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    What to Do When Your Parent Is a Narcissist

    Growing up in an environment where one or both parents were narcissistic may create many problems in your past, present and future.

    Children of narcissists

    There are many things that children of narcissists have no other choice but to endure. After all, children are vulnerable and innocent and rely on their caregivers to meet their basic needs and provide unconditional love.

    The narcissistic parent

    However, narcissists are usually profoundly damaged individuals; this might be due to childhood trauma, genetics, unhealthy family dynamics and other issues that may trigger narcissism.

    Narcissists cannot provide their children with unconditional love and stability that most non-narcissistic parents can.

    Dealing with a narcissistic parent

    Children-of-narcissists-mother-daughter-confrontation

    Narcissistic parents can be incredibly possessive of their children and often feel threatened or slighted when the child begins to develop their independence away from the parent-child dynamic.

    One of the main symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder is believing that others are an extension of yourself.

    Thus, narcissistic parents believe that their children are merely their possessions; the child must mirror their parent’s feelings and emotions to receive love and acceptance.

    Conditional love

    Love is conditional to the narcissistic parent, and their children often pick up on this relatively quickly. Hence, they do all they can to win their parent’s love and approval.

    The above feeds into the narcissist’s need for attention and admiration and can be a real boost for their fragile ego.

    Therefore, when the child grows independent, this may feel like a significant threat to the narcissistic mother or father.

    Children of narcissistic parents

    Due to the trauma of having a narcissistic parent, children of narcissists often experience a profound sense of humiliation, shame and fear.

    Such children often experience a stunt in their emotional development and may suffer low self-esteem.

    Traits of the adult child

    Studies show that adult children of narcissists develop specific characteristics in adulthood that other children don’t; they might be self-saboteurs or incredibly high achievers, sometimes both.

    The above traits might be because of an unconscious need to win the approval or love of the narcissistic parent – high achievers are driven by the desire to excel, to outdo all others.

    High-achievers often equate success with love and acceptance – they constantly strive for the successive win, the next big thing that might get them more of what they want or need (which is often love and approval).

    Sense of self

    Children-of-narcissists-crying-kid

    People who overachieve often have a weak identity and sense of self; they have a skewed idea of what it means to give and receive love, which might be symptomatic of having one or more narcissistic parents.

    On the other hand, people who self-sabotage are looking for attention or love in all the wrong ways – either way, there is a desire for approval, likely from the parent that never gave it or did so conditionally.

    Signs that you may have a narcissistic parent

    We all have narcissistic traits to a degree – but there is a marked difference between having traits of narcissism and having a personality disorder.

    A narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition (one of ten personality disorders) classified within the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders.

    Like any mental illness, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) has various symptoms that may help mental health professionals make an accurate diagnosis.

    Symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder

    Typically, the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder NPD include:

    • An inflated sense of self-importance
    • A sense of entitlement
    • A lack of empathy for others
    • The need for admiration and attention
    • Taking advantage of others to get what you want

    Narcissistic mothers and fathers

    Not all parents are narcissists. However, you might wonder what it’s like to have a narcissistic parent or whether one or more parents have a narcissistic personality disorder.

    Fortunately, there are ways to identify a narcissistic mother or father since much research shows similar features between parents with the disorder. 

    If you think you may have a narcissistic parent, you must be able to recognise the signs of narcissistic abuse to get the help and support you need.

    Signs

    Children of narcissists parents arguing

    Some of the possible signs and symptoms of a narcissistic parent may include:

    • Your parent is often liked and respected by others but harsh, possessive and controlling when no one is around.
    • Your mother or father rarely supports or acknowledges your success or achievements but often brags to others about what you have accomplished.
    • Your parent may make you feel bad or guilty by telling you how much they have done for you.
    • Your mother or father may shift the blame onto others for any problems you may have when they are to blame
    • Your parent always needs the conversation to be about them.
    • Your mother or father may damage your confidence by making you feel anxious or insecure.
    • Your parent does not turn up to significant events.
    • Your mother or father may force you to participate in activities you do not want to engage in, i.e., swimming, water sports, horse riding or football.
    • Rarely (if ever) does your mother or father provide you with love, warmth and nurturing.
    • Your parent makes you feel guilty if you do not comply with their demands, for example, not doing what they ask you to do immediately.
    • Your parent doesn’t spend quality time with you and makes poor excuses for such behaviour.
    • Your parent is harsh, unforgiving and ruthless and constantly needs to be in control or on top.
    • Your mother or father may use you to get what they want.
    • Your parent may express anger, irritability or aggression when you need their time and attention.
    • Your mother or father is often sarcastic and immature.
    • Your parent may exhibit anger, volatility or sudden mood changes.
    • Your mother or father often ruins family -get-togethers or other events like Christmas, vacation, birthdays, anniversaries, etc., by creating conflict and tension and making it all about them.
    • Your parent may play other family members off against each other – for example, they may be loving and generous toward your sibling but not you.

    Personality traits of children of narcissistic parents

    As a child, you had no choice but to endure your narcissistic parent’s maltreatment towards you.

    It would help if you remembered that you no longer have to endure such behaviour.

    Fortunately, as an adult, you have complete agency over how you allow others to treat you and how often you expose yourself to your narcissistic mother or father (if ever).

    Children raised by narcissists.

    If narcissistic parents raised you, you likely developed specific perceptions and ideas about yourself and others.

    As a result, you would have likely developed unhealthy ways of thinking, especially about your self-worth and the value you bring to the world.

    You likely spent your entire childhood trying to win the affection and approval of your narcissistic mother or father.

    You may have gone to great lengths to please your narcissistic parent to earn their respect and love, only for them to shut you down and disappoint you.

    Traits

    Children-of-narcissists-shame-emotions

    Essentially, the traits you developed to survive your childhood may no longer serve you as an adult.

    Some of the traits of adult children raised by narcissists include:

    • Having a weak understanding of boundaries and not knowing how to set boundaries with others
    • Being dependent on your relationships and trying to earn other peoples’ acceptance, approval or love
    • Constant feelings of shame or guilt
    • Difficulties in emotional regulation
    • Anxiety or depression due to a lack of independence and control when growing up
    • Self-harming or self-destructive behaviours (such as substance abuse and other risky behaviours)
    • Internalised gaslighting and self-shaming
    • Excessive sensitivity to criticism or rejection

    Mental health conditions

    Studies show that some of the traits of adult children raised by narcissists might be linked to specific mental health conditions; this may be due to the parent’s influence on the individual in childhood.

    For example, you may have grown up in an unstable environment, where you witnessed unhealthy boundaries, conflict, anger, and passive-aggression between your parents or caregivers.

    Research shows that children who witnessed or were victims of mental, physical or sexual abuse are at profound risk of developing health complications, such as:

    • Diabetes
    • Heart disease
    • Substance abuse 
    • Anxiety and depression

    Dealing with a narcissistic parent

    Fortunately, you no longer have to deal with a narcissistic parent as an adult. 

    If you decide to stay in contact with your parent, you have total agency over the interaction and can limit your exposure as you see fit.

    Setting boundaries

    It might be helpful to consider what type of relationship you want with your narcissistic parent, which will depend on how they behave and what you are willing to accept (or not accept) as the case may be.

    Healthy boundaries

    Moreover, you may consider prioritising your emotional well-being and self-care.

    Unfortunately, narcissists have a way of bending the facts to make them look like victims.

    Narcissistic tendencies

    Hence, being around a narcissist over long periods can be exhausting, and you may decide to limit the time you are willing to expose yourself to such behaviour.

    Treatment for children of narcissistic parents

    Although there is no specific treatment for children of narcissists, there are ways that people can understand how their early years affected them and recognise unhelpful patterns that may have resulted from having a narcissistic parent.

    Therapy

    Children of narcissists in therapy

    Various treatment options are available to those wanting to understand how growing up with a narcissist may have affected them, including:

    Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)

    EMDR is a trauma therapy that focuses on bilateral eye movements while targeting traumatic memories that might be causing you distress.

    Many children who grew up with narcissistic parents experience challenging symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and other symptoms. 

    EMDR seeks to resolve traumatic memories by allowing you to reprocess them in the right environment, guided by an EMDR therapist.

    Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

    CBT focuses on changing destructive or unhelpful thought patterns that may allow you to live a more fulfilling, happier life.

    Your therapist will likely share some insight about the dynamics of narcissism which may allow you to understand yourself better and the coping mechanisms you may have developed as a result of your childhood.

    CBT aims to help you focus on goals that may (or may not) include your narcissistic mother or father; again, you have control over how you want to move forward with your narcissistic parent.

    Contact us

    If you are concerned about your mental health or would like to speak to a specialist about the information in this article, contact a friendly team member who can help.

    Helpful resources