11th May 2023
People with narcissistic personality disorder display a lack of empathy, a need for attention and admiration, and a sense of grandiosity. If one or both of your parents exhibit these traits and you find that they often put their needs before yours, you might have narcissistic parents.
Consulting the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is an excellent place to start understanding the hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
To be diagnosed with NPD, one must fit the following criteria:
Narcissistic parents may or may not fit these diagnostic criteria. For example, someone might have parents with an inflated sense of self-importance and a requirement for admiration but who don’t exhibit any other criteria needed for a diagnosis.
However, a diagnosis isn’t required for narcissistic tendencies to hurt children. Narcissistic parents can be overly demanding, need conversations and events to be about them, and are often so wrapped up in themselves that they miss out on their children’s significant events, like birthdays and graduations.
What’s more, narcissistic parents are moody, use their children for personal gain, and are often unforgiving and even ruthless when crossed. By and large, these traits are exhibited by narcissistic mothers and fathers alike.
Let’s examine some traits that narcissistic parents tend to exhibit more closely.
Narcissistic mothers tend to be unaffectionate, distant, and cold toward their children. These behaviors likely stem from narcissists' preoccupation with themselves and the lack of empathy for others.
Children of narcissistic mothers often report feeling like they are objects in their mother’s eyes - a thing to be shaped into her idealized and perfect notions of what a child should be. But this molding and shaping aren’t for the child's benefit but to satisfy the mother’s need for perfection.
As a result of this, children of narcissistic mothers often feel unheard and as though they aren’t being true to themselves. But because the mother has all the power in the relationship, the child feels as though there is nothing to be done.
Another common trait of narcissistic mothers is placing blame on the child. For example, if a miscommunication occurs, it’s the child’s fault, even if the mother is clearly to blame. But the blame game can go far beyond that - harsh criticism, emotional abuse, and even physical abuse may also occur.
If a narcissistic mother has more than one child, there is almost always a favorite child and a scapegoat. The favorite child is shaped to embody the mother’s idealized representations and might even be described by the mother as “special” to satisfy her need to be associated with the best people. Meanwhile, the scapegoat suffers constant devaluations. The inability to live up to the mother’s standards can make her harsh, cold interactions with the scapegoat child that much colder.
Generally speaking, narcissistic fathers exhibit much the same traits as narcissistic mothers. Narcissistic fathers are far more concerned about their needs and strive to shape their children into what they want them to be.
However, research suggests that narcissistic men are more likely to exhibit certain traits such as entitlement, exploitation of others, and grandiosity/exhibitionism. As such, narcissistic fathers might exhibit aggression in actions and words and, like narcissistic mothers, may utilize physical abuse to get their way.
Moreover, narcissistic fathers may pit members of the family against one another. For example, he might use his children to manipulate or control their mother. In some instances, he might also manipulate the children into being abusive toward her.
Narcissistic fathers tend to spend excessive time at work, too. In referring to the DSM-5 criteria for diagnosing narcissism, the preoccupation with power and success is often a driving force for a narcissistic father’s career. Of course, attaining success (or the belief that they’ve achieved success) leads to other classic narcissistic traits, such as the need for admiration, arrogance, and feeling as though they are more special than others.
As mentioned earlier, the actions of narcissistic parents can be cold, unforgiving, and even haughty - far from the warm, supportive, and child-focused behaviors that most parents exhibit. Growing up with a parent like this can have long-lasting social, emotional, and psychological effects.
Though every child’s experience is different, there are some common features of children raised by a narcissist:
Despite the difficulties of growing up with a narcissistic parent, it can be challenging for a child to break from their parent or establish more appropriate personal boundaries. Children of narcissists might feel a sense of loyalty to their parents that elicits extreme guilt when trying to move on and establish a life in which they pursue what’s best for them rather than fulfilling what their parents demand.
Many approaches - including proven psychological treatments - can help children of narcissists cope with the long-lasting effects of their parent’s behavior. If you’re a child of a narcissist, you can learn how to deal with narcissistic parents by utilizing one of the approaches outlined below.
CBT is a highly popular therapy for treating various mental health conditions, from PTSD to depression to anxiety. It can be used to treat children of narcissists by addressing the maladaptive patterns of thinking ingrained by the narcissistic parent and replacing those thinking errors with more positive, healthy ways of thinking. In turn, this change in thinking reduces emotional distress and the expression of problematic behaviors.
EMDR was initially developed as a treatment for PTSD but is used today to treat many forms of trauma. It’s a short-term therapy that exposes you to traumatic experiences from your past while also exposing you to bilateral stimulation. This process helps change how the trauma of having a narcissistic parent is stored in your brain. As a result, the negative feelings, and other symptoms you experience are reduced or eliminated.
Family therapy is yet another option that might produce positive results. Since family therapy requires the participation of the narcissistic parent, this is likely the most challenging solution to implement. In many cases, narcissistic parents are unwilling to see that their behavior is part of the problem and might respond to therapy as a personal attack, if they participate in therapy at all.
Research shows that self-coping strategies can be effective for children of narcissistic parents. For example, journaling activities can be fruitful for identifying positive changes to make in one’s behavior as it pertains to a narcissistic parent. Likewise, mindfulness activities like deep breathing and meditation can help ease anxiety and stress related to the demands of a narcissistic parent.
If a friend or extended family member is the child of narcissistic parents, they will likely need your support to recover from the adverse effects of their upbringing. Fortunately, you can help move the recovery process along in many ways.
Sometimes, all someone needs to progress with their mental health is a reliable friend who's willing to listen and be there for them. Lending a non-judgmental ear to your loved one can be a powerful tool in aiding their progress.
Children of narcissists can feel extreme guilt, experience anxiety, and struggle with depression. As a supportive friend, strive to validate how your loved one is feeling without judgment or blame.
Some children of narcissistic parents develop narcissistic traits themselves. While these traits might be difficult for you to contend with, it’s important to practice patience as your loved one works through their experience, becomes aware of their narcissistic behavior, and works toward becoming a more mentally healthy person.
In many cases, children of narcissistic parents must take drastic measures to ensure their mental health, including cutting off all communication with their parents. Being available to support your loved one through these kinds of difficult decisions will go a long way in helping your loved one get on a path toward recovery.
At the most basic level, you can support a loved one with narcissistic parents by learning more about narcissism in guides like this. Knowing what to expect, learning how toxic narcissism can be, and discovering methods you can use to help your loved one are all valuable support methods.