The Burden of a Narcissistic Parent

Narcissism is a frequently used term in the current socio-political climate. The truth is that most people who are successful in our world have a healthy dose of narcissism, a healthy sense of confidence and self -focus. However, these qualities do not a narcissist make. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a serious diagnosis rooted, many theorists believe, from a developmental trauma in early childhood. The early wound prohibits a complete development of identity and creates an individual who quite literally cannot decipher their “self” from other people. To sit with a person like this can often make you feel erased, like your existence in the meeting, conversation, date, whatever, was unnecessary.  Recently, maybe it’s celeb news of late, I’ve become interested in the circumstance of the child of a narcissistic parent.

I’ve had clients describe the experience as a stunted adolescence, a feeling of not being able to participate fully in their own life. One client described not wanting to date as a teenager for fear of destroying her parents with the fact of her growing up. This feeling comes about because the parent literally merged with the child, and the child’s experience was not her own. Hobbies, success at school, even a first job become the parents’ accomplishments, and failures become magnified as if the child’s embarrassment brings shame to their parent. Think about what a heavy burden this is for a young person. The child is left without a base, and in fact, with a deficit from which to build her own sense of self.

As children we need to explore our world and push the boundaries of our existence. We need to be able to succeed and fail based on our experience and experimentation through different stages of development. A young typically developing child is going to learn how to walk, use the bathroom, speak in words then phrases then sentences and along the way will fall, have accidents, and make mistakes. An older child is learning how to be social, how to balance the burden of responsibility with the gift of reward, and finally, how capable they are of succeeding in the world. Throughout these years a parent has an awesome responsibility to first interpret the need of a young child and later, to help an older child learn how to interpret and meet their own needs. In fact, much of childhood is a time of developmentally appropriate and necessary narcissism.

With a narcissistic parent all of this is hijacked by the illness, which renders the parent incapable of seeing the child. The narcissistic parent is often highly critical, especially of those things that are unique in their child. I’ve had clients describe criticism of the volume of their voice or their sense of humor. These things that separate the child from the parent are intolerable.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder might, in fact, be more prevalent today than it ever was before. Parents are more distracted, children are spending their early years in a noisier, more chaotic environment surrounded by technology. Parents are stressed, wearing multiple hats, and that tension pulls them away from the most important role of parent. So, where do we go from here?

If you see yourself in this piece as the child of a narcissistic parent, good news, you exist. Even better news, you are beginning to see yourself. It’s important to begin to realize that love and acceptance are not as hard won by others as they were by your parent. You need not convince people of your worth, you are worthy. Probably, as the child of your parent, you know how to give unconditional love and find the good in most people. It is your special gift and makes you an amazing person to know. Your mantra with your parent and people like them is “it’s not about me” because truly, it never has been. Now, that speaks to the neglect in your childhood, as well as the criticism or disappointment of your present.

If you are a parent please take the time now to parent as your number one priority. Listen to your children when they speak, be curious about the people they are. They are not little versions of you; they are their own people, who someday might rule the world. Be fascinated by them and impressed by them, because it is through you that they will see themselves, and it should not be the other way around.

69 Responses to “The Burden of a Narcissistic Parent”

  1. Julie says:

    So true!!

  2. Hello.This post was really interesting, especially because I was investigating for thoughts on this issue last couple of days.

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