People with Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have an inflated and grandiose sense of self. They think themselves to be superior to others and are extremely selfish. How they are seen in public matters a lot to them. On the outside they are an ideal spouse, lover, parent and friend. The world sees them as charismatic, successful, enigmatic; they have a larger than life persona. For example, a narcissist mother will throw lavish parties for her daughter and will be seen doting on her in the pictures, while showing a completely different side of her personality in private. She will be far from nurturing in her private life. However, every successful charismatic, extroverted person isn’t a narcissist. Many people have a high self-regard and a healthy self-esteem that might be seen as narcissistic in societies that value humility.
Narcissists don’t have healthy self-esteem, they have inflated egos. They lack empathy and an understanding of their own feelings. They are not in touch with themselves. As Keryl McBride1 puts it, “they cannot put themselves in your shoes and feel or understand how something might affect you. They can only see how it affects them. They are hypersensitive to criticism and judgement, but constantly criticize and judge others”
They tend to do things that only serve them. They will manipulate, control, abuse and dominate people closest to them, without holding any accountability. A narcissistic parent does the same. They see the child as an extension of themselves, brought on this earth for the sole purpose of becoming their miniature selves and to obey them.
These are some of the unique characteristics of the narcissistic parents:
- Control: They manipulate and brainwash their kids; they are master manipulators. They surpass the codependent parents in this category by miles. Children of narcissist parents get the message that their needs and wants are not important. They have to behave exactly how the parent wants them to. They are manipulated into doing what the parent wants. For example, an 8-year-old boy wanted to take piano lessons but the mother told him that it wasn’t good for him. This wasn’t because there was any shortage of time or money but because she wanted to spite her ex-husband who was all for it. She blatantly manipulated the child’s interest to show how much she was in control of the situation. The boy gradually stopped protesting and started thinking that he didn’t have any interest in it as well. A narcissistic parent will keep repeating and demanding something until you yield.
- I’m always right: A narcissist parent is always right. There is no space for a healthy debate or discussion with their children. The children aren’t allowed to express their opinions unless those opinions are similar to those of their narcissistic parents. Any difference of opinion is squashed at the earliest through punishment or manipulation. In the end, the narcissist makes sure that the child’s opinion is changed to fit their own opinion and the child is even influenced to feel that their personal opinion has no value.
- Seeing the child as a surrogate spouse or friend: In a normal and healthy parent-child relationship, the child is guided by the parent. While the parent can become a friend to the child, the primary role is that of a parent, until the child is old enough to see the parent in the role of a friend as well. In narcissistic parenting, sometimes the child becomes the parent, the care-giver, the savior. The parent ends up behaving with the child as a friend or spouse – both of which are equally unhealthy for the child and the parent. My client’s divorced mother shared inappropriate personal details, about her ongoing relationship, with her 7-year-old daughter. She also shared each and every tiny detail with her – her fights with her friends, her boy-friend’s quarrels with her etc. She ended up burdening her daughter with inappropriate information that the child wasn’t equipped to digest. This kind of parenting severely limits the child’s capacity to develop his/her unique self. The parent changes who the child is by constantly engulfing and/or rejecting the child; the parent doesn’t draw any healthy boundary.
- Disconfirmation: They continuously disconfirm the parts of the child’s personality that they don’t like seeing – like growing autonomy or having personal likes and dislikes. The child ends up repressing their feelings and disowns the parts of their self that are disliked by the parent. For example, if you cry when you are hurt, your narcissistic parent will tell you to stop crying and be strong. “It’s nothing, what are you crying for?” I have worked with grownup children of narcissistic parents who felt crazy for expressing their most basic human needs of being listened to and understood. Their parents turned a deaf ear whenever they expressed that they were hurt or upset.
- No empathy: They have no empathy for the child’s state of mind. Since the child is continuously subjected to the parent’s mood swings and silent treatments, the child is anxious and fearful to go against the narcissist parent’s wishes However, the parent is oblivious to all this.
- Diminishing the child’s personality: The children of narcissistic parents realize at a young age that they have to diminish their personality to mould themselves into what their narcissistic parents want. They have to give up on their individuality to survive. For the sake of self-preservation they will do anything they are told. If they don’t fit into the behaviour prescribed for them, they are ignored for hours and days and they end up apologizing to their parents in order to make amends and appease them. The punishments range from silent treatment to physical abuse and neglect.
- Inconsistent behaviour: The narcissists vacillate between apathy and showing love and affection. Often children of NPD parents are left guessing as to what their parents feel. The narcissists often use double meaning words, give vague references, keep the child guessing and seldom answer their children directly, in order to control them. You might keep pleading to your narcissist parent for hours to speak to you and he/she will keep ignoring you, till you do what you’ve been asked to do.
- The child knows he/she isn’t loved: Deep down the children understand that they aren’t truly loved. They will be good enough for the narcissistic parents only till they do what they are told to do. For example, a narcissistic father will want his son to become as successful as him so that he can show him off to his colleagues. A narcissistic mother will make sure her daughter fits the conventional standards of beauty, and is always nitpicking on the daughter’s appearance, she is too thin, too chubby, has thin eye brows, long face etc. As a kid you will get the message that, “You will be only loved if you comply with my wishes. You are only good enough if you look and behave like I do.”
- Abuse in the name of discipline: Children often get punished for not obeying their narcissist parents. And they are manipulated into thinking that being slapped, spanked, abused and/or the silent treatments they are meted out to them are okay – that it is good discipline.
- Favouring one child over the other: The one they choose gets all their praise and attention. The other child becomes a scapegoat and gets blamed all the time. One of my clients was recounting how her elder sister got all the praises and my client was blamed and criticised all the time, although she took care of her mother in her old age and her sister didn’t. All her elder sister’s transgressions were forgiven and even a minor mistake by my client was withheld against her and used to manipulate her.
- They make the children feel flawed: Their inconsistent behaviour and mood swings, make the children feel responsible. The children want their parents to be happy and appease them constantly, and when they fail they take the blame on themselves. They feel they have failed in making their parents happy, which is clearly not a child’s job.
- They are jealous: They want the child to ‘only’ love them and depend on them. They get very jealous when children show love for anyone else, even their own spouses. If the child is happy with another person, the narcissist parents think they are losing control. They express disapproval for this and try to make the child feel guilty for being happy. For example, one of my clients recalled how as a child when her mother gave her one of her silent treatments, she would frantically ask her, “Why aren’t you talking mom? Are you okay? Are you sad? Are you angry?” and get no response from her.
- Gaslighting: The narcissistic parents lie to you by word or deed and deny your perceptions of reality. “It can make the victim feel as if she’s going crazy. If your perceptions of reality are constantly denied, and above all, denied by your mother of all people, the person you look up to and who you think knows everything, it is very, very head-wrecking and crazy-making.”2
- Not taking responsibility for their mistakes: Whenever my client brought up incidents from her childhood when she felt unheard by her mother, the mother kept brushing it aside, instead blaming the client for bringing it up and making a big deal out of it.
Conclusion: If a parent has narcissistic traits as opposed to a full-blown NPD, they can benefit by going for psychotherapy. However, people with Narcissistic personality disorder rarely see psychotherapists and if they do, they have difficulty in taking responsibility for their actions. They do have a lot of internal shame that they cover up with manipulation. If they can truly acknowledge and accept their mistakes, talk about their personal traumas, learn to empathize and are willing to change their manipulative tactics, they can surely heal.