It is hard to cope with a narcissist when you are a mature, well-functioning adult. Pity the children of narcissists as they have an especially difficult burden to bear; they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents. They may be cast into the role of Golden Child or Scapegoat, but either way the child of a narcissist never receives that to which all children should be entitled: a parent’s unconditional love.
Narcissistic parents tend to be very intrusive in some ways yet entirely neglectful in others. A narcissistic parent may come off as loving and caring because he or she will have an exclusive and possessively close relationship with the children in order to control and manipulate them. The child is considered and treated as an extension of the narcissist. The children are punished if they do not respond appropriately to the parents’ needs. This punishment may include physical abuse, angry outbursts (narcissistic rages), blame, attempts to instill guilt, emotional neglect, and harsh criticism. Whatever form it takes, the purpose of the punishment is to ensure compliance with the parents’ narcissistic needs.
Narcissistic Parent-Child Cycle
The narcissist views children simply as sources of Narcissistic Supply (and are idealized and over-valued) or not sources of Supply (and are valueless, devalued). He does not seek to be loved by his children as he gets all the love that he needs from himself. They are his audience and he wishes to impress them, shock them, threaten them, inspire them, attract their attention or manipulate them.
When a narcissistic parent begets his own children, he or she is likely to go through three phases:
At first, he (she) perceives his offspring as a threat to his Narcissistic Supply, such as the attention of his spouse or mother (now a grandmother). The offspring intrudes on his territory and invades his personal space (Narcissistic Space). The narcissist does his best to belittle them, hurt (even physically) or humiliate them. If these reactions prove ineffective or counterproductive, he may retreat into a period of emotional absence and detachment.
The child is considered the enemy as they are in competition for scarce Narcissistic Supply. Where the expression of aggression or hostility is illegitimate or impossible – the narcissist will stay away emotionally, if not physically. Rather than attack his offspring, he will disconnect, detach emotionally, become cold and uninterested, or redirect anger at his mate.
However, other narcissists see the opportunity in this event. They seek to manipulate their mate by “taking over” and monopolizing the newborn child. They indirectly benefit from the attention directed at the infants. The progeny becomes a vicarious source of Narcissistic Supply and is utilized as a proxy for the narcissist.
For example, by closely identifying with his child, a narcissistic father secures the admiration of the mother (“What a great father he is”). He also assumes the credit for baby’s achievements. This is a process of “annexation and assimilation of the other”, a strategy that the narcissist makes use of in many of his relationships.
In the second phase, the narcissist’s attitude changes as the children grow older; he is able to see their potential to be reliable and satisfactory sources of Narcissistic Supply. His previous enemies have now become promising Supply potentials. He encourages them to idolize him, to adore him, to admire his deeds and capabilities and to learn to blindly trust and obey him.
It is at this stage that the risk of child abuse – from emotional incest up to sexual incest – is heightened. Molesting or having intercourse with them is as close as the narcissist gets to having sex with himself as he considers them strictly as extensions of himself.
However, as they grow older and mature, they often refuse to continue to be his pawn or puppet. They may hold grudges against him for what he has done to them in the past, and they can now realistically judge his true stature, talents and achievements. In this third phase, the child is perceived as no longer meeting his primary role as a source of Supply. The parent’s emotional reaction is harsh and the true nature of their pathological relationship is exposed. The narcissist reacts to this “breach in the unwritten contract” with aggression, contempt, rage, emotional and psychological abuse, and not infrequently physical abuse. He tries to destroy the “disobedient” child and regain the former, subservient child.
This brings the narcissistic parent full circle back to the first phase. Again, he perceives his sons or daughters as threats, enemies. He devalues them and loses all interest; he becomes emotionally remote, absent and cold, and rejects any effort to communicate with him. He (or she) may sometimes give a reason for this behavior such as life pressures or the preciousness and scarceness of his time.
The narcissist parent rebels either passively-aggressively (refusing to act or by intentionally sabotaging the relationships) or actively (being overly critical, aggressive, verbally and psychologically abusive etc.).
Children of Narcissists and Custody
According to Sam Vaknin, author and expert on narcissism, a parent who has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) should be denied custody and be granted only restricted rights of visitation under supervision.
Narcissists view and treat children the same way they do adults. They regard both as sources of Narcissistic Supply, simply instruments for their gratification. They idealize children at first but then devalue them in preference to alternative, more subservient sources. Such treatment is traumatic and can have long-lasting emotional and psychological effects.
Furthermore, the narcissist’s inability to acknowledge or abide by the boundaries set by others puts the child at heightened risk for abuse – verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual. His or her possessiveness and array of negative emotions (aggression, rage, envy, etc.) hinder their ability to act as an adequate parent. Their inclination toward reckless behavior, substance abuse, and sexual deviance endangers the child’s welfare.
Narcissists view children simply in terms of unlimited sources of Narcissistic Supply. Young children will unconditionally admire the narcissistic parent and yield to every wish and every command. A narcissistic parent will regard all other aspects of child-rearing as repulsive: the noises, the smells, the invasion of narcissistic space, the nuisances, the long term commitment and, above all, the diversion of attention and admiration away from the narcissist. Furthermore, the narcissist will envy his own successful child as he would any other competitor for admiration and attention. As the child matures, the narcissistic parent will devalue his or her children causing significant harm emotionally and sometimes physically. The narcissistic parent-child relationship is pathological and follows the same pattern as all of the narcissist’s relationships—first they idealize the person/child and then they cruelly devalue and abandon them (emotionally, if not physically).