It wasn’t until I was in my third serious and very unhealthy relationship that I began to dig deeper into why I kept picking men who treated me so horribly. It seemed that with every relationship, I was seeking validation of my self-worth but all I was getting was a constant demand to ensure and promote my boyfriend’s ego. With each new relationship, I thought I’d get it right this time. For as long as I remember, I have been in a constant state of trying harder to do and be better. The things I felt were great accomplishments in my life – my job, my graduate degree, my recent promotion – either were ignored by my mom and my boyfriends, or noted by them as good, but not good enough. “Congrats on the promotion, dear, but are you sure that’s what you want to do with your life?” The disdain was palpable. And then it’s a “remember when” or a “look at me” moment and I am instantly reminded of the grandeur of their own accomplishments, which quite honestly are usually exaggerated and I often have questioned if they’re even real. Since I was little, it’s been my job to take the blame for something gone wrong that could embarrass my mom or now, my boyfriend. In time, it’s as if they believe it actually was my fault. I begin to wonder myself. I have become so empathic and overly-focused on everyone else that I’ve stopped caring for myself (as if I ever did care). Depressed, lonely, and extremely anxious, I sought the help of a professional therapist.
Being raised by a narcissistic parent can be incredibly challenging for a child to bear. The nuances of the abusive acts and narcissistic tendencies take place from the time the child is born, and so it is the only reality they know. They are raised as a potential source of narcissistic supply to their parent, in the case in our introduction, Carina’s mom. Like other narcissists, Carina’s mom likely saw her as a source of self-esteem for mom and not as a target for mom’s love and affection. At times, this can mean that the child will be overvalued by the parent because they will make the parent look better if they are good kids. Other times, especially when they are not meeting the parent’s narcissistic demands, the child will be ignored and emotionally abused. Most often, the narcissistic parent creates impossibly high standards for the child to meet and when they get close or meet them, they refuse to give the child direct credit or attention for the accomplishment, only using it as a means to demonstrate to others what an excellent parent mom or dad was. The child is left feeling unseen and neglected, wondering what they did wrong and how they can do better next time. Unless the accomplishment has something in it for the parent, the child’s hope for recognition will be dismissed and the accomplishment will be ignored completely.
In a narcissistic parent-child dynamic, the child learns that love is conditional and requires the child to act a certain way if they want to feel loved. The narcissist requires the child to neglect their own needs, wants, or personality in exchange for nourishing the wants, needs and personality of the parent. The parent is often obsessed with their own grandiosity, popularity, and recognition over the child’s. When the child is filling the parent’s narcissistic need with a full supply of adoration, the child will feel on good terms with mom or dad and “loved.” But if the child demands care and attention to themselves or their own accomplishments while refusing to allow those accomplishments to be showcased by mom or dad, the narcissistic parent turns cold, can become rageful and abusive. When that child turns to care for themselves, or expresses their desire to receive validation and affirmation from the parent, they will be ignored. The child will be criticized incessantly, put down, and demeaned by the parent until the child reforms and returns to denying self and supplying love and lavishness to the narcissist.
A parental environment like this stunts the child’s normal emotional development. For example, it is common for a child of a narcissist, emotionally abusive parent to form a disoriented, or disorganized, attachment style. This is formed when the child is emotionally and physically dependent on someone who at the same time causes great distress or fear in the child. When this happens, the child will show both the need to attach to the parent and also the inability to connect (dissociation)(1). Because the narcissist is very rigid, self-absorbed and lacking in empathy, the child often develops an opposite response over time. The child may become extra flexible, becoming whatever the parent wants and, later, whatever their relationship partners want, losing themself in the process.
Children of narcissistic parents often become empaths, allowing them to read their parent’s mood, desires, and emotions so the child may quickly prepare how they are to act. Later in life, the empath becomes so good at feeding the narcissist that they are later often seen as a natural mate for other narcissists in their adult life. A classic defense mechanism that a child of a narcissistic parent develops is becoming a people-pleaser, always thinking of others over themselves. While it might seem altruistic on the outside, it stems from the childhood lesson that the more they cared for others, the less likely they were going to be the target of intense put-downs, criticisms, or judgment. By over-working to please everyone else, a child of a narcissist learns they are less likely to be the object of negative attention. And so, that child who starved for positive attention growing up, becomes an adult who unconsciously has no real expectation of attention, but continues to hope that by pouring out on others all of their attention, they might be loved in return.
Growing up with narcissistic parents creates a much higher risk for the child to develop depression and anxiety (2). They blame themselves for any of their parent’s faults. They become overly dependent on others or possibly are unable to relate to others, making it difficult to impossible to form healthy relationship bonds. If they try to put themselves first, which they don’t often do, they experience incredible shame and guilt for it. They also struggle to form their own independent identity, as they’ve always been seen themselves in the shadow of their narcissistic parent. Children of narcissists who often experienced alienation or withholding by their parents experience many of the same issues, but have also been found more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol (3). On the other hand, some children of narcissistic parents grow up to become narcissists themselves.
Adult children of narcissists often experience unhealthy relationships. From childhood, they have learned from the narcissist’s parenting that they are undeserving of love or have no reason to expect that they will receive unconditional love. So, when they are not treated well by others as an adult, it comes as no surprise to them, and actually meets their expectation. Many of us tend to be attracted to relationships that are similar to the ones we experienced with our parents. This is particularly true for adult children of narcissistic parents who may become extremely anxious within relationships that are full of affection, warmth, and trust. They have been conditioned to believe that any expression of love is not unconditional or lasting and is soon to be followed by narcissistic rage, put downs or alienation (4).
Unfortunately, it may take years for the adult child of a narcissist to understand why they cannot maintain healthy relationships, often completely unaware their narcissistic personality disorder exists (5). Often, that awareness comes only from several toxic relationships, long bouts of depression and low self esteem, or a drug or alcohol addiction causes them to seek the professional help they need to uncover the underlying trauma narcissism caused. As they unravel the link between their narcissistic upbringing and their present challenges, they begin to gain clarity and their healing can begin.
One of the biggest challenges many adult children of narcissists have is setting healthy boundaries with their parent. Historically, the parent has exerted extreme pressure on the whole family to appease them while also maintaining an outward appearance of being a close, strong family. The adult child has been conditioned for years to maintain these appearances, making it hard to stop. In addition, narcissistic parents do not respect or impose appropriate boundaries between themselves and their child and so the child never learns how to do this well. Even in adult years, the narcissist is unlikely to be able or willing to respect the boundaries the adult child places. But setting boundaries is critical for the adult child to do if they want to remain in communication with their narcissistic parent.
First, it is important for the victim to spend time processing their past experiences and present challenges and their relationship to their upbringing. They should also spend time exploring the type of relationship dynamics they believe they want and believe they can achieve with their parent. This requires a good amount of honesty about what expectations are reasonable for the adult child to have of their narcissistic parent. It would be very helpful to go through this process with a professional therapist who is trained and experienced in understanding narcissistic personality disorder.
Some will decide to maintain low-contact with their parent, perhaps because the non-narcissistic parent is still alive or there are siblings involved. Others find they are unable to have any contact with and need to cut ties with the one parent. Whatever is decided, it’s important for the survivor to choose boundaries that will honor their own well-being and integrity.