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How Having a Narcissistic Parent Impacts Young Adult Mental Health

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Parents have an enormous effect on their children. They not only pass along genetic traits, but they help shape the way their children perceive and navigate the world from early childhood all the way into adulthood.

Because no parent is perfect, all children grow up with parents who make mistakes—and some of those mistakes have a lasting impact. Children of narcissistic parents, however, grow up with parents whose personality traits can leave mental and emotional scars that negatively affect their children well after they’ve left the nest.

It’s helpful for adult children to recognize the signs of a narcissistic parent to understand the impact their growing up may be having on them today. 

What Is Narcissism?

Narcissism is characterized by intense self-centeredness. Though they can be charming and highly functional, narcissistic people suffer from feelings of superiority and entitlement that demand they be the center of attention. They manipulate others, family members included, to get their needs met and require excessive admiration.

One of the greatest challenges people in relationships with narcissists experience is the narcissist’s lack of empathy. Narcissists have difficulty understanding how others might feel. When they display selfish behavior, they aren’t aware of it. When they’re in the wrong, they struggle or refuse to apologize. Their arrogance causes them to blame others rather than hold themselves accountable.

What Is a Narcissistic Parent?

Because narcissistic people see themselves as the center of the universe, they see their children as extensions of themselves. It’s not uncommon for narcissistic parents to live through their children, nor is it uncommon for them to compete with their children, forcing them to live in their shadows. 

As their children become more independent, narcissistic parents typically feel threatened. They engage in manipulation to keep their children’s attention focused on them. To feed their delicate egos, they chip away at their children’s self-esteem with critical and condescending comments. If their children confront them, narcissistic parents won’t stand for it. They fight back with belittling and hurtful remarks that can progress to mental, emotional, and even physical abuse.

Narcissism vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Some people are problem drinkers and others suffer from alcohol use disorder. In the same way, some people are narcissists (in varying degrees), while others suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. 

In short, narcissism is distinguished from narcissistic personality disorder by the frequency, intensity, and duration that one displays narcissistic traits. While narcissists sometimes exhibit narcissistic behaviors to a moderate degree, people with narcissistic personality disorder routinely exhibit them to a severe degree, exploiting others for their own benefit. 

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

Mayo Clinic
NPD literature

How Many People Have Narcissistic Personality Disorder? 

Six percent of the US population has been diagnosed with NPD, which is a diagnosable disorder according to the DSM-V. The great irony of narcissistic personality disorder, which is more prevalent among men, is that it presents as supreme self-confidence. In truth, however, the self-confidence people suffering from NPD exude is a façade that masks deep feelings of shame and low self-worth. Deeply insecure at heart, narcissists bristle at the slightest perceived offense.

Maintaining harmonious family relationships is difficult for people with NPD, as their arrogance, grandiosity, and lack of compassion alienate family, friends, and colleagues. Unlike narcissists, people with narcissistic personality disorder intentionally exploit others for their own self-interest. They’re prone to at least one of the following: lying, manipulating, attention-seeking, rule-breaking, and denigrating others. 

Signs of a Narcissistic Parent

Growing up with a narcissistic parent is always challenging and often debilitating. The parent may be admired by many, but in private—and even in public—narcissistic parents compete with their children and coerce them to live in their shadows.

Some of the most common signs of a narcissistic parent are:

  • Using fear tactics and manipulation to dominate 
  • Teasing, mocking, bullying, and criticizing to maintain superiority
  • Engaging in gaslighting
  • Exhibiting an intolerance of disobedience
  • Turning family time into an opportunity to shift attention back to themselves
  • Blaming family members when things don’t go their way (it’s always someone else’s fault)
  • Only showing love when their children do exactly what they ask—withdrawing love otherwise
  • Not showing compassion for their children or other family members

Signs of a Narcissistic Mother

Children raised by a narcissistic mother will find traditional depictions of loving, supportive, and nurturing mothers hard to understand. Narcissistic mothers are largely self-absorbed. The world revolves around them, which means their children do, too.

Some of the most common signs of a narcissistic mother are:

  • Comparing siblings to one another and to their peers
  • Playing favorites—electing a “golden child” who’s above reproach and a scapegoat who’s blamed for everything
  • Shaming and inducing guilt to exert control 
  • Regularly changing the topic of conversation back to herself
  • Criticizing her children to boost her ego
  • Expecting credit and praise for mothering
  • Competing with her children
  • Displaying little to no awareness of how her behavior affects others

Signs of a Narcissistic Father

A narcissistic father isn’t capable of a traditional parent-child relationship, as they lack the capacity to offer their children consistent encouragement and support. They are far too focused on their own needs to be attentive to their children’s.

Some of the most common signs of a narcissistic father are:

  • Exhibiting charisma and relishing the spotlight
  • Not being home a lot, due to needing more attention and admiration from strangers, acquaintances, and colleagues than from his family
  • Displaying a preoccupation with success or power
  • Doing activities that he enjoys, but taking little interest in what the family enjoys
  • Disregarding others’ boundaries
  • Reacting to even slight criticism by shaming, humiliating, or raging, sometimes to extremes
  • Being aloof and unsympathetic, but highly sensitive to his own pain
  • Taking advantage of others for his own good, even exploiting them when it suits him

The Impact of Growing Up with a Narcissistic Parent

Not wanting to incite anger or punishment, children raised by a narcissist often refrain from expressing their deepest needs and longings. Because they’ve learned their needs and desires are inconsequential in comparison to their narcissistic parent’s, they often repress their thoughts and feelings to maintain emotional stability at home.

Enduring criticism and taking a backseat to a self-centered parent, children of narcissists frequently develop low self-worth. “I’m not good enough” is their unspoken motto. It’s not uncommon for the children of narcissistic parents to twist themselves into pretzels to please their parents, leading to anxiety and depression

Being raised by a parent whose feelings and needs—especially emotional needs—always come first, children of narcissists typically suffer from codependency (taking care of others over taking care of themselves). They grow up feeling responsible for their parent’s needs, have a difficult time forming healthy boundaries, and work hard to please others at their own expense.

Being valued more for what they do than who they are, children of narcissistic parents lack healthy self-images. They may feel invisible and have no sense of their own needs because their narcissistic parent demands most of the energy in the room. As well, because they’re growing up with a parent who lies or manipulates them into believing a false reality, they may suffer from self-doubt, never trusting their own feelings. 

The Long-Term Impact of Growing Up with a Narcissistic Parent 

When young, children of narcissistic parents may not realize anything is wrong. The narcissistic parent’s behavior appears normal because it’s all they’ve ever known. Later in the life, often with the help of a friend, partner, or therapist, the adult child begins to realize the damaging effects of growing up with a narcissistic parent.

Every person is different and metabolizes the effects of growing up with a narcissistic parent differently. Often, however, adult children of narcissists develop an insecure attachment style in relationships. Some shut others out with avoidant attachment while others respond to narcissistic parenting by avoiding emotional intimacy altogether. On the other hand, some adult children of narcissists desperately need attention and develop anxious attachment. Especially sensitive adult children can be people-pleasing to the extreme, revolving their lives around others’ needs. 

More aggressive adult children may respond to narcissistic parents by copying their actions. Without early intervention, they can develop narcissistic traits themselves and pass them onto the next generation.

10 Traits of Children of Narcissistic Parents

Growing up with a narcissistic parent almost always has mental health consequences. While adult children of narcissists will not necessarily exhibit all of the following traits, it’s highly likely they will experience some of them:

  1. People-pleasing tendencies
  2. Feeling guilty when considering their own needs
  3. Persistent self-doubt and indecision
  4. Chronic self-blame
  5. Believing they’re unlovable and “not good enough”
  6. Difficulty with trust and emotional intimacy
  7. Insecure attachment styles 
  8. Co-dependent relationships and/or abusive relationships
  9. Becoming narcissistic themselves
  10. Higher risk of mental health issues

Mental Health Effects of Narcissistic Parenting

While the psychological effects of emotional abuse in childhood are well-documented, less research exists on the mental health effects of narcissistic parenting on adult children per se. A recent dissertation study, however, found that adults who perceive their primary caregiver as narcissistic had significantly higher rates of depression and low self-esteem than those who didn’t.

Physical or sexual abuse are obvious kinds of trauma, but narcissistic parenting causes is its own brand of trauma due to the psychological damage it inflicts. Research has shown that trauma can affect the reward centers of the brain, making people more susceptible to substance abuse or other addictions.

Because narcissistic parenting can cause children to live in a constant state of anxiety, long-term psychological damage can ensue, increasing the likelihood that adult children develop some form of mental illness. Examples include bipolar disorderobsessive compulsive disorderborderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorderpost-traumatic stress disorder, or even NPD.

How to Deal with a Narcissistic Parent 

Engaging with a narcissistic parent can be incredibly taxing, even for adult children. It’s important to have self-care measures in place to avoid being engulfed by the psychological abuse narcissistic parents perpetrate well after their children grow up. Here are some ways to deal with a narcissistic parent.

Do Not Try to Change Them

It’s not impossible for a narcissist to change, but the likelihood is quite slim, as they generally lack sufficient self-awareness. Expecting them to apologize is usually an exercise in futility. It’s important for adult children of narcissists to relinquish the notion they can change their narcissistic parent into a sensitive and empathetic individual. Such attempts will likely only lead to more pain and frustration. What’s important for adult children of narcissists to remember is that they can change how they respond to the narcissistic parent.

Set Boundaries

Sometimes, avoiding all contact with an abusive narcissistic parent is required, but it’s not always possible. If they must maintain contact, adult children need to identify their boundaries and communicate them clearly and consistently. When the narcissistic parent crosses a line, adult children must stand their ground. “If you continue to ridicule me,” they might say, “I’ll leave/hang up.” It’s essential that they follow through to show the narcissistic parent their boundaries are non-negotiable. 

Cultivate Strengths

Having been routinely undermined in childhood, adult children of narcissistic parents can lack confidence in their strengths and talents. It’s therefore valuable for them to take stock of what they do well. Through journaling or recording their thoughts aloud, they can list as many of their skills and accomplishments as they can think of. Then they can reflect on them frequently to remind themselves they have much more to offer than their narcissistic parent could ever acknowledge.

Meditate

The mindfulness that results from engaging in a meditation practice improves life overall for adult children of narcissists. And it also improves encounters with their narcissistic parent. Because adult children of narcissists often have distorted self-perceptions, they tend to engage in negative self-talk. As they meditate, they observe their thoughts and feelings. This deepens their self-awareness, reduces their anxiety, and counters their self-distortion.

Get Professional Support

Being raised by a narcissistic parent can be traumatizing. Individual therapy and/or group therapy with a professional trained in the effects of parental narcissism can be powerful. Therapy helps adult children of narcissists confront, process, and come to peace with their pasts. In so doing, they can find their own voice, enhance their self-image, and form emotionally healthy relationships going forward.

Treatment for Childhood Trauma at Newport Institute

At Newport Institute, we recognize the trauma of narcissistic parenting and how it causes young adults to develop low self-esteem, which in turn interferes with their ability to form authentic connections. Our residential and outpatient therapeutic programs support young people in seeing themselves with clear eyes and in healing from attachment wounds so they can forge healthy relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.

As they identify and address the traumatizing effects of narcissistic parenting, young adults understand the impact their childhood had on their belief systems and behaviors. They expand their self-awareness and come away with a toolkit of healthy coping mechanisms, including self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Contact us today to find out more and schedule a free assessment. 

Key Takeaways

  • Narcissism exists on a spectrum, but is generally characterized by self-centeredness, an excessive need for admiration, and an inability to empathize with others’ feelings.
  • Not all narcissists suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder diagnosable by the DSM-V.
  • Some of the signs of narcissistic parenting include gaslighting, an intolerance of disobedience, and criticizing their children to maintain superiority.
  • IAdult children who’ve grown up with a narcissistic parent typically develop low self-worth, wrestle with anxiety and depression, have difficulty trusting their own feelings, and engage in co-dependent relationships.
  • When dealing with a narcissistic parent, it’s important to set healthy boundaries, identify and cultivate strengths, engage in self-care practices like meditation, and seek out professional support.

Frequently Asked Questions About Adult Child Syndrome


How does a narcissistic parent behave?         

Narcissistic parents demand all the attention in the family. They frequently compete with their children, forcing them to live in their shadows. Because they need to be superior at all costs, they use fear tactics to dominate their children, putting them down to keep them in their place. Narcissistic parents rarely if ever hold themselves accountable when they’re wrong.

What happens to children who grow up with a narcissistic parent?

Children who grow up with a narcissistic parent tend to suffer from at least some of the following as children and as adults: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, self-doubt, self-blame, indecision, people-pleasing tendencies, difficulties with emotional intimacy, and codependent relationships.

How do you overcome trauma from a narcissistic parent?

It’s important for adult children of narcissists to cultivate a sense of themselves as separate from their narcissistic parent. Often, seeking out the support of a counselor or therapist helps adult children of narcissists understand the dysfunctional nature of their upbringing. Therapy can help them begin to see themselves not through their parent’s distorted lenses but through their own eyes. Forging emotionally healthy relationships is another way adult children of narcissistic parents can heal from childhood trauma.

Sources

Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2014 Apr; 23(2): 185–222.

 J Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Jul; 69(7): 1090–1092.

 

 

Mental Health / November 1, 2022

Newport Institute

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