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Child Development

Does Childhood Trauma Make Us Attract Narcissists?

The reasons we can be blind to the red flags.

Key points

  • Children who grow up in narcissistic environments learn that chaos is “normal."
  • With a history of childhood maltreatment, a person has limited healthy experiences to guide their relationships.
  • A person's childhood conditioning can influence their choice of partner as an adult.
okeys/Unsplash
Source: okeys/Unsplash

Our childhood conditioning can influence our choice of partner as an adult. This may be especially true for individuals who felt unwanted, unseen, or unheard as children because of severe abuse or abandonment, or who had to “compete” with siblings for their caregiver’s attention. There is a plethora of existing research supporting correlations between a history of childhood maltreatment and an increased risk of becoming involved in toxic, narcissistic, or conflictual relationships (Handley, et al., 2021; Handley, et al., 2019; Haselschwerdt, et al., 21021; Murphy, et al., 2020).

When a parent is narcissistic—especially parents who display abusive, invalidating, or negligent tendencies—a child typically grows up believing chaos is “normal." There is no consistency, no sense of safety, no boundaries being taught, and no encouragement for the child to explore who they are and to appreciate and value their sense of self. Invalidating and abusive environments don’t teach self-worth, they don’t teach self-respect, and they don’t teach self-love. Instead, what a child learns is self-preservation and survival mode (Linehan, 1993).

Why Red Flags Are Missed and Dismissed

With a history of childhood maltreatment, a person has limited healthy experiences to use as a guide for their relationships. Children who grow up in invalidating environments aren’t being taught their value; they’re being taught to survive. A common side effect of survival mode is to unconsciously seek out what is familiar because it’s "comfortable." The result is often a pattern of invalidating, emotionally immature and psychologically limiting relationships that resonate with this “comfortable” pattern.

Three of the biggest red flags that often get dismissed as “normal” and put us at risk for a narcissistic relationship include:

Having a Parent Who Is a Narcissist. Children who grow up in narcissistic environments are learning one thing: that chaos is “normal." A child doesn’t expect things to change because how they grow up is all they know. Many adults grew up believing their toxic childhood was adaptive until they see how their friends live and first realize that their home environment is anything but adaptive.

Children who grow up in these conditions learn to either fight their way through life, or they try to escape these conditions through flight, freeze, or fawning behavior. Ultimately, what they learn is that no matter what they do, it’s never “good enough” and that their parent is always “right” while they are always “wrong." These familial conditions predispose children to later narcissistic abuse as being “familiar” in their adult lives. If a child is taught that they don’t matter or that their needs and opinions aren’t worthy, they are prone to falling hook, line, and sinker for a narcissist who pretends to hand them their unmet needs on a silver platter; only to pull the rug out from under them when they least expect it.

Intermittent Reinforcement Is Taught as "Comfortable." Traumatic bonds begin in our childhood, often as a result of narcissistic parenting where praise and attention are taught as contingent on perfection, performance, achievement, or accomplishments. The same caregivers use indifference or invalidation when a child is seen as performing “less than” their expectations.

These types of intermittent reinforcement are teaching the child to jump through hoops to maintain their parents’ expectations, while learning that praise and validation will be withheld for “failing” to maintain their parents’ unrealistic expectations. What the child learns is that their value is contingent on pleasing their caregivers; they become people-pleasers. They're also learning to try harder when caregivers withhold their attention, which strengthens a traumatic bond.

Fast-forward into their adult life and they’re at risk for falling for the charm and flattery of being “lovebombed” because many are starved for consistent attention and validation. Sadly, because they were primed in childhood to become people-pleasers or to fawn their way through life, many adults who have experienced profound childhood trauma are at an increased risk for attracting narcissistic partners who negatively reinforce their childhood pain.

Mirroring Behaviors Develop Due to a Limited Sense of Self. When an invalidating or abusive environment is taught as "normal," a child is not learning who they are. They may be shamed for expressing themselves, punished for having an opinion, or shown indifference for their likes or dislikes. This conditioning predisposes a child to mirroring others as a way of feeling valid and a sense of belonging and acceptance.

In childhood, healthy mirroring happens between parents and child, which helps foster the child's sense of self-awareness and identity. When a child is raised in an invalidating environment, this key developmental behavior is missing or deficient. The mirroring they needed but were denied in childhood can manifest in their adult lives as being mirrored in a narcissistic relationship where both partners have a limited sense of self-identity.

Healing From the Pattern

Recovery is possible. Developing a true sense of self means shedding the maldapative patterns learned in childhood for survival. Working toward self-discovery and developing long-term goals that are aligned with healing can be challenging, but are obtainable. Reach out to a therapist who specializes in healing from relational and developmental trauma and who can help empower you on your journey.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Handley, E. D., Russotti, J., Warmingham, J. M., Rogosch, F. A., Todd Manly, J., & Cicchetti, D. (2021). Patterns of Child Maltreatment and the Development of Conflictual Emerging Adult Romantic Relationships: An Examination of Mechanisms and Gender Moderation. Child Maltreatment, 26(4), 387–397.

Handley, E. D., Russotti, J., Rogosch, F. A., & Cicchetti, D. (2019). Developmental cascades from child maltreatment to negative friend and romantic interactions in emerging adulthood. Development and Psychopathology, 31(5), 1649–1659.

Haselschwerdt, M. L., Carlson, C. E., & Hlavaty, K. (2021). The Romantic Relationship Experiences of Young Adult Women Exposed to Domestic Violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 36(7–8), 3065–3092.

Linehan, M., 1993. Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment Of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Publications.

Murphy, S., Elklit, A., & Shevlin, M. (2020). Child maltreatment typologies and intimate partner violence: Findings from a Danish national study of young adults. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 35(3–4), 755–770.

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