to learn the ways of the world. Like a bud on the vine, with proper care, children blossom and grow to be mentally and physically healthy adults. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose our parents. While some of us end up with loving and nurturing parents, others will end up born to individuals who are incapable of loving and properly taking care of a child. It is estimated that up to 6 percent of the US population has narcissistic personality disorder and many of these individuals are parents.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a cluster B personality disorder recognized by the DSM-5 and is characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and a lack of empathy. The narcissistic parent projects an idealized version of themselves to the outside world. They are the perfect father or mother. They are forever doting on their child and basking in the glow of their achievements. Behind closed doors the facade implodes, revealing a parent or parents who subject their child to unreasonable demands. The household is one that is full of emotional and physical landmines. It is far from a normal childhood.
The relationship we have with our parents is one of the most important bonds we will ever have. As children, we look to our parents for unconditional love, support, and guidance. The parent-child bond should provide a rock solid foundation for the child. A springboard to morphing into a happy and healthy adult. Children of narcissistic parents often grow up feeling like there is something wrong with them. They may also feel unwanted and unloveable. Instead of a rock-solid foundation, the narcissists provide an unstable foundation, like one built on a stack of toothpicks.
To a narcissist, having a child is like hitting the lottery. The narcissist needs constant praise and approval in order to keep their inflated sense of self at full capacity. As a parent, they are guaranteed the ultimate narcissistic supply. Like a giant multi-limbed monster Octopus holding on to its prey, the narcissistic parent uses many ploys to feed off and control their children. The child is denied, even as an adult, a sense of independent self-hood. The offspring exists merely to serve the selfish needs of the parent. Without a steady supply of praise, the narcissist’s grandiose sense of self will begin to wilt much, like a balloon losing air. They must have a steady source of narcissistic supply in order not to crash to the ground.
As children, we are unaware that our parents are different from other moms and dads. It is only as we get older that we start to realize that we are locked in a co-dependent dance with a narcissistic parent or parents. Awareness is the first positive step to take towards recovery from this pattern of narcissistic abuse.
The following is a list of some traits narcissistic parents exhibit.
1. Narcissistic supply
The narcissistic parent relies heavily on the child for narcissistic supply. They require more than love from the child. They want to be adored, worshipped and have an insatiable need to be the center of the universe. The narcissist requires an excessive amount of admiration. They see the child as a mirror of themselves and will use their child’s accomplishments to enhance their own fragile egos and feel better about themselves. Spending time with their children is a way to show others what a great parent they are or how much better their child is compared to the child of someone else.
The narcissistic parent will use any tactic available to control their child. They will use guilt, shame, feign sickness and even money to control all aspects of their child’s life. They fear their child becoming independent and no longer needing them.
3. Puts down the child in order to feel superior
The narcissist believes he or she is superior to all others. They feel they are special and in order to confirm this they will put down their child mercilessly. They may provoke the child, gaining satisfaction by making them cry. They are essentially bullying their child to feel better about themselves. Often, they will disguise their cruel words in backhanded compliments. Criticism may be disguised as concern.
4. Treats the child as an object
To the narcissist, the child does not exist as a separate human being. They are seen as a piece of furniture. If they are able to use them in some way, only then do they have value.
They are unable to be truly close to their child. There are no mother-daughter or father-son moments. The narcissist is unable to connect on a human level. The child is merely a pawn used to gain praise or admiration for themselves. Like a prized show dog, their child’s accomplishments are only important because they reflect back to them.
The parent will use manipulation in order to control the child. They are interpersonally exploitative and will take advantage of the child at every opportunity. They will withhold affection and use the silent treatment in order to get what they want. They will use illness and any ache or pain to gain the child’s attention.
7. Lack of empathy
The narcissistic parent has zero empathy for their child. They are unable to recognize that their child has independent desires, needs and experiences. They are so self-absorbed and expect their child to have no independent identity. The child exists solely to benefit the parent.
The narcissist lacks the empathy and the know how to raise a child and will create a bond with their child that is co-dependent. In the narcissistic household, the child has no privacy. There are no boundaries that will not be crossed. Their whole existence is to serve the parent. Any attempt at independence will be met by punishment. For example, you may be told: “If you are old enough to date then you are old enough to pay for your own food.”
The narcissistic parent is envious and threatened by their child’s independence. They begrudge their successes and achievements. They devalue anything their child may accomplish and will often compete with their children. If the child is getting any attention then they are not getting enough.
The parent will make the child feel sick, crazy or selfish. They will attempt to alter the child’s perception of reality. For example, they may make a cruel remark only to later claim they did not say anything.
A) Narcissistic Parentification
The child is forced to take the parents idealized projection and constantly strive for perfection. The child is not allowed to have a normal childhood.
B) Instrumental Parentification
The child is expected to take on physical tasks for the family such as paying bills, looking after a sick relative and taking on the role of parent to younger siblings.
C) Emotional Parentification
The parent makes the child his or her confidant. Slowly, the child becomes completely responsible for them. The parent will constantly complain about being sick and use any tactic to convince the child not to leave. This may lead to the child growing up to be the parent’s caretaker for life.
The parent makes the child feel like they cannot do anything on their own. They foster a dependency so they will never be left alone. The child is crippled and unable to make decisions without aid from the parent. The parent will continue calling the child by childhood nicknames in order to put them in their place
The narcissist is a master at manipulation. Triangulation is the use of a third person or group to belittle or abuse an individual. In the case of a narcissistic parent, they may pit one child against another. They may also label one child the golden child and the other the scapegoat of the family. The narcissistic parent may go as far as pitting the other parent against their own child. When the child does something good it will be ignored or countered with something the preferred sibling did better.
This article is not meant to diagnose or to be a guide for self-diagnosis. The sole purpose of this article is strictly for educational purposes.
The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.
Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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