- Narcissism exists along a spectrum, and while we are all narcissistic to some degree, some are affected more severely than others.
- Children raised by a narcissist are less likely to have their core developmental needs met.
- The children of narcissists may suffer harms that can affect them well into adulthood.
Narcissism—excessive interest and preoccupation with oneself—exists on a spectrum of severity and all of us are narcissistic to some degree. Sometimes, narcissism is developmentally appropriate—toddlers, for example, still haven’t figured out the world doesn’t revolve around them. But for adults who fall on the higher end of the narcissism spectrum or who possess the full criteria of traits to meet the clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), such an outlook would not be considered developmentally appropriate.
So there is narcissism as a trait, with variance across a wide spectrum, and then there is someone who meets the clinical definition of NPD as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM):
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates accomplishments and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate accomplishments).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
According to the DSM, prevalence rates for NPD range from 0 percent to 6.2 percent of the population; of those diagnosed with NPD, around 50-70 percent are male.
Official criteria and statistics aside, I’ll add that in my professional experience, there is no one single, universal profile of a narcissist. A narcissist can be a world leader, a small business owner, a con man, a homebody, a brilliant academic, or a stay-at-home mom. Narcissists can be male or female and found across work sectors, races, and socioeconomic strata.
Ultimately, though, narcissists are defined by an almost exclusive, self-serving focus on themselves and firmly entrenched psychological defenses that guard against almost intolerable feelings of shame stemming from a deeply wounded psyche. Simply put, deep down, many narcissists feel terrible about themselves and do whatever they can to make themselves feel better. This can lead them to cope in a variety of ways, ultimately seeking to make themselves appear and feel more important and special than others.
Unfortunately, in the pursuit of trying to appear more special and important, they often relationally wound those around them, particularly their spouses and children.
What makes being raised by a narcissistic so damaging
The psychological effects of childhood neglect and emotional abuse are well documented. We know children have core developmental needs that include consistent attachment, mirroring, attunement, and positive regard from their primary caregiver(s) in order to help them establish a stable, cohesive, and positive sense of self and to learn secure relational attachment.
We also know that when children don’t consistently receive this, or when they instead receive consistent invalidation, frequent insecure attachment experiences, a lack of empathy, or outright hostility from caregiver(s), this can impact them in myriad ways.
Parents with NPD are likely to possess character traits that are almost antithetical to being able to provide their children with what they need to emotionally and mentally develop and thrive:
- Narcissists can struggle with being able to focus their attention and orient towards someone else instead of themselves.
- Children’s normal and natural childhood needs can be a “bother” to a narcissist.
- Their moods may be highly variable and explosive in nature if their fragile emotional regulation skills are challenged (as children almost inevitably will do).
- Narcissists may seek to put their children down to make themselves feel better, and/or play favorites among their children, seeking to stabilize themselves through manipulation of the family dynamic.
- Seeing their child as an extension of themselves, a narcissist may attempt to control the child's appearance, pursuits, and trajectory so that they align with the image the narcissist is personally trying to display to the world.
- Narcissists may only show love to a child when the child performs or acts in ways that are pleasing to the narcissist, disallowing their authentic experiences and hindering the development of their individuality.
- Instead of displaying and providing consistent support for their children, a narcissist may invert the dynamic and expect validation, support, and esteem stabilization from a child, therefore parentifying them.
- When confronted with a child who is particularly strong-willed, defiant, or independent, a narcissistic parent may rage, abuse, scapegoat, or even disown them.
However, despite how the individual actions of the narcissist may manifest, and whether the child was raised by a single narcissistic parent or in a blended or married family that colluded with the narcissist, it’s safe to assume that few children in such an environment—whether the favorite or the scapegoat—will escape the ill impacts.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.