In the last two posts of our blog, we addressed what it is like to be an adult child of a narcissistic parent. Most recently, we shared Stuart’s story. He is a survivor of narcissistic abuse by his mother. Through his story, we showed what it was like growing up with a narcissistic mom, how it affected him into his adult years, and how he was able to find healing. Through this series, we hope you gain a better understanding of what children of narcissistic and abusive parents learn to expect. Today’s blog expands upon the previous two by looking at the top telltale signs a parent is a narcissist. Please know that not all narcissists are abusers and not all abusers are narcissists. The M3ND Project believes that by understanding the dynamics within a narcissistic parent-child relationship a survivor gains knowledge that is empowering and will bring clarity and healing to those who have experienced this type of abuse. When one understands the high-conflict nature of the childhood experiences when an abusive narcissist is in the house they can then identify the help they need to heal from its devastating effects.
The narcissist always needs to be the center of attention.
One of the most common signs of a narcissist is their endless desire for attention. They need to be at the center of it all and are often unwilling to let anyone, other than themselves, get the glory. This can play out in myriad ways both publicly and privately.
For instance, the parent makes an extraordinary effort to be the center of attention when they are out in public – perhaps through their looks, the clothing they wear, the car they drive, their charisma, or by simply dominating every conversation. Oftentimes, the child will be used to draw attention to the parent, perhaps by making the child wear the perfect outfit, or by getting an award at school that the parent can use to point to the parent’s similar or greater accomplishments, or as a means to demonstrate their excellent parenting skills.
One notable example is when a child shares an accomplishment they are proud of. The narcissistic parent will often redirect attention by telling a success story of their own in an effort to appear more accomplished than their child. Or they will “suddenly” remember a time they accomplished something very similar to their child but they present their story in a way that takes their own accomplishment one level higher. These efforts aim to redirect the attention from the child back onto the narcissist.
Another way narcissists shift the focus is by making the child’s accomplishments all about the parent. They turn the story into their own success by taking credit for teaching the child or claiming a part of the child’s talent. In fact, according to the narcissist, any of their child’s accomplishments will be attributed to their personal efforts as a parent. Any failures are because the child failed to listen to the narcissist or are for reasons the parent cannot explain because they themselves never failed like their child.
In any of these cases, the only type of attention the child will get, either positive or negative, is that which is ultimately turned in a positive way toward the narcissistic parent.
The narcissist lies constantly.
Lies are often a traditional part of a narcissist’s arsenal to maintain themselves and their self-serving narrative as the focus. They are used to shift blame, to exaggerate circumstances, and to change current or past realities. In fact, if reality does not serve the narcissist well, they go as far as to create a false narrative to help them to maintain the image they desire to portray. It is not uncommon for a narcissist to lie about their history to make it seem like they were better than they were. For example, the narcissist who was an average student miraculously becomes the valedictorian, the good employee becomes the highest paid in the company’s history, the missed promotion was someone else’s fault.
Another form of lying that a narcissist will use is denial. This includes statements such as, “I never said that”, “I didn’t promise you that”, or “I never said you could go”. These are common when a narcissistic parent interacts with a child, especially if they are trying to shift the blame for a bad result or a negatively viewed action. To a narcissist, the how far they can bend or even break the truth is a target that is constantly moving in order to fit the narcissist’s insatiable need to appear the best.
The narcissist is selfish and self-absorbed.
This trait may present itself in different ways. Some narcissistic parents spend every penny on themself in order to look good before caring for their children. For example, the parent may spend all of the family’s money to buy a nice car while the family struggles to pay for groceries, tutoring or sports for the kids. Or they’ll buy several high-end outfits or pairs of shoes for themselves, while the children wear clothes they have long grown out of.
In many cases of narcissism you will often hear a narcissist focusing on “their” career, “their” family, “their” goals and “their” successes. The narcissist often makes themselves the linch-pin that makes the systems and groups around them operate. Little to no credit is given to anyone else. In their mind the world would literally stop turning without their influence.
At the same time, everything in the narcissist’s world serves to support their personal life narrative. It’s not about the benefit of a child, spouse, or family member it is ONLY about them and how they appear to the world. They will dedicate all of their time, attention, and resources to matters that make them look good while ignoring their family at home. For example, they will spend all of their time outside the home at charity events or other social gatherings, but won’t pay quality attention to their kids or spouse. Any time spent with the children are on things that make the narcissist look like the world’s greatest parent. This is due to fact that they only pay attention to those things that help them achieve the personal self-focused narrative they are displaying and creating within the world
The narcissist holds others to an ever-changing, impossible-to-reach bar.
No accomplishment is good enough for the narcissistic parent. They need to cut the child down to keep the focus on themself. Their criticism of the child is one way they ensure the child will remain dependent upon them. Maybe their child graduated from college, but the narcissist will complain that “they’re never going to be able to do anything worthwhile with that degree.” Any gift the child gives is not the right color, the right size, or the right look for the parent. Any outfit the young child wears that the parent didn’t choose, is nice but not good enough or “would look so much nicer, if…”.
The narcissist violates everyone else’s boundaries.
The child of a narcissistic parent is an extension of the parent and is not considered a person unto themselves. This makes it impossible for a narcissist to see their child’s boundaries. Any journal, phone messages, or physical space belonging to the child is viewed as fair game to the narcissist. This parent believes they have a right to access all parts of the child’s life. Often the child has no sense of privacy in any aspect of their life whether it is their room or their relationships.
A narcissist’s reactions to their child’s need for boundaries can vary. When the child tries to set healthy personal boundaries, the narcissist can sometimes respond with narcissistic rage. Statements like “how could you after all I’ve done for you?” or “why are you hiding things from me?” are all too common and create a sense that the narcissist is the victim of their child’s boundaries. Other times, the parent chooses covert emotional abuse tactics like the silent treatment, blaming, withholding, and other crazy making behaviors to manipulate and create a sense of confusion and chaos within the child’s emotions. In each of these scenarios, the child will be sent on a guilt trip for attempting to get the narcissist to respect reasonable boundaries. The child emerges from these experiences believing they were the ones in the wrong, but never understanding why. As a result, many adult children of narcissists do not understand or even expect healthy relationship boundaries themselves.
A narcissist can’t genuinely apologize.
The child will bear the brunt of any misdeed or transgression. Even if the parent offers the words of apology, the blame will not truly be absorbed by the narcissist. It will always be placed on someone or something else, especially the child. For example, they might say, “I’m sorry but I wouldn’t have had to do that if you weren’t always late.” A narcissist’s apology never contains accountability or genuine remorse. They will be filled with drama and flair, or blame and defensiveness without an offer of true repentance or a change of behavior. Most often, any apology they make is immediately followed with words that make them appear as the real victim, and turning attention onto themselves. As a result, the child’s experiences and emotions are never validated or acknowledged.
We hope that learning these signs helps you to identify whether someone is dealing with a narcissistic parent. Remember, narcissistic personality disorder (“NPD”) can only be diagnosed by a trained professional. A person may have narcissistic traits but not have NPD. And, as we said, a narcissist isn’t necessarily an abuser. If you think your parent might be a narcissist and you are experiencing some of the symptoms we discussed in our blog two weeks ago, for example, depression, anxiety, low self-worth, addiction, we encourage you to seek help from a licensed professional who has been trained and is experienced in dealing with narcissism, emotional abuse, and trauma. Healing is there for you to have.