Updated: Apr 23
Although genuine (clinical) Narcissistic Personality Disorder is said to affect less than ten percent of the population, children raised by one or both parents who suffer from it are left with dire consequences. The narcissism they endure, whether blatant or covert, is pathologically abusive. Their parents have unwavering impairments to their character, impairments that would be present with or without offspring. The addition of a child simply gives the narcissist a new pliable target, creating a subset of NPD abuse: narcissistic parenting.
What is Narcissistic Parenting Disorder?
For many, it’s hard to envision having a parent who's only benevolent when others are there to observe it. Otherwise, their parenting is based on exploitation: degradation and contempt are normal means of punishment; deception is treated as truth; apologies aren't given; the feelings of the child(ren) are treated as inconsequential, and all parental kindnesses come with stipulations. It sounds preposterous, unless experienced firsthand.
For some, being raised by an adult who always behaves unauthentically is not just a reality, but a daily nightmare. Children raised by truly narcissistic parents are often denied self-expression. Their parents assign their identities to fill self-serving needs. As a result, they're denied the empowerment tied to individualism, and learn to submit to a pre-defined construct of self. Attempts to become their own person are treated as acts of rebellion.
Why is it so hard for the outside world to spot the signs of NPD abuse? While true narcissists aren’t capable of genuine empathy, love, or remorse, they're certainly able to fake it. More troubling, they fake it phenomenally well, since being revered by the masses is of utmost importance. All of their redeeming traits are only surface deep. As soon as the only ones there to bear witness are their chosen targets, they make their true intentions known.
A narcissist’s domestic cohabitants are naturally first on the list to be targets, as constantly faking a perfect persona is an overly difficult task. It’s easiest to let the ones constantly present see under the mask, since being found out anyhow is something that’s inevitable. Sadly, these targets are often the last to be believed by outside family, social groups, and friends. They’ve only seen the narcissist act out exemplary roles, and if seeing is truly better than believing what you hear, the narcissist will always be one step ahead of the game.
To read more about narcissistic abuse in a broader spectrum, you can check out my piece on dissecting a narcissist's mind and the truth behind abuse.
Effects of Narcissistic Parenting Abuse on Children
The reach of an NPD parent extends far beyond normal bounds of authority. The child is expected to check off specific boxes, therefore prohibiting them from developing their own personality traits. Much like a puppet master, the parent controls all the strings. The child is made to perform in accordance. The egocentric mastermind waits just beyond the curtain, quick to step into the spotlight when positive acknowledgement or accolades result. In what becomes a grandiose display of orchestrated actions, the child quickly learns to fill a pre-defined, ill-fitted role. If they try to object or exert self-expression, the parent reacts disproportionately. Punishments may be enforced, or verbal assaults carried out.
This can cause anxiety and psychological distress, especially during the critical stages of emotional development. From the onset, children learn they aren’t seen as priorities. Naturally, blatant disregard and consistent invalidation causes them to stifle feelings and submit to the parent’s control. The parent’s needs become their focus; they learn the parent's triggers in order to avoid the fallout. It’s an epic emotional role reversal, because of the parent’s unwillingness - some would say incapability - to see beyond themselves.
As the child grows, they often lack awareness of their own emotions. Since their parent(s) never met their needs and only focused on themselves, inaccurate conclusions about what they deserve in relationships follow them through adolescence. Their sense of self slowly diminishes, and their insecurities expand. As adults, they strive to be people pleasers, putting their needs and wants last or disregarding them completely. Likewise, they often have issues accepting rejection, placing the blame on themselves. Brainwashed beliefs of inherent unworthiness may hinder their future relationships, causing them to settle, or even accept more abuse.
Warning Signs of Narcissistic Parenting Abuse
So how can one determine if their own parent’s treatment classifies as Narcissistic Parenting Disorder? It isn't always obvious. Many narcissists are skilled at more covert approaches, lest their prestigious image is tarnished by the public eye. It can also be hard for a child, brainwashed from the start, to recognize behaviors as abnormal or abusive.
Psychological grooming. They take full advantage of a child’s vulnerabilities, seeking to convince them of one universal truth. They’ll do this in deceptive ways, though: providing inaccurate facts, and or recounting false narratives within the family dynamic. The goal is to be influential in molding the child’s perceptions, so influential that even when grown, the child continues to live by the rules or beliefs that the narcissist planted in their once formidable minds.
A sense of entitlement. They have no respect for boundaries. They’ll open closed doors without knocking, scoffing at requests for privacy. They feel they have a right to access every single part of the child’s life: physical development, private thoughts, and items like journals or letters are all within NPD jurisdiction, even when the child also becomes an adult. Once the child starts their own intimate relationships, the parent will often insert themselves into private matters.
Unrealistic expectations. Because they consider their role as a parent to be a monumental burden, they expect repayment. They’ll constantly bring up the life that they sacrificed in order to be a "good" mother or father, and demand that the child acknowledges it. Holidays that honor them always become huge ordeals. Anything done for the other adults in the child’s life cannot exceed what’s done for them. They often expect their grown children to support them financially, let them move in, and care for them when ill. They’ll reason they did all those things for the child, and attest that any pushback regarding full reciprocation is selfish or ungrateful. They won’t concern themselves with any other mitigating factors, such as the child's additional duties to their own children, partners, or jobs.
Excessive control issues. NPD parents not only want an obedient child, but a subservient one. They raise their offspring as disciples, rather than helping them nurture their own likes and dislikes. Essentially, this means they act as though their role is god, not parent. They completely disregard their own human fallibility, doing whatever they want to their child and viewing it as an earned right. They demand respect and unquestioning compliance, despite disrespecting the child. Regardless of how horrible they make that child’s life, they feel the alternative - to not have a child at all - is grounds for the child to owe them unending devotion and lifelong control.
A superiority complex. Fear and envy replace pride whenever their child succeeds. Loss of control and attention are fears they avoid at all costs. The child can't be on the (figurative) stage unless it's to honor the parent. The parent will monopolize or even steal the show without a second thought. They're always close by to take credit, often suggesting the child could never accomplish things alone. Yet when they're the ones performing, they command the full attention of everyone else in the room.
A martyr mentality. When their child faces hardships, they don't offer moral support. Instead, they switch the focus onto how the problem also disrupted their life. The child learns they aren’t allowed to even own their hurt. Every time the struggle - external or internal - is brought up in the parent’s presence, guilt is piled high on top of the already awful ordeal.
Falsely representing the family dynamic. They agree with the praise of their child if others bring it up, or boast about their child if the focus is on someone else’s. They don’t praise the child in private, however. No matter how impressive a child's achievement may be, if it doesn't give the parent the desired amount of attention, it’s often disregarded. The child is also expected to put on a show for the public, in order to impress whoever the parent deems important. On the way to community gatherings, the parent may degrade the child until the last possible second, then force them to put on a smile and act as though everything's fine.
Conditional affection. As already mentioned, narcissists aren’t always cruel. A narcissistic parent will often pretend to be kind, but the kindness almost always comes with selfish stipulations. The child comes to understand that everything their parent does or gives them needs to be repaid. Whether an exhibitionist narcissist or a covert one, the parent will always keep score of the things most parents would do without question.
The NPD abuse continues even when the child moves out of the home. The parent will often feign interest in their newfound life, but as soon as the child engages again, the parent will switch gears. They’ll only talk about themselves, act oblivious to all the child has to say, and end the conversation as soon as their needs have been met. The true intention of their calls, texts, and even visits will always be self-serving.
Selective, inconsistent, or fabricated memories. When the child recalls memories of adverse behaviors or outright abuse, the parent refuses to take any blame. When challenged, they’ll insinuate the child is making false allegations. They’ll claim they have no recollection of whatever the child is saying, deny it ever happened, or tell a twisted version and insist that the child remembered things wrong. They’ll rarely admit to the truth, unless other people are present and come to the target’s defense. Even then, they may back down, but won’t ever apologize. They’ll simply defend their wrongdoing by making excuses or or saying the child most likely deserved it.
Intentional Instigations of Conflict. If NPD parents have multiple children, they commonly instigate sibling rivalry. The children aren’t treated as equals and often get pitted against one another. The parent continues intentionally driving a wedge between the siblings and extends the behavior to all of their partners once they start their own relationships. In later years, they’ll also paint negative narratives of at least one child’s partner, then spread them around to create more dissention. This is especially true if the partner easily identifies the parent’s abnormal behaviors and tries to intervene, as it poses a threat to the narcissist’s power.
Roles Within Families Observed with Narcissistic Parenting
Regarding a point in the last red flag description, intentional instigations of conflict between siblings: if the NPD parent has multiple children, they’ll each be assigned different family roles.
The golden child is selected to set the example for how all the others should act. The parent may use them to live out their own dormant dreams. They’re groomed to strive for blamelessness inside the parent’s eyes. This requires them to always agree with or back up the parent’s ideals. Acts of noncompliance may cause a demotion in roles, subjecting the child to more blatant (less covert) forms of abuse.
The scapegoat must go great lengths to prove worthiness. Psychologists hypothesize that their inherent sense of empathy makes them more inclined to point out the NPD parent’s anomalies. This poses a threat to the parent’s control. As a result, they’re blamed for the family drama, picked on, and degraded. They’re treated as unstable, assigned as the cause of their parent’s dilemmas, and even referred to as bad. The NPD parent may also express regrets about being their mother or father. The scapegoat will be their first target when trying to garner support from the public or extended family. They’ll often be provoked until they reach their breaking points. The parent will then use their outbursts as proof of their troubled behavior.
The lost or invisible child receives more neglect than abuse, but the effects can be equally damaging. The NPD parent will often ignore them and shut them out of family discussions or decisions. They're forced to become self-sufficient, as the parent is only available when it fulfills their needs. It's not uncommon for the parent to burden them with complex issues, stripping them of innocence and burdening them in unconscionable ways. Because they’re ignored so consistently otherwise, they grow up believing they don’t really matter. Once they reach adulthood, they often have trouble expressing emotions, which can lead to subservience in subsequent relationships.
Regardless of the role the child is forced into, most of the resulting psychological abuse contains elements of gaslighting. Once the child is convinced they’re damaged, inherently bad, or abnormal, they shift the blame from their abusive parent to themselves. This keeps them in a state of confusion and anxiety. They often lose touch with reality, doubt the validity of their own memories, and even question if they suffer from mental disorders or outright insanity.
Adult Children of Narcissists: The Impact
Often, adult children of narcissistic parents find themselves attracted to partners who treat them in similar manners. Adversely, they may also seek partners who have paternal /maternal qualities they’ve been otherwise deprived of. Both situations can lead to continued cycles of abuse or dysfunction. Lines between partners and parents may also be blurred and confusing; they might look towards their partners to fill roles their NPD parent did not, regardless of whether those roles would be typical outside of parent and child dynamics. Finally, some theorize that a child of a truly narcissistic parent who doesn’t receive intervention or have alternate forms of stability may wind up an NPD parent themselves.
As a survivor of (maternal) narcissistic parenting, my mother’s abuse set the premise for my backward views on love. Once I started dating, I struggled with rejection. Due to depleted self confidence, I always blamed myself, viewing incompatibility as something I had caused. I also allowed many partners to treat me disrespectfully, already used to the constant disrespect at home. If you want to learn more, you can read more about my experience with Inauthentic Acts of Love.
Additional consequences may include, but aren’t limited to, a lack of self-compassion, low or depleted self-confidence, chronic self-blame, no sense of purpose, loss of direction, and an underlying sense of guilt for absolutely everything. If they don’t admit their trauma, build clad iron boundaries with the toxic parent, or sever ties completely, the cycle of abuse has potential to continue. Since chances of recovery from NPD disorder are said by most professionals to be extremely limited, and often non-existent, cutting off communication is often recommended.
Tips for Survival And Healing
It’s crucial to mention that NPD parents turn into NPD grandparents, if allowed the chance. Even when their child tries to enforce clear-cut boundaries, their behavior rarely changes. In order to learn how to break away safely, professional help for survivors is key. I received five years of therapy, three times a week until gradually lessened. During that time, I learned how to identify toxic behaviors, develop healthy coping skills, stop multiple forms of self-sabotage, and begin self-discovery.
I can’t stress enough the importance of having a solid support system, positive and steadfast friends that can stand in as family. I needed not only to walk away from an NPD mother, but from all the toxic people I allowed into my life as a subsequent consequence of her abuse. Only when I gained self-love did I develop strength to do what was in my best interest, and not in the interest of those who convinced me I didn’t deserve to be loved. It’s not my job - or any other child’s job - to make their parent(s) happy.
Suggested Self-Help Resources
Narcissism in A Parent: 5 Signs You Need to Know (video by Ramani S Durvasula Ph.D)
The Hidden Signs of Gaslighting (video by Ramani S Durvasula Ph.D)
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