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3 Ways Narcissistic Parents Can Abuse Children

1. Viewing children as an extension of themselves.

Key points

  • Narcissistic parents may appear to be loving and charming.
  • Grandiose narcissistic parents use their children as a source of narcissistic supply.
  • Vulnerable narcissists are deeply insecure and use their children as their confidant and therapist.

Narcissistic parental abuse involves parents who need excessive admiration or attention at the expense of their children's development and well-being.

It is associated with narcissistic personality disorder, but not in all cases. At the same time, not all parents with narcissistic personality disorder abuse their children.

Some narcissistic parents are easy to spot; they often have a grandiose sense of self-importance and exhibit selfish, destructive behaviour. However, some covert narcissistic parents are much harder to spot. On the surface, they often appear to be very loving and charming, but they may harbour deep-seated feelings of jealousy and resentment toward their children.

3 Types of Narcissistic Parental Abuse

1. Children as an Extension of Themselves. Grandiose narcissistic parents are usually more overt in their abuse. They use their children as a source of narcissistic supply. These parents see their children as an extension of themselves. They force them to achieve in the world, live vicariously through their child, and take the praise and recognition that comes with their child's achievements. This can be harmful, as the child does not get the chance to develop their own identity.

If you have a narcissistic parent, your parent may only show you affection when you please them. If you suffer a setback, lose a competition, or do not do as well as expected, they may withdraw their love and approval. This can leave you feeling confused and alone. In this form of narcissistic abuse, you are not treated as a person but rather like a trophy.

A hallmark of a narcissistic parent is a lack of boundaries. They may overstep the bounds of what is appropriate, such as going through your things without permission, looking at your phone, or barging into your room without knocking. They may also be overly involved in your life, expecting you to share everything with them, or needing to know where you are all the time.

In this type of narcissistic abuse, it is common for parents to make one child the golden child while making another child the family scapegoat. The golden child is showered with attention and gifts, while the scapegoat is neglected and treated with criticism. This can have devastating consequences for both children. The golden child may feel guilty about his sibling's banishment but can do nothing to change the entrenched sibling dynamic.

But even the golden child is not immune to the cycle of "idealization and devaluation" that the narcissist sets in motion. One moment they are loved and praised; the next, they are abandoned, criticized, and humiliated.

The golden child has been conditioned to follow a script of superiority and success created by the narcissistic parent. They have been thrust into the role of the perfect child who consistently achieves and never wavers. If you were raised as a golden child, your parents probably could not tolerate any sign of failure or imperfection in you. When you inevitably make mistakes, the parents may become angry and resort to verbal and physical abuse. In the end, you may feel that you are constantly haunted by a sense of emptiness, a deep fear of failure, and the emptiness of not knowing who you are. You may also feel that you can never do anything right and that your worth is based solely on your accomplishments.

2. Guilt-Trips and Control. This type of narcissistic parental abuse is associated with a kind of narcissist known as the "vulnerable narcissist."

Vulnerable narcissists are deeply insecure and emotionally unstable. This form of narcissistic parental abuse is the most difficult to recognize because the abuser often appears weak and expresses aggression in passive and invisible ways. Their covert aggression aims to cause psychological harm while the parent avoids conflict or confrontation.

These parents often lack self-confidence and feel empty in their lives. To compensate for these feelings of inferiority, they resort to narcissistic control of you, as well as emotional dependency on you. Even as a child, you might be forced into the role of caregiver, counsellor, or even parent. You may feel responsible for your parent's emotional well-being and suppress your own needs to satisfy them.

When a parent feels unfulfilled in their marriage and uses their child as a substitute spouse or intimate partner, this is called emotional incest. In some cases, the narcissistic parent may not even be aware of what they are doing, but the damage done to the child can be long-lasting and devastating.

If you have an emotionally needy and narcissistic parent, you may observe how much they crave validation and attention from you. Narcissists are often very insecure, so they rely on others for narcissistic supply to build them up and make them feel good. They often make their children their therapists and constantly look for support and advice. This can be exhausting and frustrating for you.

Whenever you try to separate yourself from your parent, such as by moving out or finding a new partner, your parent may become depressed and sullen, give up on caring for themselves, and in extreme cases, threaten suicide. They may not be intentionally and calculatingly manipulative, but the behaviour is still controlling in nature.

For insecure and anxious parents, the latent intent is to interfere in your life and foster your dependency so that you cannot leave them. For these parents, who do not have a strong sense of self outside of their parenting role, the prospect of losing you and having to face their inner emptiness is frightening.

They may also guilt-trip you to get the approval they narcissistically crave. They may use phrases like "I am so bad" or "I am a bad parent" or "I do not deserve your love" to get you to praise and reassure them.

If you have a passively controlling narcissistic parent, it can be challenging to draw healthy boundaries. Even when you are grown up, you may feel like you can not say no or stand up for yourself. You may have an excessive fear of conflict, constantly apologize and feel guilty, and be unable to assert yourself in relationships or in your career. You may be raised to feel guilty about putting your health and happiness first.

3. Competition and Sabotage. Most parents are happy to see their children grow up and become successful adults. Sadly, some narcissistic parents cannot bear the thought of anyone surpassing them, including their child. These parents always need to be the centre of attention. They can not stand the thought of someone becoming more successful than they are, so they do everything to maintain control.

If you perform well, do great things, or exceed their abilities somehow, even if it's not your fault, they feel humiliated. A narcissistic parent cannot handle the feeling of being outdone or overshadowed by their children. They then react with anger, envy, and humiliation. This may manifest itself in verbal attacks, sulking, or the silent treatment.

They may be jealous of the attention you get, of being taken care of, of your youth, appearance, or any other aspect of your life that they see as a threat to their ego.

If you are the child of a narcissistic parent, you may feel you are constantly walking on eggshells. You never know when a parent's mood will change and they will attack you.

When you do or achieve something, you will find that your parents do the same thing to try to outdo you. For example, they copy what you buy, how you dress, and what you do. They may not admit it, but they constantly compete with you.

Over time, you learn to hide all positive news from your narcissistic parent. You learn that anything good that happens to you will be met with retaliation or unhealthy competition. You may also begin to feel guilty about being loved and successful, so you sabotage these things yourself before anyone else does.

Moving forward from narcissistic parental abuse

When someone has a narcissistic parent, they may feel their life has been stolen from them. The narcissist is always in the spotlight, and the child is often relegated to the background. Some narcissists view their child as an extension of themselves. If the child does not live up to their expectations, they may punish them ruthlessly. Others control their child in a more passive way and expect to be taken care of, even if it is at the expense of the child's well-being.

If you are the child of a narcissist, you may want to learn to set healthy boundaries, process your feelings, and prevent the trauma from being passed on to the next generation. Even if it goes against what you have been taught to believe, you are not responsible for your parents' happiness. Ultimately, you cannot save them from their trauma or stop them from their dysfunctional behaviours. And you cannot spend the rest of your life making them happy and giving them the approval they need.

You may also need to mourn the childhood you deserved but never had. Your hurts and insults were real, but the trauma of being narcissistically abused is only toxic if it remains invisible. Once you commit to examining your past hurt and recognizing your childhood experience for what it is, your past will no longer have toxic power over you.

It is important that you give yourself a chance to feel the feelings instead of suppressing them. Although you may never completely stop grieving for your lost childhood, the intensity of your pain and anger will gradually decrease. As an adult, letting go of the past is not about making everything perfect, but about feeling lighter, more congruent with our truths, and more peaceful.

You cannot control who you get as parents, and it was not your fault that you were born into your family. However, you do have the power now to change things for yourself.

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

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Gore, Whitney L., and Thomas A. Widiger. "Fluctuation between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism." Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment 7, no. 4 (2016): 363.

Crouch, Julie L., Regina Hiraoka, Ericka Rutledge, Bettina Zengel, John J. Skowronski, and Joel S. Milner. "Is narcissism associated with child physical abuse risk?." Journal of Family Violence 30, no. 3 (2015): 373-380.

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