Written by Dr. Eric Perry, PhD
Image Credit: Pixabay
“I always felt like I was an extra appendage having no life of my own. All of us kids belonging to an octopus mom.” ~Anonymous
It is an understatement to state that parenting is difficult. It is perhaps the only job a person can get that is full-time and for life without having all the requisite skills and qualifications. The responsibility is great. One must equip a child with all the necessary tools they will need in adulthood to forge their own lives. It is a self-less relationship that most parents take great pride in. From the moment their child is born, the child becomes the focal point of the family unit. While this is a non-issue to most couples, what happens when one of the parents lacks empathy and is unable to see the importance in anyone else’s feelings or interests?
Perhaps you were raised by a self-proclaimed or widely admired super parent. Admired by all of the community, to the outside world, your parent had it all. On paper, everyone saw a doting parent, a successful career, marriage and with positive community involvement in church or school activities. But, reflecting on our childhood we realize that behind closed doors the reality was a lot harsher and lonelier than the public image portrayed. As we get older and start to form a life of our own we begin to see our parents more as real humans and not the superheroes of our childhood. This is quite normal and healthy. Stripped of the cape of perfection that kept us in an unequal relationship, we can then begin to form a healthy adult relationship with our parents.
But what happens if once the heroic cape is removed, we notice that our parental figure has nothing to offer us. They are basically an egocentric person who is essentially empty, fearful and manipulative. We take notice that they purposely use control and manipulation to keep us engaged in an unhealthy relationship. Our parents should want us to leave the nest and soar and not to live in their shadows. But, the NPD parent does not want his child to live an independent life. They see their children as an extension of themselves to use as they wish.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a spectrum disorder which means it exists on a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, are individuals who exhibit a healthy dose of narcissism and may exhibit some narcissistic traits at times but do not have NPD. On the other end of the spectrum are individuals who consistently and throughout their lives exhibit five or more of the nine characteristics listed below. Here are some of the ways that this may manifest itself in a child-parent relationship.
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance. Will exaggerate achievements and talents and expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements
An example of this would be a mother who, after meeting her daughter’s friends, will take center stage and tell all about how beautiful and talented she was as a younger woman. She will proclaim that only if she had met the right people, her singing voice could have made her a star. This is the type of parent that constantly talks about themselves and never asks the child what is going on in their lives.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
The NPD parent is constantly talking about the important people in their lives or about past perfect loves and their many admirers. The focus of their conversations is often fantastical and difficult to believe.
3. Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with, other special or high-status people
The NPD parent will distinguish between social and economic status of people. For example, they may only admire people who have Master’s degrees or are doctors. They will treat all others as nonexistent. They believe that they are special and everyone should treat them as such.
4. Requires excessive admiration
The NPD parent is the center of the family. The parent needs to be constantly doted on. They need to be told how beautiful and special they are. Often times the child takes on the role of the parent having to constantly feed the parents fragile ego. The child or the other spouse becomes the primary provider of narcissistic supply leading to an unhealthy co-dependency. They require constant praise and are constantly reminding the child what they have done for them.
5. Has a sense of entitlement
To the parent with NPD, the child is merely an extension of themselves and they feel they are entitled to anything and everything the child has. There is no boundary that the NPD parent will not cross when it comes to their child. Any accolades or achievements the child has achieved are due to the parents. They expect favorable treatment not only from the child but from everyone they meet.
6. Is interpersonally exploitive
A narcissistic parent tends to be very possessive of their child. Similar to what is seen in non-narcissistic parents, helicoptering around their child making sure everything is ok, the NPD parent is more like a hot air balloon who hovers around the child to feed off them whenever they feel deflated. The NPD parent is manipulative and controlling. They will undermine their child’s career, relationships, overall happiness and growth in order to get what they want. They are extremely intrusive and do not respect their child’s personal boundaries. They will use many tactics to get their way, including feigning sickness and withholding love.
7. Lacks empathy
The NPD has a superficial relationship with no real emotional bonds with the child. The child is seen as an extension of the NPD parent and the parent will not have any empathy towards the child. They lack compassion towards the child and are not able to provide any emotional security. They are not able to hear about issues that may be affecting their child because they simply are not able to tune in to their emotional frequency.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them
A parent with NPD will become envious of their child and may directly compete with them. A mother may envy their young daughter’s developing beauty and may begin to compete with them for attention from husband/father as well as other men. The mother cannot allow the child to outshine her and may begin to undermine the daughter’s self-esteem. A father may humiliate and bully his young son because he is envious of the son’s developing strength and youth.
9. Shows arrogance, haughty behaviors or attitudes
The NPD parent always has to be right. They will make the child feel like they can’t do anything right. The parent will be overly critical and will focus only on faults and never praise. Later in life, the parent’s voice will become a critical and judgmental voice in child’s mind.
As adults, children of a narcissist are more likely to exhibit the following traits:
1. Co-dependency in relationships
A child of a parent with NPD learns to stop their childhood and become anything the parent wants them to be in order to gain their parent’s approval. The lines between the child and the NPD parent are blurred. The child is seen as an extension of the parent to be used and manipulated. If the child begins to develop a desire for independence, the parent is threatened and will set out to undermine their independence and break down their self-esteem to keep them dependent on them. The child learns that nothing they do will ever be acceptable and will seek the approval of the parent before they do anything. This behavior will continue into adulthood and into other relationships. As an adult, they learn to accommodate anything their partner desires in order to feel wanted and validated.
2. Weak sense of self
As children, they received no validation or negative feedback for any form of self-expression. Their childhood has been spent constantly trying to be who their parent wanted them to be. As adults, children of NPD parents will have a difficult time separating themselves with the identity that was created to please their parents.
3. Poor interpersonal boundaries
As children, they have learned that nothing they say or do matter. Things are done and said to them and they have no choice or means to defend themselves. Their feelings, thoughts and sense of self are invalidated by their parents. Healthy boundaries have not been taught or nurtured. As adults, they are unable to say no and exhibit chronic guilt or shame.
As adults, children of NPD parents still carry the trauma of the alienation and neglect that they felt. Subconsciously there may be a belief that if their parent did not love them then they must be unloveable. The child learns to see themselves through the eyes of their neglectful parent.
5. Trust issues
As a result of childhood mistreatment, they are mistrustful and fearful of other people and unable to make meaningful connections. They may often develop an insecure attachment style which may lead to difficulty in establishing stable and healthy relationships.
6. Inability to express or handle emotions
The child has learned not to depend on others for any emotional support.
They will develop extreme emotional independence and have a hard time developing close interpersonal connections. They may become solitary and become distrusting adults.
As children, they have learned to ignore and disconnect from their emotions which may lead to difficulties processing emotions. As adults, this may lead to the development of depression.
8. People pleaser
As children, they have been told by the NPD parent that they are to blame for their parent’s unhappiness. They learn to hyper-focus on their mistakes and believe they are at fault. They wrongly believe that if only they can do better they will be loved by the parent, or the parent will be nicer. As adults, they are unable to say no and are afraid to displease others for fear that they will be abandoned.
I hope you found this article informative and helpful. This article is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis. If you recognize these scenarios and symptoms in the relationship with your parents I encourage you to seek the help of a qualified mental health professional who specializes in NPD.
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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