A narcissistic parent is one who is motivated to raise children who will fit into a role prescribed for them by the parent. Think of the parent as an architect, drawing plans for what the house—in this case, the child—should look like. The narcissistic parent has set ideas from the start about how his or her child will dress and act, and what they will achieve. Narcissistic parents are extremely image conscious and have a strict need for their offspring to fit the image they have prescribed.
The narcissistic parent is motivated by the wish for their child to achieve a fixed type of success conceptualized by the parent alone. Narcissistic parents often did not achieve all their personal or career dreams, and so they look to their children to overcompensate for their own shortcomings and perform, perform, perform. The children of narcissists are cast into the role of high-functioning puppet. If narcissistic parents could have their way, they would orchestrate most moves their children make in life—who would be in their social circle; what sports they’d play; where they’d go to school; who they’d date and marry; and what they’d do for a living. Narcissistic parents are control freaks incarnate, and their children must constantly refer to the script their parents have written for them. (For more about the psychological effect of narcissistic parenting on children, see my article, "Narcissistic Parents' Psychological Effect on Their Children.")
Take a look at the signs described below and ask yourself if you are guilty of any of these traits or behaviors with your own child, or whether you know someone who uses these unhealthy tactics with their children.
1. The narcissistic parent decides how the child dresses or wears his hair.
For narcissists, image is everything. While children are babies and toddlers, of course, the parent—narcissistic or otherwise—chooses their clothing. But as children reach school age, most will have their own ideas about what they like to wear. Narcissistic parents, however, aren’t interested in hearing what shirts or shorts their children like, and they certainly don’t ask their opinion. Clothing is selected to fit the image the parent desires. Such parents are deeply invested in a child's clothing or hair because they are focused exclusively on the message their child’s style sends to the world. As a therapist, it’s my belief that parents should let children dress and wear their hair in the style of their choice. It’s understandable to have rules about not letting a child use hair dye or other products until a certain age, but otherwise, let your kid decide whether to wear his or her hair short or long, and so forth.
2. The narcissistic parent treats report cards like statements of a child’s personal worth.
I’ve worked with many clients who sprang from narcissistic parents. They come for help because they’ve already spent years trying to undo some of the toxic mental programming they received as kids. One male client in his 30s shared how his mother used to calculate his grade point average from the time he was in second grade. You’d think, based on this example, that the narcissistic parent truly cares about her son getting good grades—and you’d be right. However, she didn’t care enough to spend any time with him doing homework or reading, which would certainly have resulted in better grades. This narcissistic parent’s logic and expectation: I want you to perform at a very high level, but I am not sacrificing any of my time or energy to help you do that. The child of the narcissist always ends up feeling the same thing: I’m on my own.
3. The narcissistic parent wants to select their child’s friends.
Narcissists make many decisions based on surface images. A narcissistic parent would rather their child be friends with the daughter of a CEO than the daughter of a mechanic, even if the CEO’s child isn’t very nice and the mechanic’s child is extremely kind. Narcissistic parents are often social climbers, telling themselves that the success of those around them reflects highly on themselves. The narcissistic parent thinks—or says out loud—“Why couldn’t you be friends with [a successful, socially high-ranking child]?” I would maintain that emotional success—being happy and having a sense of purpose—is more important than professional success.
4. The narcissistic parent wants compliance from their children, above all else.
These parents need obedience and compliance because the parents have set up—at least in their own minds—a step-by-step how-to program on creating the kid they want. If the child resists the parent’s authority or decisions, this runs major interference for the parent’s plans. The parent thinks, You're not doing what I want, and my needs are more important than yours. Healthy parents don’t need so much compliance from children because they haven’t already finalized the profile of what they’re looking for their child to become. They see their child as separate, and allow separateness and individuation in their children.
5. The narcissistic parent really, really cares about the name of the college their child attends.
Bliss for the narcissistic parent is simple: “My child just got accepted to Harvard.” Having a child get into Harvard, he or she believes, reflects fairly equally on the parent. But in the same way that I don’t believe it reflects badly on a parent if their child goes to a local community college, I don’t think it reflects so much on a parent if their child goes to Harvard. For healthy parents, their children are their offspring, but they’re not carbon copies. Healthy parents do not need their children to be anything other than what they are naturally. They would say, “I’m not sure what kind of school they’ll go to, but I’ll be here to support them as they figure it out.”
6. The narcissistic parent has an unofficial list of acceptable professions for their child to choose.
The goal shouldn’t be for parents to push their children to become, say, doctors, lawyers, or CEOs. Are we even sure that the people who have those professions are happier? The goal should really be to help a child identify his or her interests and skills, and to provide the kind of independence they’ll need to cultivate a future that’s a good match for who they really are. I can think of a number of clients who completed graduate degrees but never used them. Those degrees are the ghosts of parents who pushed their kids into something that wasn’t ultimately the right fit. Parents should accept that their children belong in the professions that they want to pursue, and which hopefully capitalize on their unique strengths.
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