The only thing Alice ever got from her mother was contempt. She can’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case.
This is how psychologist Daniel Shaw describes one of his patients in his paper on how narcissistic parents affect their children.
Alice’s mother could not admit any imperfection. If anything was wrong – at all – it was Alice’s fault. After decades of dealing with this, Alice had come to believe it. She had low self-esteem, had abandoned a promising career in nursing, and was dating a man who really was not good for her. She seems to be stuck in a lifestyle that confirmed her narcissistic mother’s low expectations of her.
Unfortunately, this is a fairly common scenario among adult children of narcissists. How does this happen? How can the experiences of childhood echo so strongly in people’s adult lives? And how can this be treated?
Children of narcissistic parents
Let’s start at the beginning. What happens to children of narcissistic mothers and fathers?
To answer that, let’s think about why a narcissist would have children in the first place. At first glance, having children would seem like a selfless act, right? To create, nurture, and care for another being means putting someone else ahead of yourself. And as you know, narcissists prefer to put themselves first.
So it’s probably no surprise that a study in 2019 found that, on average, narcissists have fewer children than the general population. But some narcissists obviously do. So for the ones that choose to have kids, what’s the motivation?
As I explain in this post, narcissists treat their children just like they do anything else – as a potential source of narcissistic supply. They do not see their children as a target for their love and affection but as a source of self-esteem. As in many areas of their lives, narcissists choose to have children if there’s something in it for them.
This can lead to confusing if not outright abusive behavior towards the child. At times, the narcissistic parent may over-value their children, setting impossibly high standards for them. But at other times, they may be extremely dismissive and neglectful.
Whether the child experiences Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde, depends on whether they provide narcissistic supply to the narcissistic parent. So a child of narcissistic parents comes to learn that love, warmth, and affection is conditional – it isn’t just there, it’s something they have to work for. They have to act in certain ways if they want to be loved.
But of course, this isn’t a fair contest – every child craves affection from their parents, so they dutifully do what they need to do in order to get that love. In other words, a child of narcissistic parents has to set aside their own, wants, needs, and even their personality to suit their parent. As we’ll see, this can have a real negative effect on the child, and these effects can linger well into adult life.
Characteristics of children of narcissists
A parental environment like this can stunt the normal emotional development of a child. They develop what is sometimes called “co-narcissism”.
Narcissists tend to be very rigid, self-absorbed, and lacking in empathy. Their behaviour is a defence mechanism to help protect a very fragile self-esteem. When you grow up around someone like this, you have to develop your own defence mechanisms – and in many ways, these are the opposite of narcissistic traits:
- Instead of being rigid, you become flexible. You have to be, in order to shape yourself into the image that you think your parent wants you to be. You may not ever learn who you really are, because you’re too busy trying to be who your parent wants you to be.
- Instead of being self-absorbed, you become very focused on others, worrying about what they think, what their opinions are, and how they feel about you. You have learned not to expect warmth from others naturally – that has to be earned. So you might become a people-pleaser, as you try to earn that warmth you never got from your narcissistic parent.
- Instead of lacking empathy, you become very empathetic. For you, empathy is a crucial tool, because to stay in your narcissistic parent’s good books, you have to be able to read them. What is their mood? How do they want you to act right now?
Research has shown that as a result of all this, children of narcissistic parents are at much higher risk of:
- Depression and anxiety
- Being unable to form healthy bonds with other people (this can go different ways – they may be unable to relate to others, or they might become overly dependent on others)
- Blaming themselves for any of their parent’s faults
- Feeling shameful or selfish whenever they put themselves first
- Feeling like an object of their parents needs, rather than a unique individual in their own right
- In some cases, developing NPD themselves (we’ll discuss this in more detail a little later)
However, the actual effect on the child can be very different if there is another parent present, who does not suffer from NPD. Psychologists sometimes break mental health symptoms into two groups:
- Externalising: conditions such attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD). In these cases, the inner issue is externalised into the outside world through behaviour.
- Internalising: things like depression, anxiety disorders, and separation anxiety disorders. In these, the inner issue is not externalised, but “bottled up” inside
A study of over 900 children found that when children are raised by one narcissistic parent and one non-narcissist, externalising problems are more common. But when children are raised by one narcissistic parent alone, internalising problems are more common.
Adult children of narcissistic parents
Unfortunately, the problems that children of narcissistic parents endure don’t stop in childhood. The ghosts of the past continue to haunt them throughout their adult life.
For example, in one study of nearly 200 people, adult children of narcissists had lower rates of self-esteem, and higher rates of depression than children who weren’t raised by narcissists. In another, children who experienced alienation from their parents also had these same emotional problems, but they were also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and had difficulty trusting others.
Problems like low self-esteem and substance abuse this can happen after many different forms of abuse during childhood – these aren’t specific to being the child of a narcissistic parent. But there are some other problems that might be a little more unique to this situation. One of these is a loss of intersubjectivity.
OK, that’s a bit of a technical term so let me explain what it means!
We all have our own subjective experience of life. We see the world through our own eyes, we have our own thoughts and beliefs, and we move through life feeling that we’re in the driving seat. That’s subjectivity.
When two people get together, there’s a little mingling of our subjective worlds. You believe one thing, I believe another. You feel one emotion, I feel something else. But over time, we learn to understand and accommodate each other. We might disagree about many things, but we find common ground. In a way, we create a shared reality between the two of us. That’s intersubjectivity.
Now, narcissists are not keen on intersubjectivity at all. Instead, they push their subjective world onto others. Their needs and wants come first, their beliefs are correct. If anyone doesn’t agree with this, or tries to push their own subjective world onto the narcissist, the narcissist will respond in a negative way – perhaps narcissistic rage, put downs, or other forms of abuse.
In some cases, the child of a narcissist doesn’t learn intersubjectivity from their parent. They might identify with their parent, and copy them, learning to pushing their parent’s world onto others. But more commonly, they become submissive, and allow others to push their world onto them. Through years of having their parents reality pushed onto them, this becomes a habit that they repeat with other people. This is what happened with Alice, who we met at the start of this article.
Adult children of Narcissists and Marriage
An adult child of a narcissist often experiences unhealthy, stormy, and difficult romantic relationships. The bond between parent and child has a powerful influence on the relationships we develop in adulthood, and when that parental bond lacks unconditional love, adult children of Narcissists sometimes don’t develop the belief that they deserve to be treated well by others.
So, they gravitate towards relationships that have a similar “vibe” to the one they experienced with their parents. As psychologist Seth Meyers explains, a healthy relationship full or warmth, trust, and affection can be a great source of anxiety to the child of a narcissist.
Through their childhood, they learned that to get praise from their narcissistic parent, they had to put their own needs last. Whenever they did put their own needs first, they triggered a narcissistic injury in their parent, and were punished for it – by being ignored, neglected, or put down.
It’s as though they create a circuit in their brain, to help protect them from that punishment. They know that if they put their own needs first, they will end up being punished. So the very thought of that makes them anxious.
When they reach adulthood, that circuit still exists – even if the narcissistic parent is long out of the picture. If they meet a nice partner who puts them first, the circuit gets triggered all the same. They feel that same anxiety, and they worry that the punishment is coming – even if it isn’t any more.
Do Children of Narcissists Become Narcissists Themselves?
I mentioned earlier that children of narcissistic parents are at a higher risk of developing NPD themselves. The key words here are “higher risk” – it certainly doesn’t happen to every child. It takes a combination of factors.
Some studies have shown a genetic aspect to NPD. According to this idea, whether a child develops NPD depends, in part, on whether they inherit the genes that lead to it. We inherit 50% of our genes from each parent, and which ones we get from who, is basically random. Without the prerequisite genes, the chance of developing NPD is much lower.
But genes only tell part of the story. Although the causes of NPD are not well understood, it’s thought that we need a very particular childhood experience to develop it – involving a combination of overvaluation and neglect from the parent. The overvaluation creates a deep need for praise and affection, and the neglect creates a very low self-esteem – two key components of NPD.
However, as we discussed previously if another, non-narcissistic parent is present in the child’s upbringing, this can reduce the risk somewhat. The second parent may be able to prevent or minimize some of the neglect and abuse that the narcissistic parent throws out, and provide at least some parental warmth, that might help the child develop in a healthier way.
How do Therapists Help Adult Children of Narcissists?
By adulthood, the children of narcissists have been through a lot. For a therapist to help the child of a narcissist live a healthy emotional life, all the issues we discussed above need to be broken through, including:
- Any emotional and substance abuse problems that might be present
- Lack of intersubjectivity – the difficulty relating to others, or believing that other people might be able to like them at all
- Faulty beliefs that are now in control of their behaviour (for example, the belief that they have to put their own needs last in order to be loved)
According to therapist Jay Reid, this involves a baseline of “empathy, positive regard, and a desire to understand”, but, he says, this isn’t enough by itself.
On top of that, the therapist also needs to help the client see themselves as they actually are, instead of how they have learned to see themselves. This involves unravelling their faulty beliefs, and learning to see the world in a more objective way. Reid calls this “Therapeutic Disagreement”, but you find the same idea in many types of therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
Additionally, the therapist needs to remove any protectiveness the patient has towards their parent. You might wonder why someone would be protective towards their abuser, but it is actually quite common, especially when we’re talking about parental abuse.
Remember, the child really just wants love and affection from their narcissistic parent. To admit that their parent is abusing them means giving up all hope that this love will ever come. Since the thought of this is very painful, children simply make excuses (often putting the blame on themselves), and carry on trying to get the love that they crave.
This is part of the reason that children of narcs end up in stormy, difficult marriages. If they find a spouse who is abusive in the same way as their parent, and they can get their new spouse to love them, then maybe their parent actually did love them all along. Maybe it really was their fault for not learning exactly how to act in order to get it.
And so, difficult relationships become like a puzzle they have to solve, to prove their parent’s love really did exist – but was just being withheld. So they move from abuser to abuser, trying to beat the puzzle.
Reid’s approach, is to remove the protectiveness around their parent. If the patient can accept that their parent was mistreating them, and that the love was probably not there, they can then break out of this cycle of bad relationships.
Of course this is a painful hurdle to jump, and as with many forms of therapy, things can get worse, emotionally speaking before they get better. But, life is easier on the other side of these hurdles.