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The Hidden Trauma of Neglect in the Narcissistic Family

Neglect is the most common form of abuse.

Key points

  • Narcissists often cultivate the idea that they are “perfect” parents, but neglect is common in narcissistic families.
  • Narcissistic parents may neglect kids' emotional, physical, safety, medical, and/or educational needs.
  • Neglected children pay a high price in their physical, emotional, and psychological development.
Fusion-of-horizons, Creative Commons
Source: Fusion-of-horizons, Creative Commons

Narcissistic parents exploit, bully, and terrorize their children with their excessive neediness, selfish demands, hypersensitivity, unrealistic expectations, constant invalidation, and punishing rage. But neglect, both physical and emotional, also is a defining feature of the narcissistic family, with profound impact.

As opposed to outright abuse, neglect is the absence of support and therefore can be difficult to identify, even and especially for the person neglected, particularly a child. Child Welfare Information Gateway identifies neglect as the most common form of child abuse and cites data showing that chronically neglected children have “more severe cognitive and academic deficits [and] social withdrawal” than children abused in other ways. It defines four primary types of neglect (with some of my own additions here):

  1. Physical neglect: failure to meet a child’s basic survival needs for food, clothing, hygiene, and shelter; and failure to provide supervision and safe conditions
  2. Medical neglect: failure to meet a child’s health care needs
  3. Educational neglect: failure to ensure a child receives an adequate education to think critically and function in society
  4. Emotional neglect: failure to provide a child with attention, affection, engagement, and other forms of emotional nurturing

Neglect in the Narcissistic Family

All types of neglect can occur in a narcissistic family. The narcissistic personality‘s extreme self-focus and low-to-absent concern for others inevitably translate into negligent parenting. While social pressures to fulfill parenting roles and provide the appearance of normalcy or even exceptionalism may drive narcissistic parents to meet their children’s surface needs, children in such homes typically receive sporadic and highly conditional care. An infection may go unnoticed until it is severe. An unsupervised child may get injured, in trouble with the police, or violated by an older child or adult. A habitually hungry child may look for steady meals at a neighbor’s or friend’s house. A child may be burdened with so much responsibility at home that they drop out of school. A serially ignored child may turn to drugs or self-harm to manage loneliness and depression.

Learning Not to Need

Children from narcissistic homes learn early on not to need. Such children are taught through words and deeds, and tones and silences, that in the universe of home their parents’ needs take precedence and their own are often cause for resentment and even punishment. Since we all need physical and emotional support at any age but particularly when we are relatively helpless children with little knowledge of the world or power over our circumstances, such messages are devastating.

Children taught not to need look for ways to survive without their parents. They attempt to mask vulnerabilities and bury their feelings, things that are ultimately impossible in the long run. Inevitably they feel shame about their normal needs, and learn to fear and hate their own human vulnerability.

Neglected children may appear unkempt, with unwashed hair and clothes, untreated illnesses and injuries, and malnourishment. But signs of neglect, particularly emotional neglect, are often behavioral and less obvious. Neglected children may display a range of symptoms, such as the following:

The Double Bind of the “Perfect” Parent

Neglect is hard enough to endure for any child, but in the narcissistic home it is often exacerbated by messages from impaired parents that they are perfect and their children are fortunate to get whatever they offer. Extremely narcissistic parents fundamentally feel they don’t owe their children anything, and when they do things for their kids they typically expect something in return, such as profuse appreciation, compliance, or some form of service. For narcissists, relationships are transactional, and they expect to get more than they give.

Children quickly learn to rely on their more responsive parent to meet their day-to-day needs and to show gratitude for even the most basic gestures from their narcissistic parent. When both parents are narcissistic or otherwise impaired, children learn to manipulate to meet their needs, rely on siblings or other family members, and/or look outside the home. Some adapt by becoming highly capable superkids who attempt to compensate for the family deprivations. No matter how the kids cope, they pay a high price emotionally and physically that may manifest as depression, anxiety, addiction, illness, and other symptoms of complex trauma.

Children of narcissistic parents experience cognitive dissonance, or conflict between reality and what they are told is happening, about the neglect in their family. They naturally feel empty, frightened, and angry about their parents' neglect but constantly receive the message that their parents are above reproach. Narcissistic fathers may be touted as generous and dedicated providers, and mothers as loving and self-sacrificing caregivers. For children dealing with a very different reality, the neglect becomes that much harder to recognize and make sense of. Most children must deny reality and/or blame themselves rather than confront the stark fact that the family line is a lie and the care they are getting is tragically deficient.

Adapted from The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free by Julie L. Hall, from Hachette Books, Dec. 2019.

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