Narcissistic parents get a lot of bad press. I myself have targeted them for criticism. And not without good reason. Narcissists, by definition, lack some of the core qualities and characteristics needed to make a good parent. But what is it really like to be raised by one?
One thing that narcissists lack is consistency so I am going to describe some of the experiences but it isn’t as black and white as them falling neatly into one category. They can be all of them, sometimes within the space of a few minutes.
Boundaries are like kryptonite to narcissists. They repel them and so they stay as far away as possible from them. Therefore children can be allowed to do whatever they want and are often spoiled rotten with material things, all in the guise of obtaining their allegiance. If the other parent tells them they can’t have a new computer game because they aren’t old enough, the “disney parent” will buy it for them to stick two fingers up at their ex but also to ensure that the child likes them best and criticises their other parent. It’s a tool used in parental alienation to great effect.
Disney Parents will take them on amazing holidays, often multiple times a year, to keep them close and buy their children’s affections. Everything is a competition with their ex and the narcissist has no intention of losing.
To the child, these things seem great at the time. They feel in control, they get whatever they want and get to jet off and visit lovely new destinations. The reality is though that children NEED boundaries. By giving them all they want and allowing them to set their own rules they aren’t creating a safe space for their children to grow up. Children who aren’t given boundaries struggle with routine, authority and fitting in. They also can grow up to be narcissistic in their own behaviours because they believe they are entitled to get everything they ask for.
Prison Officer Parent
The opposite of the Disney Parent is the Prison Officer Parent. These parents rule with an iron fist. They have a “do as I say, not as I do” and “because I said so” mantra. Children are kept on a tight leash and have very little freedom or independence. They have to ask permission to do anything, often down to the everyday things like choosing their lunch. Mistakes are severely punished and children learn very quickly that “love” is conditional. Children are made to work extra hard to get their needs met and their allegiance is demanded at all times. It is an environment based on fear. They will use humiliation and retribution to control their children and so shame becomes internalised for these children.
Sadly for these children, they have very low self esteem and constantly live in fear. They don’t have friends and are very fearful of making mistakes because they know they will be punished. They desperately want to please though and so work so hard to do their best. In later life they will often end up in abusive relationships because they associate “love” with punishment and fear. They are trauma bonded to this parent and will be enmeshed to them for fear of being seen as abandoning them or failing them.
Barely There Parent
I don’t necessarily mean physically barely there either. Barely There Parents can have full custody of their children but still be barely there for them. They are inherently selfish and so only want the children to ensure their ex doesn’t have them, not because they actually want them. They will often palm them off onto other people at every given opportunity to pursue their own desires. Even when they are at home, they aren’t interested in the children. They are neglectful in their care of them and children often grow up to be carers for their younger siblings and even the narcissist.
Children raised by Barely There Parents grow up feeling very unloved and unappreciated. They learn that others are unreliable and so relationships are often abusive and explosive.
As I stated, in my experience narcissistic parents can at times be all three but they will have a default parenting style. They can also have different parenting styles for different children. For example, a Golden Child will have a Disney Parent experience most of the time whereas the Scapegoat is more likely to experience the Prison Officer and the lost child will experience the Barely There Parent. However, the narcissist isn’t consistent and will make the children vie for their attention by rotating his “favourite” just enough so that none of them are sure where they stand and keep doing what the narcissist wants in order to get their needs met.
Long Term Impact
We know our early experiences shape us into who we are as adults and none more so than our relationship with our parents. There are some common traits amongst adult children of narcissists:
- They are people-pleaser and put themselves last – co-dependency is very common in children of narcissists. They don’t know who they are without some to care for.
- They show signs of narcissism – narcissistic parents are very dominant within family structures and so a lot of their behaviours become “normal” for other family members.
- They have difficult relationships with their siblings – narcissists pit people against one another for their own amusement and so as a child, siblings were seen as enemies not loved ones
- Their relationship with their parent sometimes boardered on incenstuous – narcissists have no boundaries and so children can be promoted to surrogate spouses. This can become sexual (although not in all cases) but is often emotional incent.
- They are desperate to be liked or recognised as special – narcissistic children have a real fear of failure and so will push themselves in whatever area holds the most status for them (if being a wife/husband is the most important thing to them, they will want to be the best and become very distressed if the relationship develops problems)
- They lack an identity – they struggle to know who they are and what they like without someone else telling them. They are so used to being controlled by their parent and having their independence stifled that they struggle with basic decision making.
How to recover
The first step, as with any recovery process, is the acknowledgement of what has happened to you. Understanding that your parent was a narcissist can initially feel like a huge relief because children of narcissists internalise everything as being their own fault (even children who grow up to be narcissists have deep rooted self loathing).
Now you know, you have a choice about the relationship you want to have with your parent. Although it has been drummed into you to be obedient and that you somehow owe them, you are entitled to be happy and if your relationship with your parent is negatively impacting your wellbeing, you have every right to go no contact. This is not an easy decision though and will require you to look at boundary setting.
Inner child world is really valuable for children of narcissists because they essentially need re-parenting. I recommend seeking out a counsellor who can understand to assist you with this work (I will be running some Inner Child Workshops in my Facebook Group which would be a good place to start). Check out our One to One Support page for details of the support we can offer.
It is also likely that you suffer from PTSD or complex PTSD and so you may avoid situations which remind you of your childhood, have trouble with your memory and be hypervigilant to the possibility of threats. Again there are treatment options available (discussed in our free download Recovering from PTSD and on our website)
We look at more ways to recover in our free download, Understanding Narcissistic Families)
Although I was not raised by narcissistic parents, I do write a lot about narcissistic parents and work with many who were either raised by one or are trying to co-parent with one so I feel well placed to write this post. If you do have experience you wish to share, please do comment below.