The Narcissistic Family Legacy

How narcissism can be passed down through the generations.

Posted May 02, 2020

When a child is raised by a narcissistic parent, they may become orbital to the parent—focused on meeting the parents' needs and losing their own sense of identity in the process. However, some children of narcissistic parents become narcissists themselves—and it’s easy to understand why.

Adopting Family Values

When you’re raised in a family where the emphasis is on being better, brighter, more beautiful, and richer than everyone else, you may internalise these values. This is how the world is, isn’t it? Mum or dad has brought you up with the belief that unless you make people laugh the hardest, or wear the best clothes or go to the most expensive school, then you’re not worth as much as you might otherwise be. “Success” is measured by these external markers—and if you were raised in this type of environment, it’s no wonder you may place a high value on these types of external markers too. 

Learning to Be Loved in the Conditional Way

Another reason why children of narcissists may become narcissists themselves is because they learned long ago that, in order to be deserving of love and attention from their parent, they could do so by being an extension of their parent’s efforts to be the best. This isn’t the case for all children of narcissists—some parents want their children to remain in the background, orbiting around them—but some bask in the glow of their children’s attainments. The child learns that by doing well in school, being regarded as a beauty, or excelling in some area of their life that they will receive attention and praise from their parent. They have lived up to their parent’s expectations.

Being Caught Up in Manipulation and Secrets

The narcissistic family is all about maintaining outward image; in order to do so, whatever happens in the family must stay in the family. Children of narcissists may be ashamed not only about aspects of the treatment they receive from their parent, but also about stuff that must remain hidden. For instance, the narcissistic family may not really have much wealth at all, but it’s important to project an image of wealth to the rest of the street.

In addition to the secrets presented to the outside world, there are probably countless secrets within the family. Narcissistic parents can be highly manipulative of their children. They may favour one child on the basis of that child meeting their needs and, instead of treating all their children equally, may bind a child to them in various ways such as sharing confidences or rewarding them financially or in some other way. When you’ve been brought up to think it’s ok to have a favourite child and to have secrets in this way, it’s understandable that you might repeat these patterns in your own family.

Katherine Chase Unsplash
Source: Katherine Chase Unsplash

Seeing Only the Positives

It’s possible, perhaps within your own family, to see generations of narcissism. When you’re raised with narcissistic values, it can be very difficult to see anything wrong. In fact, you may see your family values as positive. Perhaps the narcissistic tendencies in your parents or grandparents were what drove them to take certain steps that benefitted you financially.

One of my clients, a woman in her seventies with anxiety, described her mother who was, in later life, diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. My client’s mother had come from a poor background and raised a family where the whole emphasis was on "bettering" herself. Working long hours as a cleaner, she managed to send her children to private school. My client and her two siblings were not allowed to talk like the local kids and were under great pressure to hide where they came from, taking long routes on the way home from school to throw their classmates off the scent that they lived in a council house. This caused considerable pressure and my client recalled how her brother wet the bed until well into his teenage years.

My client displayed strong narcissistic traits herself and failed to see anything wrong with her mother’s obsession with presenting this image to the outside world—at the cost of a happy and secure family life. “Mum was amazing—what an achievement,” she told me. She had so deeply internalised her mother’s values that she saw nothing but positives in them. The fact that she was the only one of her mother’s children who spoke to her mum at the time of her death, and the fact that none of the children in this family spoke to each other, failed to change her opinion of her mother as a “wonderful person” based purely on the fact that her mother had sent her children to private school and set them on the path to wealthy lives.

Choosing Partners Who Will Orbit Around You

Narcissists are often drawn towards partners who will orbit around them. Instead of seeing marriage as a team effort, they see themselves in the driving seat and seek a partner who will allow them to be the dominant force in the family. If you’ve been raised by a narcissistic parent, you may find yourself similarly choosing a partner who will allow you to operate your family in the way you want without being challenged.

Marianne, a client in her forties, described how both she and her sister had been single parents for years. “I don’t think it was an accident, somehow,” she told me. “I chose single parenthood. My dad played no role in the family and I think mum liked it that way. I thought men were unnecessary within the family structure and used one to get pregnant. I suspect my sister did, too.” Even if you don’t go down the route of single parenthood, you may find yourself regarding your partner as the lesser parent compared to yourself and then pass this message onto your own children.

Seeing Your Children as an Extension of Yourself

If your mother or father saw you as an extension of themselves, you may see your children in a similar light. Their achievements reflect well on you. Their "failures" make you look bad. When your children do well or are complimented by other people on their looks or abilities, you are validated as a parent; that sense of identity as a parent is extremely important to you. 

If you have been raised by a narcissistic parent, it can take a long time to realise that you are raising your own children in the same way. It may well be that it’s not until you face problems in your own life—such as being under pressure to act in a particular way, unsatisfactory relationships or a sense of lacking a deep sense of self and security which is derived internally rather than externally—that you identify the negative impact that being raised by a narcissistic parent has had on your life. If you are at this stage, this is the first step in breaking the narcissistic legacy and ensuring that subsequent generations of your family adopt very different values.