It is important before we discuss the characteristics of a narcissistic parents that we make this statement:
The term narcissist has become more popular over recent years at describing a set of toxic behavior traits. However, the reality is that not everyone who is labelled a narcissist actually meets the criteria for diagnosis. Some of these behaviours can be attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality disorder or other conditions or terms such as hostile aggressive parenting or coercive control. The purpose of this chapter is not to diagnose the parent but to understand the behaviours and the impact they have on the spouse, family and children.
What is a narcissist?
Narcissism is on a spectrum. We all have traits which can be beneficial to us in certain situations (for example, before going into an important meeting, it can be beneficial to visualise your success and everyone congratulating you) but it is the consistent and persistent nature of the behaviours which determine if it is a personality disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health disorders categorises Narcissistic Personality disorder (NPD) as a Cluster B Personality disorder. The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits. Cluster B personality disorders are characterised by dramatic, erratic and emotional behaviours. Other Cluster B PD’s are antisocial, histrionic and borderline.
In order to be clinically diagnosed with a NPD the individual must have at least 5 of the following traits:
(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
(4) requires excessive admiration
(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
What this means for parenting
Equally can be “perform for me”, “make me look good”.
The attachment style of a parent has a huge impact for children. Someone with a disorganised attachment:
- Sees themselves as inadequate, alone and therefore must take control of others
- Sees others as threatening, inconsistent
As a parent, this translates to:
General Characteristics of a narcissistic parent
- Will expect everyone to bow down to them in the family. Has high behavioural expectations of the children. Wants everyone to think they are the perfect parent so will push the child into presenting as perfect which can cause a child great anxiety and make them very fearful of mistakes
- Can totally distort reality for the whole family by becoming fixated on what they “should” be doing or being. Children will often overhear their children lie to other people and this can be very confusing when the narcissist (and school/nursery and society in general) have a zero tolerance on lying. The child will struggle to organise their morality as it is one rule for the narcissist and another for everyone else.
- The narcissist may over exaggerate the child’s skill or experience in order for the narcissist to achieve their own aim of feeling special. This can set the child up for disappointment, failure and rejection which the narcissist will then punish them for “making them look bad”
- Narcissists will ruin special occasions, including their own children’s birthdays to make themselves centre of attention. Parties can be extravagant to show off and have everyone tell them what amazing parents they are for going to so much trouble. They will often exert themselves into situations which are none of their business because they feel they have the power to influence (grandiose sense of self) and then take all the credit (even if they did very little or even made it worse)
- Narcissists expect everyone to do as they say. The rule by fear and neglect. If family members disobey them they are punished either with rage or silence and others learn to do as they are told.
- Everyone is a commodity to the narcissist including their own children. They will parade them to gain attention from others but ignore them when they do not serve them. This is very confusing to children who need stability and consistency from their parents. Children will also witness lots of changes in people who are around the narcissist. They make and break relationships really easily so children learn not to become too attached to anyone.
- To the narcissist, the only feelings that matter are their own. Their mood becomes the mood of the whole family. Everyone learns to respond and sooth the narcissist. In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent soothes the child but when a parent lacks empathy it is the child who soothes the parent, teaching the child their feelings are not important and making it difficult for them to recognise their own feelings as they are so enmeshed with the narcissists.
- The narcissist doesn’t trust anyone and so have a very persecutory view of life. Coupled with their grandiose sense of self and their belief they are entitled, when they see others with things they want or deem of value they become very jealous and can make accusations as to how someone made that achievement. They will even accuse their own children of lying, cheating or stealing from them.
- A narcissistic parent looks down on everyone and is quick to criticise. They will compare their children to themselves and others to belittle their achievements.
It is important at this point to recognise that narcissists can be either male or female. Although there is some research that shows more men are diagnosed with NPD, that isn’t necessarily accurate as narcissists only tend to be diagnosed once they are forced into treatment or assessment and many female narcissists can be misdiagnosed with other PD’s (BPD is more prevalent amongst females) or psychiatric disorders.
We will now look more specifically at narcissistic mothers and fathers.
Research has shown that there are 3 main types of childhood experienced by narcissistic mothers:
- Incompetent childhood
- Isolate childhood
- Denied childhood
Isolated childhood characterised by 3 types of behaviour:
- Envy and creating a shiny facade
The narcissistic mother make the child dependent upon her. She isolates the competition for her child’s time and attention. The child is conditioned to satisfy the mother’s needs, this becomes their purpose. The mother’s presence is inescapable and undeniable. The mother regularly resorts to attention seeking behaviours, will pit others (including father and siblings) against each other to keep her at the centre. Secrecy is a strong theme and no-one is allowed to talk about the amount of control the mother has.
“She never had anything positive to say about anyone”
Envy and creating a shiny facade
The narcissistic mother despises others to bolster her own sense of value. Everything in the home has to be perfect. Any compliments the children receives, she takes the credit for. Will push the children to be the best “for her” so that she can bask in their attention. She appears to be caring and sensitive but that is a stark contrast to the misery she creates in the family. She projects an idealised fantasy out into the world. No-one is allowed to be happy unless the happiness is related to the mother (i.e. makes her look good or feel better)
“She was respected, no-one would have believed what she was really like”
The mother blames everyone else (but can scapegoat) for everything. Children cannot trust her as she distorts reality so convincingly.
“I never knew when she was telling the truth”
Incompetent childhood characterised by 3 types of behaviour:
- Demonstration of power
The child is never appreciated, they receive no support or encouragement. The parent never makes a mistake but everything the child does is a mistake. Child becomes extension of mother. Narcissists fight when and where they want to (in the circumstances they choose) in order to gain advantage
Demonstrations of power
Mother decides what is permitted (friends, behaviour, clothes, house rules) but whether the child follows them or not they are wrong. This leads to either compliance or rebellion. The child is humiliated and has no confidence. There are no boundaries and the mother is erratic, moving the goal posts when it suits. Daughter has no control and feels totally trapped. They learn that they are not safe or reliable as a parent
Shame is a bi-product of the previous two. They become ashamed because they can never do anything right and have no value (demonstrations of power)
Their identity is based on inferiority, weakness, imperfection, worthlessness and ineffectiveness.
Their life is service and suffering
“She showed in every way that I disappointed her”
“I had to be non-existent and obedient”
Denied childhood characterised by:
Mother uses violence to punish the child and no provocation is required. Leaving the child walking on egg-shells and living in fear.
Threatening behaviour has the same outcome in that the child lives in constant fear of doing something to upset the mother and making her angry. “Everyone was afraid of her”
The mother rejects the child and fails to meet their basic needs. They offer no protection which leaves the child vulnerable to abuse from others.
“All of my toys were taken because I was told i was too old – I was only 9”
Dr Amanda Robbins identifies 10 signs of a narcissistic mother:
She wants to control you.
Trying to assert yourself results in anger, rejection and hostility. She doesn’t appreciate your attempts to individuate as it means you are going to be less available to serve her needs.
Her love is conditional.
A mother who is narcissistic is interested in how you (and your achievements) reflect on her. She wants you to succeed, but only so that she looks good. She may even become jealous if she feels you are doing too well.
She can’t or won’t validate your feelings.
There is very little room in her emotional consciousness for your feelings. If they do something that upsets you, narcissists generally won’t be prepared to acknowledge their mistake or soothe your upset. They are too focused on trying to manage the shame elicited by your implied criticism. She may sometimes be there if you need support, but most often she will turn it around so that it becomes about her.
She belittles you.
A narcissistic mother will be full of praise in one moment, hypercritical and judgmental the next. They can make your head spin! A narcissistic mother knows where it hurts. She will often use sarcasm or belittling language to humiliate you, perhaps in front of others. She may fob off your concern with excuses such as “can’t you take a joke?”
She tries to manipulate you.
The manipulation can be quite subtle, causing you to question your doubts and fears. She may call you “selfish” because you don’t want to be her maid or chauffeur 24/7 Being afraid to say no to her because you fear her disapproval or anger is definitely not a good sign.
She thinks she is above the rules.
Narcissists prefer not to have to follow the rules that apply to us lesser mortals. The sense of entitlement that accompanies narcissism can manifest in expectations of special treatment. She might try to get out of a parking ticket through manipulation or flirtatious behavior, then she gets angry. She can embarrass you in the takeaway line at your favorite coffee shop. If she is not allowed to jump the coffee queue or secure her favorite table at a popular restaurant, she may become disproportionately angry.
She is unpredictable.
Narcissists often wax and wane in terms of their attention and availability. She may shower you with affection and attention (love-bombing) when she wants something from you and ignore you when she is going OK. Her ability to care about you is dependent on her own needs rather than any genuine commitment to you as a separate and autonomous being.
It’s all about how things look.
Because they are largely dependent on social cues to manage their self-image, narcissists will be focussed on how things appear, and most importantly, how they appear to those whose opinion matters to them. Narcissistic mothers will generally like to appear socially successful, keeping a nice-looking home, wearing expensive clothes and hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Your mother might spend a lot of time trying to impress the neighbors, her employers and others whom she considers worth her time.
She cannot see your point of view.
In general, narcissistic mothers will be unwilling to understand or even acknowledge your point of view. She may ignore, belittle or undermine you, often using manipulation or guilt-tripping to get her way.
She is emotionally volatile
Narcissists are often emotionally unstable, swinging between cold rage and collapsed fragility depending on environmental cues. Mothers with these characteristics have very low self-esteem underneath their bluster and will become teary or desperate if they meet ongoing resistance.
Fathers and daughters
- Father sees his daughter is an extension of himself
- Father tries to control and shape the daughter into the perfect child
- The daughters emotional needs are not attended to
- Father will be perceived by others as extremely caring
- Distorted view of value
- Adored today and forgotten tomorrow
- Daughter blames the mother for the perceived flaws of the father
Fathers and sons
- The narcissistic father is a significant influence in the the son’s life
- The narcissistic father teaches the son a lot of maladaptive behaviors regarding how to approach other people
- The narcissistic father will have a strong position on whether the son should have children of his own
- The narcissistic father lives vicariously through the son in a way that connects with the grandiose fantasy
- The narcissistic father is not necessarily emotionally distant, but he does not focus on emotions that the son is having
- The son may get abandoned for another child, perhaps a son or daughter that can allow the narcissistic father to feel more fulfilled
- In a divorce situation, the father is typically divisive and encourages the son to side with him against the mother
Mark Banscick identifies 11 signs of a narcissistic father.
Dad was self-centered and pretty vain.
He had an inflated sense of self-importance that led him to believe he was superior and entitled to only the best.
Dad used people for his own good.
He would take advantage of others, to the point of exploiting them when it suited him. Everybody seemed to cater to him — or at least he expected them to.
Dad was charismatic.
Everyone wanted to be around him and he relished admiration from others. He loved being in the spotlight and the positive reinforcement that came from being the center of attention.
No one had an imagination like Dad.
Grandiosity is alluring, and so were his fantasies of success, prestige and brilliance. He would often exaggerate his achievements, and his ambitions and goals bordered on unrealistic.
Dad didn’t take criticism well.
Nothing stung him like criticism; he often cut those people out of his life, or tried to hurt them.
Dad’s rage was truly scary.
Some people get mad and yell a lot. Dad could hurt you with his anger. It cut to the bone.
Dad could be aloof and unsympathetic.
Narcissists often have a hard time experiencing empathy; they often disregard and invalidate how others feel. Of course, he was exquisitely sensitive to what he felt, but others were of no mind.
Dad wasn’t around a lot.
He got a lot of gratification outside the family. Other fathers hung out with their families a lot more. Plus, he craved excitement and seemed to be more concerned by what others thought of him, rather then how his own kids felt about him.
Dad did what he wanted when dealing with you.
Narcissists don’t step into someone else’s shoes very often. He only did things with you that he enjoyed.
Dad wanted you to look great to his friends and colleagues.
You were most important to him when he could brag about you.
You couldn’t really get what you needed from him.
Even if Dad provided on a material level, you felt deprived on a more subtle level. For example, you wanted his attention and affection but would only get it sporadically, and only when it worked for him.
Outcomes for children raised by a narcissistic parent
Alienation and isolation are common tactics narcissists use to control their victims and this sense of isolation can result in adult children struggling to navigate friendships and relationships.
A child raised by a narcissistic parent can experience a lot of pain and loss which as an adult can manifest as depressive disorders.
Anxiety and cPTSD
Life with a narcissistic parent is unpredictable and this puts strain on the nervous system which in turn floods the body with stress chemicals which can cause complex-PTSD and anxiety disorders.
Children of narcissists aren’t taught how to cope with negative emotions and so adult children can often turn to substances in order to deal with life and their unhappiness.
Narcissists do not support autonomy. They create codependency and in order to be fully compliant, that means sacrificing their own identity and so as adults they often don’t know who they are and what their likes and dislikes are, preferring to take the lead of others which of course puts them in the path of other narcissists and abusive personalities.
Fully compliant children (golden child) often become co-narcissistic in childhood (enmeshed with their narcissistic parents ideas, views and beliefs) which can result in developing NPD in adulthood.
How do you protect a child from a narcissistic parent?
This is a question I get asked a lot as part of my work with people navigating the court system or attempting to co-parent with a narcissist.
What I have discovered is three main approaches:
- Psychological intervention as soon as possible in the court process
- Focus on the child and helping them to develop resilience, independence and self-worth
- Heal your own wounds to be able to better manage the ongoing relationship with a narcissistic parent
In order to obtain a psychological assessment you need to be able to demonstrate that there is a psychological element to your case. Use the child’s behaviour to demonstrate this. Present your evidence in a child focused, non accusatory way and prove that expert intervention is required for a change of behaviour. In Get Court Ready we walk you through how to work with assessors in order to best explain your experience and ensure the patterns of narcissistic abuse are clear without having to label your ex.
Remaining Child Focused
This parent is going to be part of their lives forever and so it is important that your child learns how to manage this for themselves. Focus on all the behaviours we have talked about in this chapter and work with your child to counteract them. Our book “Help! My Child Is Being Used As A Weapon” provides you with a more indepth look at narcissistic parenting and how to practice attachment based positive parenting with your child, including practical activities for you and the family to use.
Your child is going to look to you to help them deal with this and if you haven’t figured that out yet, they will go to the next person which is the narcissist. Maybe you are the adult child reading this and have only ever heard the narcissists version of events. You are now questioning your childhood and feel lost as to how you begin to rebuild your life without the voice of your narcissistic parent dictating your choices. The likelihood is that you also have cPTSD and so you are easily retriggered and struggle to think logically. This can impact your own attachment style with your children and so it is important to focus on your own healing in order to help others. For more help with this we offer a free 20 minute consultation to explore your options. Book yours at https://thenurturingcoach.co.uk/support
Narcissistic parents, left to their own devices, wreak havoc amongst families. Whilst they themselves will rarely choose to actively change their behaviour, there are things you can do for yourself to manage the situation more effectively and ultimately that is the only thing you can control in this situation. And that act of self love, in doing something for yourself, breaks the codependent cycle and creates an opportunity for you and your children to break free.
Do you recognise these behaviours? How have they affected you or your children?