By Seth Myers, Psy.D.
The topic of narcissism begs the following question flashing in neon lights: Why would a narcissist want a child to begin with? Aren’t they so focused on themselves that they wouldn’t have the slightest interest in paying attention to others, much less attending to a needy young child who craves constant attention and praise?
Alas, the question presumes a type of normalcy and natural order of the parent-child relationship that betrays the root of narcissism. The truth is, narcissistic parents don’t have children because they want to nurture and guide their offspring through life; they have children so that they have an automatic, built-in relationship in which they have power, one in which the narcissist can write the rules without any checks and balances. Understand this: Control over someone else is the ultimate jackpot every narcissist works so hard to win. The reality of narcissistic parenting couldn’t be sadder: The child of the narcissist realizes early on that he exists to provide a reflection for the parent and to serve the parent – not the other way around.
If you comb through online relationship forums and chat rooms devoted to the subject of adult children of narcissists, you’ll find that all of the posters of comments have suffered similar bruises at the hands of a narcissistic parent. To read some of the comments is heartbreaking, and calls into question how strange and illogical it is to create such rigorous adoption laws when an ill-fit individual can procreate whenever they want – and mess up the life of a child without suffering a consequence. The real tragedy occurs behind closed doors at home, much like the process of physical abuse. The problem with being a child of a narcissist is that it takes these children so many years of frustration and anguish to figure out that Mom or Dad isn’t quite right; until that point, these children are merely dancing as fast as they can, trying to please the impossible-to-please narcissistic parent. It takes years to finally see that the type of parenting they’ve been receiving is wrong – if not emotionally abusive.
Young children of narcissists learn early in life that everything they do is a reflection on the parent to the point that the child must fit into the personality and behavioral mold intended for them. These children bear tremendous anxiety from a young age as they must continually push aside their own personality in order to please the parent and provide the mirror image the parent so desperately needs. If these children fail to comply with the narcissist’s wishes or try to set their own goals for their life – God, forbid – the children will be overtly punished, frozen out or avoided for a period of time – hours, days or even weeks depending on the perceived transgression in the eyes of the narcissistic parent.
With young children, the narcissistic parent is experienced as unpredictable and confusing. After all, narcissists are awfully difficult to understand for adults, so just imagine how confusing the capricious narcissist is in the eyes of a young child! Because young kids can’t make accurate sense of the narcissist’s interpersonal tricks and stunts, these children internalize intense shame (‘I keep failing my Mom’) which leads to anger that the child turns on himself (‘I’m so stupid,’ ‘Something’s wrong with me’). The overall quality and strength of the bond between the narcissistic parent and young child is poor and weak. Deep down, the child doesn’t feel consistently loved, as the child is taught the metaphoric Narcissistic Parenting Program: You’re only as good as I say you are, and you’ll be loved only if you’re fully compliant with my wishes. Simply put, it’s truly heartbreaking for the child – though the narcissistic parent is sinfully oblivious.
It’s not until many years later that the life experiences of the child of the narcissist start to make a little more sense. Friends often catch glimpses of the kind of ‘crazy’ parenting these individuals received, so he or she starts to get a healthy reality check like this: “Your mom is insane,” or “Your Dad is seriously messed up.”
How narcissistic parenting impacts the adult relationships of children of narcissists
Because the narcissistic parent-child bond was so distorted and corrupt, the offspring as adults tend to gravitate toward drama-laden, roller-coaster relationships – especially with romantic partners. Because they didn’t grow up with the belief that they were intrinsically okay and good, it makes perfect sense that these individuals would gravitate toward stormy romantic partners later. These adults would feel like a fish out of water in a relationship with someone who loved them consistently, and the experience would be so unfamiliar that it would cause major anxiety. Accordingly, these individuals tend to seek out partners who are emotionally unavailable, critical or withholding – just like Mommy and/or Daddy was in the past. In short, the only kind of relationship the adult child of a narcissist really fits in with is one with a highly skewed dynamic: The child of the narcissist must cater to and keep their partner happy, even when that involves squashing her own needs and feelings.
It’s not until the adult children of a narcissist get (a lot of) psychotherapy or have a life-changing experience that pulls them away them from the disturbed parent that these adult children can truly begin to heal – and then create better, more normal relationships that offer the give-and-take reciprocation most of us have and value in our relationships.
What’s interesting to note is the narcissistic parent’s reaction to witnessing healthy psychological change in their child. Once the child or adult child of the narcissist starts to get psychologically healthier and begins to distance himself a bit from the parent, the narcissistic parent experiences a sort of existential panic. Often, it’s a psychotherapist, colleague or friend who plants the seeds of change, declaring to the child that the parent is toxic and emotionally abusive. Thrust into fight mode, the narcissistic parent feels furious and works to ostracize the individual suspected of inducing the change and pulling the child away from the parent’s tight grip. Though it can initially be confusing to the adult child why the narcissistic parent verbally tears apart his closest confidants, the parent’s reaction ultimately shows the adult child what matters most to the narcissistic parent: his or her own emotional needs – not those of the adult child.
If you happen to be someone who has suffered at the hands of a narcissistic parent, talk to your friends and other family members about your experience, and consider talking to a mental health professional. After years of dealing with the inconsistency of a narcissistic parent, it can be extremely healing to have a therapist help you make sense of the craziness.