Signs of a narcissistic parent

Sean Jackson
Author: Sean Jackson Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

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.

What are 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:[1]

  • A pervasive pattern of grandiose fantasies or behavior, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is indicated by five or more of the following:n
    • A grandiose sense of self-importance, such as exaggerating achievements or having an expectation of being recognized as superior.
    • A preoccupation with fantasies about power, success, beauty, brilliance, or perfect love.
    • A belief of being special, that they can only be understood by other special people or institutions, and that they should only associate with others who are special.
    • A requirement for excessive admiration.
    • A sense of entitlement, such as an unreasonable expectation of getting favorable treatment from others or that others should comply with their expectations.
    • A pattern of exploitative behavior, such as taking advantage of others for their own gain.
    • A lack of empathy and an unwillingness to identify with other people’s needs.
    • Feelings of envy of others while believing that others are envious of them.
    • Arrogant or haughty attitudes and behaviors.

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 traits of mothers

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.[2]

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.[2] 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.

Narcissistic traits of fathers

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.[3] As such, narcissistic fathers might exhibit aggression in actions and words and, like narcissistic mothers, may utilize physical abuse to get their way.[2]

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.

How can narcissistic parents affect their children?

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:[4][5]

  • Low self-esteem can stem from constant bullying, criticism, and mockery from a narcissistic parent.
  • Anxiety may result from over-the-top demands by narcissistic parents for perfection.
  • Depression might develop as a result of an inability to meet unachievable ideals.
  • An inability to develop appropriate boundaries is common among children of narcissists because their narcissistic parent doesn’t model healthy boundaries themself.
  • An unwillingness to be emotionally open might occur because their narcissistic parent has no interest or use for their child’s emotions.
  • Codependency may occur in children of narcissists as a result of consistently placing more importance on their parent’s needs above their own.
  • Self-blame is common as the child blames themselves for family problems rather than blaming their parents. This is especially common among kids who a narcissistic parent has scapegoated.
  • Difficulty trusting others might develop, particularly as children of narcissists grow up.
  • Constant feelings of being on edge can result from years of walking on eggshells to avoid sending a narcissistic parent into a rage.
  • Indecision is a hallmark characteristic of children raised by a narcissist. Since their opinions and needs don’t matter to a narcissistic parent, children can develop an inability to make decisions or put their needs first.
  • Narcissism may develop in children of narcissists as well. By projecting their haughty beliefs of themselves onto their children, narcissistic parents set their kids up for mimicking behaviors and a propensity to overvalue themselves compared to their peers.

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.

How to heal from having narcissistic parents

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.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

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.[6]

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

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.[7]

Family therapy

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.[8]

Self-coping strategies

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.[4]

How to support a loved one with narcissistic parents

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.

Be available

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.

Validate their feelings

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.

Be patient

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.

Support difficult steps

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.

Be informed

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.

  1. Mitra, P., & Fluyau, D. (2023, January). Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from
  2. Graham, S. (n.d.). The narcissistic mother and father. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from
  3. Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261–310.
  4. Jabeen, F., Gerritsen, C., & Treur, J. (2021). Healing the next generation: An adaptive agent model for the effects of parental narcissism. Brain informatics, 8(1), 4.
  5. Bach, B.N. (2014). The impact of parental narcissistic traits on self-esteem in adulthood. Smith College, Northampton, MA. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from
  6. Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36(5), 427–440.
  7. American Psychological Association. (2017, May). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from
  8. Carr, A. (2020). Evidence for the efficacy and effectiveness of systemic family therapy. In K. S. Wampler, R. B. Miller, & R. B. Seedall (Eds.), The handbook of systemic family therapy: The profession of systemic family therapy (pp. 119–146). Wiley Blackwell.
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Sean Jackson
Author Sean Jackson Writer

Sean Jackson is a medical writer with 25+ years of experience, holding a B.A. degree from the University of Nottingham.

Published: May 11th 2023, Last edited: Oct 26th 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Morgan Blair is a licensed therapist, writer and medical reviewer, holding a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: May 11th 2023