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The Problem with Narcissistic Parents

Narcissistic ParentsA study by Stress in America recently revealed that Millennials (ages 18 to 33) report the highest stress levels of any generation. It’s not necessarily wrong to chalk these pressures up to increased competition in college and the workplace, an ailing economy, or a culture geared toward multitasking. But let’s consider something a little more personal that may be at the source of increased stress levels. Let’s talk about something that may hit a little closer to home and, in fact, exist in the home of many children growing up today… the problem of narcissistic parents. These past few years, we’ve targeted helicopter parents and fought the “battle hymn of the tiger mother.” We’ve worried for the televised pageantry of “toddlers” and wondered whether “attachment parenting” was right or wrong. Yet, the problem of narcissistic parents may be at an all-time high. True, it can be a good thing that parents are taking a more active role in their child’s development. Remember the very first scene of “Mad Men,” in which a typical 1960s housewife scolds her child – not for the plastic bag she’s fixed around her head, but for the dry-cleaned dress the bag had contained that must be lying on the floor somewhere? While their parents and grandparents may have suffered through a culture that viewed children as second-class citizens, the kids of today, who are being raised as the focus of their household, are not necessarily better off.

How Narcissistic Parents Live Through Their Children

Parents who seem to be offering their kids something by immersing themselves in their children’s interests, activities, and accomplishments, are often taking more than they are giving. Narcissistic parents feed their own ego through the achievements of their children. Though the process is somewhat unconscious, they seek out ways to live through their child. A recent episode of NBC’s highly popular “Modern Family” illustrated this when housewife, Claire, took her teenage daughter, Alex, to an academic decathlon.  Used to seeing her daughter victorious, Claire made snide comments to fellow parents and made sure to let the judges know whose mom she was. When Alex made a small mistake and was eliminated in round one, Claire made a scene and plotted ways to protest the loss. All the while, she tried to downplay and deny her deep investment in her daughter’s success. When Alex finally got it out of her, Claire confessed, “I like it too much when you win. I really love lording it over the other moms.”  While it’s rare for narcissistic parents to reveal this of themselves, their investment in their child’s success is apparent to most people around them. This attitude is hardly selfless and often has nasty consequences. Another problem with narcissistic parents is that, while they may seem to support their children’s accomplishments, they often feel competitive with their children. They would like their child’s successes to reflect on them and attract attention to them, but at the same time, they do not want to be overshadowed by their kids. In this way, narcissistic parents don’t support a healthy sense of self-esteem in their children. Instead, they draw attention to themselves, using their children in a way that is disregarding and hurtful. The only use these parents have for their child is to reflect favorably upon them. Narcissistic parents often truly suffer from low self-esteem and are living through their children to compensate.

Why Narcissistic Parents Overly Connect to Their Children

narcissism webinarNarcissistic parents want their child’s performance to reflect on them. The reasons for this are complex. Parents may be trying to compensate for what they believe are their own shortcomings. They may rely on their child’s success to bolster themselves up. In doing so, they are failing to see their child as a unique and autonomous individual. They refuse to recognize that their child is separate from them, with their own thoughts, feelings, and desires. A narcissistic parent tends to focus on or almost “feed” on their child’s accomplishments. They often do this, because something is lacking within them. They may try to use their child to fill an emptiness they feel within themselves. Parents with full lives, in which they have many interests, close relationships, and passions, often offer more to their children than those who give up everything to be with their kids. Though they do this in the name of love, they don’t realize that their conception of love is actually skewed. People often confuse love with emotional hunger. Parents who think they are giving their children love by showering them with constant attention are failing to see how much they are pulling on or draining the child. When a person feels a “need” or “longing” for their child, it can be a red flag that they are taking more than they are giving in the relationship. If a parent feels their child is “filling up” a part of them, for example, that they are their sole source of joy, it can be a further warning that they are experiencing emotional hunger toward their child. Love is an offering of encouragement, support, and affection. Emotional hunger provides just the opposite.

The Effects of Growing Up with Narcissistic Parents

The biggest problem with narcissistic parents is that, in trying to build their children up, they are actually neglecting to recognize and support their child’s independent sense of self. Instead, the child feels a heavy amount of pressure from their parents. They may carry fears of falling short and the sense that they will never be good enough. Their insecurities may lead them to become narcissistic themselves, seeking out attention and approval just to prove they are okay. Parents who give up their own lives enter the child’s world instead of inviting the child into theirs. Because, children learn by example, not having a parent who is fulfilled within themselves leaves the child with a sense of having to take care of that parent. They have to make them happy and offer support. This is a huge burden to put on a child, and it hurts them throughout their lives. They may recreate this dynamic in their relationships, looking for someone who inflates their ego or who tears them down in ways that support deepseated attitudes they have toward themselves. They may also seek out people, who, like their parents, use them to feel better about themselves. These dynamics can be harmful to an adult, but they are almost immoral to impose on a child. When we refuse to see our children as separate individuals, we project all of the negative and critical attitudes we have toward ourselves onto them. We may try to overcompensate for our parents’ mistakes, or we may reenact destructive patterns from our own childhoods. In either case, we are missing the mark with our kids. We are misattuned to their unique needs and insensitive to their true wants. By differentiating from our own past, we are better able to see our kids as separate from ourselves. Only then can we offer them real love as opposed to a fantasy of connection. Only then, can we appreciate our children for who they are and support them in reaching their full, unique potential.

Read about the difference between Self-Esteem vs. Narcissism

Read more about Parenting

22 comments

  1. So what do we do about this to stop the destructive narcissitic parenting, if we see this in ourselves (and were raised by a narcissistic parent ourselves)? Help!

    • I have been trying to find that answer! There seem to be no articles offering help or support for narcissism.

      • I think by being here and reading this is a giant step. My heart breaks reading this whole thing…. This is exactly me :((
        I would say, let’s start by keeping this thought alive in our day to day lives.
        Let’s reflect at night how our day went.
        Keep our mind opened and let’s be willing to change.

        If I can’t change, I’ll go seek help by professionals.

    • Read “Children of The Self Absorbed” by Nina Brown. it offers a lot of intuition and ideas for dealing with narcissism and narcissistic parents.

    • Don’t panic, remember.. Love is patient, love is kind, it is gentle, it does not boast, nor does it take pleasure in bad things.. It is not self seeking. It is self sacrificing. _Jesus Christ. My mother is a narcissist, I always felt pain but have never known what real love is without Christ. If you believe in him or not. The quote above is the cure to narcissism. You see, sin is narcissism. It’s just worst because the end is nearing. But, the cure to narcissistic behavior is real love.. What I mentioned above.

  2. What do you do if the parent was never diagnosed but you suspect you were raised by a narcissist? When I look back on my childhood all I see is guilt, guilt guilt, from my mother because she was never happy and she continuously blamed me for inconveniencing her life, and still does to this day, yet she tries to be in control of my life by knowing my dr appts and reminding me of things I’m supposed to do all the time. I remember always coming to her and never receiving emotional support. She would roll her eyes at me or say something smart. = (

  3. Sorry my name is Samantha…not Samanha. My letter T on keyboard doesn’t always type.

  4. Your article was thought provoking, clarifying. I am the scapegoatish one in what I am beginning to believe is a narcisstic family. My brothers are mostly very successful and very very competitive….as adults we all ignore each other,even in times when “normal” families support each other. Because I struggle with addictions, can’t seem to pick a guy who isn’t abusive/negligent, I am treated like I don’t exist. This is so painful around the holidays. Also makes staying clean difficult, to hear how others’ families start to interract more.,,and so on. I often feel the classic “running on empty” symptom. Well…thank you for you article! I have it bookmarked. Janna

    • Re: Child of Narcissistic Parent: check out Safe facebook group called Chatty Giraffes
      And great book: Will I Ever Be Good Enough
      Helpful resources

  5. Hey guys,
    I’ve been dealing with/learning about my narcissistic mother the past year. It’s a tough journey but there is a book that sheds light and helps dramatically called Children of the Self Absorbed. Hope this helps

  6. I recently divorced from a narcissist who was raised by a narcissistic mom. The relationship you describe above is exactly what I witnessed and was immersed within for 17 years. I am still having to deal with his lying, stealing and attitude of self entitlement. My biggest issue is my two young children who he uses and manipulates. They live with him one week and me the next. I have started taking Love & Logic Parenting classes and it us helping me a great deal. I am learning to teach them to take responsibility for their decisions and the consequences. It is not easy countering the effects of what they live in his home, where his mother also babysits them. But, I pray and remain steadfast in my effort to raise them in a healthier environment. I trust that they will appreciate and recognize, in time the differences and wisely choose the healthier way. If anyone has any suggestions that may help me in this area I would greatly appreciate your insight.

    • OMG This sounds like my Ex .. Exactly in my position at the moment .. 17 year relationship she has lied and gotten custody of them .. Unfortunatly the court systyem today protect and believes the mother alot but this is the downfall and ultimatly has put the childern in the hands of the abuser.
      I have now been falsly accused of sexually abusing my youngest daughter so access has completluy been stopped ..
      What a sad court system we Have..

  7. here is my question.Can you tell me how much you believe in jesus or the bible before you tell me all of your thoughts. Because I do understand most of what you are saying. But you leave out how I feel about this country . What it is was founded on . If you can at least tell me your back round I would be glad to try
    to understand what you are saying. Because I do believe no matterwhat religion you are you have to believe in someone better than your self.Iam interested in your replay. Waiting for replay. thanks sandi

  8. I am an adult child of a “Narcissistic Mother”. Only recently discovered the issue! I feel so VALIDATED! I forwarded several articles to my daughter’s friend who is only 29-30. She is seeing a Therapist – she is amazed at how much this fits her as well! It just sounded like it fit. Once she read about it – she also feels “free”. It’s like I knew something wasn’t right – but I didn’t know what was WRONG! My mother still gaslights, criticizes and insists everything go her way. It is so strange reading how other people know this exists – My Mom says it’s me… of course she does.

  9. True article growing up with narratissic parents aren’t fun

    • Prince,
      I always wondered why my parents were so indifferent. Both my father and mother were so focused on themselves there was little time for their four children.
      Just recently I have been researching why my parents were the way they were and as I read more and more about NPD, it sounds like it could be the answer.
      The reason I am researching this is because all four of us have had problems with depression and low self-esteem. I’m wondering if my depression is a by-product of my parents lack of interest or concern as we were growing up.
      My mother has passed away and my father is 88 years old, so it’s too late to talk to him.
      Could someone reply and let me know if the things that happened to us as children can be that our parents had NPD.
      1. Both my mother and father were always focused on their needs. Example; if there was no milk in the house, my father would wait until we went to bed, then go out and buy a little pint of milk for himself. It never occurred to him that his children didn’t have milk.
      2. My older brother used to abuse me, but when my parents found out, they did nothing. They ignored the neighbors when they spoke to them about it. Neither one of my parents had any look of concern or remorse when they met with the neighbors. They were more embarrassed about being confronted than about what happened.
      3. They didn’t help us with homework, come to our open houses at school or graduations.
      4. My mother was jealous whenever my grandmother sent me clothes. I would come home from High School and find my mother playing ‘dress-up’ in my room with the new clothes. She said she looked better than I did.
      5. At my wedding my parents planned a reception at their home afterwards… they did not invite me, my new husband or his family. My mother wanted the attention to be on herself, not on me and used the occasion to do so.
      6. My father constantly talks about himself. He is an engineer and it’s all about how much smarter he is, what he did, how the world, computers, the medical system, EVERYTHING should be designed around what he wants. He is always pissed off and extremely judgmental. Regardless of what I say, the subject returns to him. The conversation is always about him, he has no interest in anyone else.
      If he sees someone with a Tattoo he makes a negative comment. If he sees someone with blue hair, he has to ask me what is wrong with the person. It’s like he has no tolerance for anyone or anything but himself.
      7. What is so telling is that neither he or my mother have any empathy whatsoever. I have never seen them cry or show concern. When my mother passed away we went to a view and release at the Funeral Home. My father did not warn us. We thought it was a funeral. But instead we were put in small room with my mother naked, under a sheet on a steal table. My father proceeded to talk about how when someone dies their eye sockets fill with blood. He said this is why your mother looks a lot better now. It was horrifying and we were devastated by his lack of empathy and feelings.
      8. After we left home my parents never called us. When we all had children, they never asked about or called them either. When we would visit on holidays, the conversation was ALL about them. They rarely asked about us.
      9. My father is old now… and still judgmental. So much so, it is difficult to be in public with him. Just recently we went to a Mexican Restaurant for lunch. He complained about the menu… “this should have been done in Excel”!!!… then he says “Oh… that’s right Mexicans don’t know Excel”. My heart broke. I felt horrible for weeks afterwards.
      He is just so damn mean that it hurts to be around him.
      These are just a few of the examples of my parents behavior. Do you think they may have NPD?
      Can you refer me to any info on how my brothers and I can cope with our childhood?

      Thank you

  10. Wow, very insightful. It’s taken me many years to realize what my father’s problem has been in our relationship and also his relationship with my sister. Reading this has finally confirmed my suspicions. And now that I think about it my dad has never offered me support, or encouragement on his own. He never cheers me up when I’m troubled, and most times can never tell that I’m even troubled by something. He just gets angry at me. And when he does something nice, it’s always something that he likes and thinks I will also like. He also will use me to get what he wants, drugs and is constantly giving advice when he has no idea of a certain topic. And above all, he never really listens to me and my sister.

  11. I think this is not the only way for a parent to be narcissitic. There are parents, like mine, who claim the successes of the child as personally theirs, taking credit for them, but disavow any flaws, failings, etc. as the fault of the child. And they only seek to connect with the child insofar as they succeed and approval/love is withheld if they don’t. Of course, the child is not perfect, so ultimately it will always end up being withheld at some point or to some extent.

  12. Having a parent with NPD is really difficult.
    Growing up everything was my fault, which took a toll on my self esteem.
    I’ve always wanted to talk to my Dad and ask him why he did the things he did. Why he has no empathy or feelings, but after reading several posts, I can see he is incapable of listening.
    I wish I knew 55 years ago that all that went wrong wasn’t my fault, it would have changed my life.
    At least I know now.

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