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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

8 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!

  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

  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

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