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13 Ways Narcissistic Parents Sabotage Their Children

Here's how narcissists undermine their kids, including the golden child.

Key points

  • Narcissistic parents may compulsively undercut their children, both intentionally and collaterally.
  • Adultifying, infantilizing, and gaslighting are just a few of the common forms of sabotage narcissistic parents may engage in.
  • Educating children about narcissism, trauma, and emotional literacy can help improve family dynamics for future generations.
 Alexander Zhiltsov/AdobeStock
Source: Alexander Zhiltsov/AdobeStock

People with narcissistic personalities are often relational antagonists who compulsively undercut others to gain a sense of control and superiority. Even when they are shining an idealizing light on someone, it is a form of manipulation—through flattery and praise—which can turn on a dime into contempt.

As a society, we don't like to admit that parents are capable of this behavior with their children, but the fact remains that parental abuse and neglect are part of the human condition, and narcissists are precisely the kind of people who hurt and traumatize others, particularly the most vulnerable.

Interpreting Narcissistic Behavior

When interpreting narcissistic behavior, it is important to understand that narcissists exist in society and in families and that they will learn to mask their jealousy, lack of empathy, selfish opportunism, and superiority complex in order to function socially. Although narcissistic parents, especially the covert type, may be quite skilled at concealing their cruelty and even signaling virtue to outsiders, they undermine their children as a matter of course in a multitude of ways.

13 Ways Narcissistic Parents Sabotage Their Kids

These are some common ways narcissistic parents undercut their children, which they do both intentionally and collaterally as a consequence of not caring about the damage they do:

  1. Reward Compliance and Punish Dissent. Narcissistic parents reward compliance and conformity in their children through praise and privilege, and they punish free expression and differing opinions through judgment, rage, and rejection.
  2. Devalue Their Interests and Strengths. Unless their children's interests and strengths reflect their own values or give them bragging rights, narcissistic parents ignore or actively malign their kids' passions.
  3. Pathologize Their Emotional Responses. One of the most damaging aspects of narcissistic parenting is the narcissist's rage and resentment toward their children's normal dependency needs and emotional responses, which they typically frame as selfish, weak, and/or defiant.
  4. Normalize Rage and Shame. Profoundly traumatizing for children of narcissistic parents is living in an atmosphere of normalized rage and shame, which elicits long-term nervous system hyperactivation, interferes with healthy development, sets the stage for both acute and chronic health problems, and adds to generational trauma patterns.
  5. Play Favorites and Scapegoats. At the core of the narcissistic personality is a split between the ashamed and vulnerable interior self (which is usually kept repressed from consciousness) and the special (superior and entitled) exterior persona. As parents, narcissists typically project this inner duality onto their children, seeing one as an extension of their idealized self and another as an extension of their repressed shadow self. In homes with one child, that child may experience a roller-coaster ride of idealizing and scapegoating.
  6. Alienate Their Relationships. Narcissistic parents engage in ongoing comparison, triangulation, and smear campaigns to alienate their children's relationships with the other parent, siblings, extended family, and social circle. With adult children, narcissistic parents may attempt to alienate their kids from their own children and spouse.
  7. Gaslight Their Sense of Reality. Gaslighting takes many forms, but the purpose is to undermine other people's perceptions through lies and distortions. Narcissistic parents gaslight their kids to diminish their children's confidence and control what they think and feel.
  8. Adultify Them. It is common for narcissistic parents to push their children into adult roles to meet their own needs. Exploited children may function as therapists, problem solvers, nurses, best friends, spouses, and the list goes on.
  9. Infantilize Them. In contrast to adultifying, some narcissistic parents encourage dependency and helplessness in their children to maintain control, feel needed and superior, and get attention and sympathy from others.
  10. Bail Them Out of Consequences. Narcissistic parents often coddle and bail out their favored child(ren) from consequences as an extension of their own sense of special entitlement and/or because it's easier for themselves.
  11. Abandon Them in Times of Need. On the flip side of coddling, narcissistic parents may abandon their kids, even the golden child, in times of vulnerability and genuine need because they see it as weakness, don't care enough to be bothered to get involved, and/or enjoy their suffering.
  12. Don't Teach Them Life Skills. Unless teaching their kids makes them feel important, narcissistic parents neglect their children's need to learn life skills that will empower their growth, confidence, and independence. Adding insult to injury, they often harshly judge their children for their resulting difficulties with coping as teens and adults.
  13. Manipulate Them Financially. For most people, money represents survival, and narcissistic parents use it to control their children through gifts, payouts, and inheritance, which may be by turns dangled as a carrot, granted lavishly, or withheld.

Narcissistic personalities often make dreadful, dangerous, and traumatizing parents, but that doesn't stop them from having kids. (It also doesn't mean they lack all redeeming qualities; most narcissists pass along some good things with the bad.) So what do we do with the narcissists among us? We usually can't change them. But we can educate our kids about narcissism, trauma, and emotional literacy to help them help themselves and break the cycle for the next generations. That means each of us must do our part.