The Price We Pay for Narcissistic Parents

How the largest college admissions scandal slams the door on meritocracy.

Posted Mar 14, 2019

Aneta Pawlik/unsplash
Source: Aneta Pawlik/unsplash

As a mother of a high school student-athlete, I am aghast, as I imagine many of you are, by the recent college admissions scandal. Federal prosecutors allege 50 individuals, including 33 parents, were involved in a scheme comprised of either cheating on standardized tests or bribing college coaches and school officials to enroll students as college athletes—even if the student had never played that sport.

Whether you classify the 33 parents as helicopter, snowplow, or Axis II (diagnostic label for narcissism, sociopathy and borderline, etc.), the fallout to our collective mental health extends beyond the recent news.

When we hear about a rigged system, whether it's academic, athletic, occupational or political, our belief in a healthy world view is contradicted. Sure, certain races and socioeconomic groups have traditionally benefited from privilege and wealth, but we want to conclude that hard work, discipline and integrity still matter. A healthy world view reminds us that no matter the obstacles before us, we can problem solve our way to the other side.

But when shot callers egregiously abuse their power, we are left with the toxic truth: All roads lead to narcissism.

The narcissist cannot abide by parental failure because their children are viewed as extensions of themselves. In order to save face and avoid facing reality, they cheat, lie and bulldoze their way toward adulation. Other people's feelings don’t matter as the quest for success comes without consideration of those left in the dust.

As a psychotherapist I have a hard time wrapping my head around the mental health clinician who allegedly diagnosed some of these kids with a disability, thereby enabling them to bypass the time limits of standardized testing. Many of my clients with legitimate diagnoses which qualify them for academic accommodations, opt to tough it out rather than risk the label of "taking advantage" of the system.

Faking athletic credentials is to mock weary parents every time our exhausted kids start homework at 9:30 p.m. because the high school game went into overtime. Or the endless hours spent traveling to sporting events, while their kids toil as "influencers" on Instagram, or partiers on YouTube.

Narcissists simply do not care. They disregard your kid and mine as blithely as they summon others to do their dirty deeds. Hard work is for people too dumb to game the system, and disadvantaged members of society are disadvantaged "by choice."

Additional costs to the "side door" college admissions scandal:

—The honest, genuinely talented youth denied admission because some undeserving rich kid with bogus SAT scores or photoshopped physical prowess finessed their way onto the water polo, rowing, or tennis teams.

—The what ifs? pondered by these kids at a critical time in their social, emotional, occupational and identity development.

—The takeaway lessons gleaned by vulnerable youth and families about how to get an edge in life.

—The racial disparities ever-present as non-whites are reminded that a color-blind society doesn't exist. Included are the sad stories circulated on Twitter about black mothers jailed for lying about their residency so their kids—who actually wanted an education—got into a better public school district.

—The sheer number of anxious and depressed college students struggling to keep it together while high-profile parents abuse the high-pressure atmosphere of higher education.

Narcissistic parents and corrupt officials have flouted the system for years. The irony is by cheating their kids into elite colleges, they label their progeny as mediocre at best, and embarrassingly deficient, at worst. Color me Freudian, but their ill-gotten gains speak more about their own fragile egos and lackluster skill sets, more than anything.

Speaking of psychology, playwright David Mamet, had this to say about actress Felicity Huffman, indicted for falsifying her daughter's test scores:

“That a parent’s zeal for her children’s future may have overcome her better judgment for a moment is not only unfortunate, it is, I know we parents would agree, a universal phenomenon.”

Hmm...I would argue that some of us believe in a different universality. Namely, teaching our kids how to handle emotional upset and holding them responsible for their actions. Even if this means enrolling in a community college, spending weekends on SAT test prep or facing the hard truth that they’ll never become elite athletes.

Alas, at the end of the scandalous day we learn that cheaters do get caught. Narcissism be damned. The world as we know it, makes sense, after all.

The question remains, who gets ensnared?

Copyright 2019 Linda Esposito, LCSW