The child’s development and behavior becomes about the narcissist because everything eventually becomes about the narcissist. The child, at the earliest stages, learns to acquiesce to the parent to keep the parent from emotionally abandoning him. Unchecked, it is lived out in adulthood (because a child cannot see how he or she is adapting—and the adult, so accustomed to automatically adapting, continues doing so).

From the narcissistic parent’s point of view, the child is a vehicle to temper the parent’s own intense fears. 

…The roles become convoluted. The parent unconsciously turns to the child to fill the dark and cavernous hole inside. This dark hole, the bottomlessness of it, frightens the narcissist parent and eventually the child. Over and over the narcissist has learned to turn away from the dark hole. Tethered to the dynamic, however, the child takes over where the parent left off.

Emotional abandonment may manifest in parental coldness, aloofness, inconsistent affection, etc. Change begins with awareness. This list can help you recognize broad patterns:

The unconscious parent-child dynamic…

  • Parent might be/do: aggrandizing                  
  • How child might feel/result: alone


  • Parent might be/do: babyish, dependent     
  • How child might feel/result: anxious


  • Parent might be/do: cold, conniving, elusive, ostracizing                
  • How child might feel/result: unlovable; trying to prove they are loveable


  • Parent might be/do: dependent, symbiotic            
  • How child might feel/result: overly responsible, needy, anxious, important


  • Parent might be/do: fake, false              
  • How child might feel/result: self-conscious, less than, desperate, confused


  • Parent might be/do:  aughty, insensitive, hostile, superior                
  • How child might feel/result: shame, less than, desperate, like a loser


  • Parent might be/do: judgmental, jealous, envious of you               
  • How child might feel/result: shame, self conscious, anxious, singled out, different, secretly greedy for attention because feel there is not enough to go around


  • Parent might be/do: seductive, provocative in an angry way              
  • How child might feel/result: lost, confused, fragile, gas-lighted


  • Parent might be/do: seductive in a “loving” way              
  • How child might feel/result: special, confused, self conscious, lucky, euphoric


  • Parent might be/do: inferior        
  • How child might feel/result: superior—and guilty about it, unworthy

© 2016 When Your Parent Is a Narcissist by Meredith Resnick

About the Author

Meredith Resnick, L.C.S.W.

Meredith Resnick, L.C.S.W., is a health writer and licensed social worker. She is also the mother of two adopted daughters.

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