Toxic Narcissistic Family Dynamics Explained

In April 2020, trauma expert Shannon Thomas told Insider about the differences between healthy families, and families where a parent has NPD.

In healthy families, you’re just yourself – your name, your talents, your strengths and weaknesses. You’re the person,” she said. But in a narcissistic family, things are different: “everybody has to find somewhere to be, and a job to do within the family… they either support the narcissistic parent or they are the focus of the narcissistic parent’s rage.”

What’s interesting is that the “jobs” or roles that Thomas talks about here are often quite similar between narcissistic families. As more and more people report their experiences – either with therapists or online – similar roles keep coming up, time and again.

As a society, we really need to get out heads around this – according to a study from 2008, rates of narcissism have been increasing, and the rate of increase has doubled since 2002. If this research is correct, then many of those narcissists will be having – or have already had – children of their own.

Since there are more narcissistic families out there than ever, it’s important that we understand narcissistic family dynamics – and the effect they have on the other members of the family.

So, let’s get started…

Narcissistic family dynamics: Why Do Narcissists Want Children?

To understand the narcissistic family, we first have to understand why narcissists would want to have children at all.

Why Do Narcissists Want Children?

Normally, having kids is a natural thing that happens when two people are committed to each other, and want to share the rest of their lives together. But there’s a word in there that isn’t generally part of a narcissist’s vocabulary – “share”! People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) want everything to be about them – but children are perhaps the ultimate sacrifice – you have to put their needs, their wants, their lives, ahead of your own. So why do narcissists bother?

Well, as with most decisions narcissists make, it boils down to their need for narcissistic supply (adoration, praise, and flattery – essentially, they want people to act around them as though they truly are as fantastic as they imagine themselves to be), and their need to avoid narcissistic injury (hurt feelings that arise when someone suggests that the narcissist is not as fantastic as they think they are).

Do Narcissists See Children as an Instrument to protect their ego?

Narcissistic family structure explained

If you look at parenthood through this lens, you can start to understand how narcissists view children. Although many narcissists lack self-awareness, they do have a good sense of how certain behaviors are perceived. Image is everything, and narcissists are highly attuned to society’s status symbols.

In other words, they know what is considered respectful by other people. Narcissistic parents understand that someone with a happy family life is seen as a better person, and therefore a family is a way to improve their image.

Now take this normal, healthy instinct to present yourself and your family in a positive way, and turn it up to 11. Make it an all-important obsession. You don’t need to portray a happy family members image, you must portray the BEST family image. The happiest, most functional, most successful family ever! Now you’re getting close to how narcissists think about, and act towards, their families.

As well as being a way to present a good image to the outside world, a family gives the narcissist another opportunity – a group of people they will be able to maneuver into giving them the narcissistic supply that they need. A mini-world they can retreat to and be top of the social hierarchy – no matter what else happens elsewhere in their lives, they’ll always have this safe space to return to.

The Narcissistic family structure

As we learned earlier, achieving these goals involves pushing family members into some common narcissistic family roles. Let’s break down the narcissistic family dynamic, and see what these common roles are. Keep in mind, that although these roles tend to be persistent – that is, a child tends to only have one role the vast majority of the time – they can be fluid. Roles can change depending on the NPD parent’s whims, or how people behave.

Narcissistic family scapegoat

The scapegoat role in a narcissistic family is exactly what it sounds like – they are the person in the family who gets the blame for everything. The narcissistic parent can use the scapegoat to generate narcissistic supply, through put-downs, insults and other forms of abuse, and will often turn the rest of the family against them too, which is commonly known as “family mobbing”.

But the abuse isn’t always so overt and direct. It can be subtle. For example, if the scapegoat triggers a narcissistic injury in their parent, they may be punished indirectly. For example, the narcissistic parent may cancel their karate lessons, but say it’s because they can’t afford them, when in truth, it’s because the scapegoat stepped out of line in some way. 

So why does a child become a scapegoat? Well we know that narcissists abuse others as a form of control – it’s very important for them to manage other people’s behaviour so that they get the narcissistic supply they need. 

But with their children, it’s a little different. Narcissists often see their children as extensions of themselves, and because of that, they project their own traits – both positive and negative – onto their children. Since narcissists are very often insecure (their grandiosity and confidence is simply a way of covering this up), they project this weaker side of themselves onto one of their children – the scapegoat.

The golden child

The golden child is pretty much the opposite to the scapegoat. Where the scapegoat is the target of anger and criticism, the golden child is the target of praise and adoration.

Most of the time, the golden child can do no wrong. Their successes are celebrated as if they are the narcissistic parent’s own, and their failures are brushed under the carpet (or blamed on the scapegoat). However, if the golden child tries to test the boundaries of the parent with NPD, they will soon learn that there is no real love or friendship behind the praise – it can be taken away as easily as it can be given out.

And how is the golden child chosen? In some cases it will be because they bring some status to the family in the eyes of the narcissistic parent. For example, they might be the captain of the football team, a straight “A” student, or be particularly attractive. In other cases, it might be the child who is more attentive to the narcissist, the one who buys into their view of the world the most readily.

Whatever the reason, it will be something that helps the narcissistic parent get their supply, either by helping them present that happy family image to the outside world or by simply making them feel more important within the mini-world of the narcissist’s family life.

Golden child vs the scapegoat child

In a way, the dynamic between the narcissistic parent, the scapegoat child, and the golden child is a form of triangulation. So the abuse may not be directly targeted at the scapegoat (such as through bullying, insults, or put-downs), but may be more indirect, using the golden child as a proxy.

For example, the scapegoat might want to take up the violin, but they’ll be told they can’t do that because the family is already spending too much money on the golden child’s Tae Kwon Do lessons. Or the golden child will be served first at the dinner table, and if there isn’t as much left for the scapegoat, well that’s just how it is. The narcissistic parent uses the golden child as a tool of abuse, by showing favoritism.

Of course, favouritism is not unique to narcissistic parents, so we shouldn’t assume that just because favouritism is going on, that it’s because of narcissism. In fact, one study in 2010 found that 70% of mothers in multi-sibling families could name a child they felt closest to, and 92% of children could name a sibling who argued with their parents most often. This study also found poor mental health implications as a result of this “normal” favouritism. So once again, we see the pattern where narcissistic behaviours are an extreme, exaggerated version of those found in non-narcissists. 

How the golden child treats the scapegoat child

The golden child might be encouraged to join in on the abuse of the scapegoat, either directly or indirectly, by the parent with NPD. Sadly, they often do – this can be for a number of reasons, including:

  • To attempt to please their parent – to live up to their expectations
  • To try to maintain the high-status they have in their parent’s eyes
  • Because they have inherited or adopted a tendency towards NPD themselves (we’ll come back to this idea shortly)
  • Fear – they worry that they’ll be put into the scapegoat role themselves if they don’t comply

Although this may not happen in all cases, if the golden child does adopt these behaviours, then life can be very difficult for the scapegoat. The golden child might start to abuse the scapegoat in the exact same ways that the narcissistic parent does – such as blaming them for the golden child’s own mistakes and shortcomings.

The enabling parent

Because people with NPD are deeply dependent on others for their narcissistic supply, they usually have enablers in their lives, and their romantic partner is often one of them (although the enabler role can also be taken up by other siblings).

An enabler is simply someone who supports or encourages a particular behaviour in another person. The enabling parent usually buys into the narcissists view of reality, and will generally not question it. In fact they may even make excuses for the narcissist’s behaviour, or try to downplay the negative aspects of it. 

This is especially true in public, where they may serve as a kind of reputation clean up crew, but also within the Narcissistic family structure itself – for example, they might downplay the abuse that is targetted at the scapegoat,

“Oh, come on, he’s your father, you know he loves you deep down, can’t you just forgive him?”

Although the enabling parent may not directly engage in abuse or manipulation of the children, they are sometimes referred to as “secondary abusers”, because they create conditions that allow or encourage the primary abuse to continue.

Growing up in a narcissistic family

Unfortunately, a narcissistic parent does not tend to raise healthy, adjusted children. In some families, where the second parent is not an enabler, they are able to provide a protective effect over their children.

They would do this by limiting the abuse and harm that the narcissistic parent can deal out, and by providing the unconditional love and affection that the narcissist does not supply. In these cases, the children of a narcissist may grow up to be relatively well-functioning, psychologically speaking.

However, most of the time, the second parent is caught within the narcissist’s spell, and therefore is unable or unwilling to be a buffer to their negative effects.

Of course, the impact of the narcissistic family on the children depends greatly on which child we’re talking about. Let’s look at those two key roles in turn.

Impact on the scapegoat

The family scapegoat child perhaps has the worst outlook. Low self-esteem, depression, no sense of belonging, and a difficult time negotiating adult relationships. They often have trust issues, which is natural when the people you should feel the safest around have turned against you. 

Also, after years of such abuse, the scapegoat may internalise the criticisms they believe. Peg Streep, over at Psychology Today, reports the experience of a girl who had been scapegoated by her family: 

“I honestly believed every word my mother and siblings said about me… I blamed myself for everything and couldn’t take credit or feel pride in anything… When something good happened, I thought it was a fluke… When something went wrong, I knew I’d made it happen because I was flawed and deficient”.

Impact on the golden child

While the scapegoat would appear to be in the worst position, it’s not all fun and games for the golden child either – and in many ways the impact is less straightforward. Yes, they get more attention and praise from the narcissistic parent, which any child would want. And yes, they are not the emotional punching bag for an entire family, which of course is preferable. 

However, keep in mind that the golden child is a pawn in the narcissists game also – if they are being pushed into this role, then they are being abused and manipulated too. The purpose of the golden child’s role is to support, attend to, and provide supply for the narcissistic parent – often to the complete exclusion of their own needs and wants.

Julie L. Hall, a trauma consultant and writer for The Huffington Post, tells the story of Lynn, a woman who was pushed into the golden child role:

“It was too complicated for me to manage having relationships other than with my mother. My only friends were people I would hang out with at school when my mother couldn’t expect me to be at home… [it was] horribly suffocating… I felt I couldn’t breathe. It was like I was in jail.”

The golden child is more likely to become trapped with the narcissist, and due to the undeserved praise, they may become brainwashed. As Lenora Thompson points out over at Psych Central, the scapegoat’s abuse is overt and obvious, and is more likely to result in them leaving the family, where at least they would be away from the source of abuse. However for the golden child, the abuse is more covert, confusing, and harder to escape.

The narcissistic family tree

I mentioned above that the golden child might develop NPD if they internalise the projections of their narcissistic parent. Could this be true? Does narcissism run in families?

The research on this is not completely clear, but there does see to be a heritable aspect to narcissism. However, just because someone has a narcissistic parent, doesn’t necessarily mean they will develop NPD themselves.

It’s thought that to develop NPD, you need a combination of genetic and environmental factors. One of the environmental factors, is overvaluation from the Narcissistic parents – exactly the sort of thing the golden child experiences. So it would seem that a child in the golden child role would me more likely to develop NPD than one in the scapegoat role.

On top of that, we know that narcissists tend to lack empathy. Well, one study in 2008 found that the siblings of scapegoated children are also often deficient in empathy.

The researchers believe this is a kind of defence mechanism – in order to to avoid the deep guilt they would normally feel by acting in abusive ways towards the scapegoat, the golden child simply detaches – they learn not to pay attention to how others feel.

However this may not be permanent, and many former golden children find themselves wracked with guilt later in life for the way they behaved in their childhood.

Did you grow up in a family with a narcissistic parent? Do any of these roles sound familiar to you? Let me know your experiences in the comments section below!

Written by Alexander Burgemeester on

Alexander Burgemeester has a Master in Neuropsychology. He studied at the University of Amsterdam and has a bachelor's in Clinical Psychology. He devotes himself to writing important information about certain mental health topics like Narcissism and Relationship problems. He is the main author of all content on Thenarcissisticlife.com Want to know more? Read by author bio page.