One of the oldest clichés about parenting is that we begin to have newfound respect and compassion for our parents as we raise our own children. If you have chosen to read this article however, your experience was probably quite different. You likely already had a sense that your parents were odd — unusually self-absorbed and inattentive to your needs — but it wasn’t until you had children of your own that you began to more fully grasp the significance of their breathtaking indifference. In short, something in the experience of raising children broke through longstanding denial and rationalization to a disturbing realization that you were the victim of profound childhood neglect. As a clinical psychologist, it has been my experience that while these reactions are deeply unsettling, they can set the stage for self-understanding and even healing.
The past decade has seen an outpouring of research on the profoundly negative psychological effects of childhood neglect and abuse, predisposing victims to adult depression, alcohol abuse, anxiety, suicide, and risky sexual behavior (Norman, et al., 2012). The psychological needs of children can be neglected for all sorts of reasons, including parental addiction, family breakup, poverty, violence, and serious mental illness. But in my experience, the effects of emotional neglect by narcissistic parents are particularly pernicious and difficult to acknowledge, let alone overcome. In part, this is because the neglect is generally rationalized and normalized by the parent in accord with inherent personality characteristics that are extremely confusing to the developing child. Such a child is apt to grow up believing that his or her needs were not important, and that the parent’s treatment was actually appropriate and loving. The child may even engage in self-reproach for feeling a lack of love and appreciation toward the (ostensibly caring) narcissistic parent.
A defining feature of a narcissist is a virtually exclusive attention to and focus on self-inflation or enhancement. The narcissistic personality is organized around the need to deflect, neutralize, or negate a sense of shameful deflation (Zaslav, 2017). We are all familiar with the emotion of shame, a global experience of feeling deficient, damaged, or bad. Unlike guilt, in which regret over actions that may have harmed another can promote efforts to make amends or apologize to the person harmed, the shame experience tends to be private and asocial. The characteristic defenses against shame, such as anger, envy, or blaming others, are fundamentally alienating and expressed through conflict or avoidance (Zaslav, 1998).
For the narcissist, relationships are dominated by the theme of self-enhancement. They tend to seek out others who will provide attention and admiration. Thus, the other parent may have accommodated to life with the narcissist by learning to promote a stream of inflating input, while protecting and making excuses for his vulnerability to criticism. Young children provide little buoying currency for the narcissistic parent. Needy and helpless, the child’s needs may be experienced as a burden. Worse yet, the child’s needs may trigger resentment by reminding the narcissistic parent of what he or she failed to receive in childhood.
In a scene of new parents interacting with their newborn child, we witness how successfully evolution has shaped our inherent attention and interest to the needs of our children. Bowlby (1969) emphasized the critical importance of early experiences with caregivers in shaping the future ability to establish relationships and to internalize a stable, positive sense of self (“secure attachment”). Of course, evolution does not demand the impossible. Adequate parenting does not require perfect attunement to the child’s needs. In fact, it is through periodic attunement failures and subsequent repairs that the child develops internal emotional self-regulatory resources (Schore, 2012). But parenting does require a motivation to be interested in, and an ability to empathize with, the child’s needs and reactions.
The narcissistic parent presents several characteristics incompatible with secure attachment scenarios. In the first place, there is simply a lack of motivation or interest in sustaining attention to the child’s needs. With a personality style predominantly hostage to the need to inflate the sense of self, narcissists have little interest in the needs or feelings of others. Further, narcissistic parents lack the empathy or “other-mindedness” (Fonagy, et al., 2005) necessary to understand a child’s needs. The result may be disinterest mixed with anxiety at feelings of inadequacy as a parent. This anxiety will immediately be projected onto the child, who's seen as overly needy, difficult, and unappreciative of the narcissist’s parenting efforts. For the child, the resulting insecure attachment experiences in the first few years of life may imperil development of optimal self-regulatory capacities. As Schore (2015) summarizes, “insecure attachment histories are affectively burnt in the infant’s early developing right brain.”
Insecure attachment (e.g., fearful, avoidant, disorganized) may in itself predispose a person to some of the negative outcomes associated with childhood neglect as described above. But it is my clinical experience that we often find subtler, more enduring impacts related to continuing childhood exposure to a family environment organized around narcissistic dynamics. The fundamental principle of the narcissistic milieu is that any dissent from the premise that the parents are healthy and free of fault or deficiency is unacceptable. The developing child gradually becomes aware that the narcissistically organized family psyche will neither acknowledge nor admit the obvious incongruity of his or her perceptions and reactions with the permitted parental narrative. Linehan (1993) has referred to this situation, in which the child’s own experiences and emotions are effectively labeled as wrong or off-limits, as an “emotionally invalidating environment.”
The downstream effects of being raised in the emotionally invalidating, narcissistic family environment are myriad, depending upon biology, attachment outcome, gender, and specific developmental experiences. Attention by the narcissistic parent may have varied from overt neglect and lack of interest to intrusive efforts to control the child in accord with the parent’s narcissistic needs. An example of the latter would be to burden the child with the parent’s fears, resentments, or intimate concerns. Invalidation will continue into adulthood. Achievements or accomplishments by the now adult child will go unacknowledged or dismissed to the extent that they elicit the envy of the narcissistic parent. Lack of acknowledgment will accumulate, making it difficult for the adult child to internalize a sense of pride.
In my clinical experience, when adults who were subjected to these forms of neglect and abuse present for psychotherapy, there are generally issues with self-image involving difficulty feeling worthy, cohesive, and whole. There may even be a sense of not really existing at all. There are accompanying highly charged, ambivalent feelings toward the parents. A defining struggle for this adult child of narcissistic parents often centers on the need to find and maintain an optimal level of self-regard. The person may have learned to associate even appropriate and deserved self-esteem with an ugly reminiscence of parental grandiosity they abhor.
If you are seeking healing from the neglect and trauma of being raised by one or more narcissistic parents, the first step will be to explore your actual developmental history. It is important to note that even if your parents are living and sound of mind, they will likely be of little assistance here. Having paid scant attention to your needs, they will produce a highly distorted picture of events, if they even remember them. Therefore, this is where the support of a competent, experienced psychotherapist can be of great value as you identify and confront your actual history of trauma and neglect.
It will probably be necessary for you to relinquish any expectation that your parents will acknowledge any part in your difficulties or change their behavior in any appreciable way. Owing to their need to distort or disavow deflating truths and to turn away from honest self-evaluation (Peck, 1983), their version of events will be dramatically different from your own. But healing will inhere as you begin to dissent from internalized parental invalidation and take ownership of difficulties developed in response to very real childhood neglect. When provided emotional regulation tools, and through modeling of self-compassion absent during childhood, psychotherapy can be enormously beneficial in helping resolve these conflicts naturally resulting from childhood trauma. In turn, you will become a more available, loving parent and role model to your own children.
Bowbly, J. (1969) Attachment and loss. Basic Books, New York.
Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Target, M., Jurist, E. L. (2005). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. Other Press.
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. Guilford, New York.
Norman, E., et al, (2012). The long-term health consequnces of child physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. PLOS Medicine, Vol. 9, Issue 11.
Peck, S. M. (1983). People of the lie. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Schore, A. N. (2012). The science of the art of psychotherapy. Norton, New York.
Schore, A. N. (2015). Foreword, The neuropsychology of the unconscious by Ginot, E. Norton, New York.
Zaslav, M. R. (1998). Shame-related states of mind in psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 7, 154-166.
Zaslav, M. R. (2017). Narcissism: the shame-negating personality. The Neuropsychotherapist, February 4, 2017.