- Often, narcissistic parents perceive the independence of their child as a threat.
- What distinguishes the narcissistic parent is a pervasive tendency to deny their child's independent selfhood.
- Biggest telltale signs of a narcissistic parent include emotional manipulation, lack of empathy, and neglect.
“If my son doesn’t grow up to be a professional baseball player, I’ll shoot ‘em!”
― Anonymous father
“Aren’t you beautiful? Aren’t you beautiful? You’re going to be just as pretty as mommy!”
― Anonymous mother
“My father’s favorite responses to my views were: ‘but…,’ ‘actually…,’ and ‘there’s more to it than this…’ He always has to feel like he knows better.”
A narcissistic parent can be defined as someone who lives through, is possessive of, and/or engages in marginalizing competition with the offspring. Typically, the narcissistic parent perceives the independence of a child (including adult children) as a threat, and coerces the offspring to exist in the parent’s shadow, with unreasonable expectations. In a narcissistic parenting relationship, the child is rarely loved just for being herself or himself.
Numerous studies have been conducted on the subject of narcissistic parenting and its impact on offspring.(1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6) It's important to distinguish certain parent-centric tendencies from chronic narcissistic parenting. Many parents want to show off their children, have high expectations, may be firm at times (such as when a child is behaving destructively), and desire their offspring to make them proud. None of these traits alone constitute pathological narcissism. What distinguishes the narcissistic parent is a pervasive tendency to deny the offspring, even as an adult, a sense of independent selfhood. The offspring exists merely to serve the selfish needs and machinations of the parent(s).
How do you know when a parent may be narcissistic? The following are 10 telltale signs, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Narcissists and A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self. While some parents may exhibit a few of the following traits at one time or another, which might not be a major issue, a pathologically narcissistic parent tends to dwell habitually in several of the following personas, while remaining largely unaware of (or unconcerned with) how these behaviors affect one’s offspring.*
1. Uses/Lives Through One’s Child
Most parents want their children to succeed. Some narcissistic parents, however, set expectations not for the benefit of the child, but for the fulfillment of their own selfish needs and dreams. Instead of raising a child whose own thoughts, emotions, and goals are nurtured and valued, the offspring becomes a mere extension of the parent’s personal wishes, with the child’s individuality diminished.
“My mom used to love dolling me up in cute dresses, even though I was a tomboy by nature. I think she felt that when I received compliments for my appearance, she looked good in reflection. It boosted her self-worth.”
“You have opportunities I’ve never had…After you become a doctor you can do as you please. Until then you do as I say!”
― Father to son in Dead Poets Society
Some narcissistic parents are threatened by their offspring’s potential, promise, and success, as they challenge the parent’s self-esteem. Consequently, a narcissistic mother or father might make a concerted effort to put the child down, so the parent remains superior. Examples of this type of competitive marginalization include nit-picking, unreasonable judgment and criticisms, unfavorable comparisons, invalidation of positive attitudes and emotions, and rejection of success and accomplishments.
The common themes through these put-downs are: “There’s always something wrong with you,” and “You’ll never be good enough.” By lowering the offspring’s confidence, the narcissistic parent gets to boost her or his own insecure self-worth.
“I pleaded with my mother on the phone for the lab fee of my college science class. She finally agreed to pay, but only after saying that it was a waste of money on me.”
3. Grandiosity and Superiority
Many narcissistic parents have a falsely inflated self-image, with a conceited sense about who they are and what they do. Often, individuals around the narcissist are not treated as human beings, but merely tools (objects) to be used for personal gain. Some children of narcissistic parents are objectified in the same manner, while others are taught to possess the same, false superiority complex: “We’re better than they are.” This sense of grandiose entitlement, however, is almost exclusively based on superficial, egotistical, and material trappings, attained at the expense of one’s humanity, conscientiousness, and relatedness. One becomes more “superior” by being less human.
4. Superficial Image
Closely related to grandiosity, many narcissistic parents love to show others how “special” they are. They enjoy publically parading what they consider their superior dispositions, be it material possessions, physical appearance, projects and accomplishments, background and membership, contacts in high places, and/or trophy spouse and offspring. They go out of their way to seek ego-boosting attention and flattery.
For some narcissistic parents, social networking is a wonderland where they regularly advertise how wonderful and envy-worthy their lives are. The underlying messages may be: “I am/my life is so special and interesting,” and “Look at ME – I have what you don’t have!”
“What my mother displays in public and how she really is are very different.”
Common examples of narcissistic parenting manipulation include:
- Guilt trip: “I’ve done everything for you and you’re so ungrateful.”
- Blaming: “It’s your fault that I’m not happy.”
- Shaming: “Your poor performance is an embarrassment to the family.”
- Negative comparison: “Why can’t you be as good as your brother?”
- Unreasonable pressure: “You will perform at your best to make me proud.”
- Manipulative reward and punishment: “If you don’t pursue the college major I chose for you, I will cut off my support.”
- Emotional coercion: “You’re not a good daughter/son unless you measure up to my expectations.”
A common theme running through these forms of manipulation is that love is given as a conditional reward, rather than the natural expression of healthy parenting. On the other hand, the withholding of love is used as threat and punishment.
6. Inflexible and Touchy
Certain narcissistic parents are highly rigid when it comes to the expected behaviors of their children. They regulate their offspring on minor details and can become upset when there’s deviation. Some narcissistic parents are also touchy and easily triggered. Reasons for irritation towards an offspring can vary greatly, from the child’s lack of attention and obedience, to perceived faults and shortcomings, to being in the presence of the parent at the wrong time, et cetera.
One reason for the parent’s inflexibility and touchiness is the desire to control the child. The narcissist responds negatively and disproportionally when she or he sees that the offspring will not always be pulled by the strings.
“I hate it when you put groceries on the checkout counter that way. I told you before I hate it!”
― Mother to daughter at supermarket
7. Lack of Empathy
One of the most common manifestations of a narcissistic father or mother is the inability to be mindful of the child’s own thoughts and feelings, and validate them as real and important. Only what the parent thinks and feels matters.
Children under this type of parental influence over time may respond with one of three survival instincts: They may fight back and stand up for themselves. They may flee to create distance from their parent(s). Some may begin to freeze and substitute their invalidated real self with a false persona (playing a role), thus adopting traits of narcissism themselves.
Some narcissistic parents expect their children to take care of them for the rest of their lives. This type of dependency can be emotional, physical, and/or financial. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking care of older parents — it’s an admirable trait — the narcissistic parent typically manipulates an offspring into making unreasonable sacrifices, with little regard for the offspring’s own priorities and needs.
“My mom (a single parent in her late 30s) expects me to support her financially on an ongoing basis. She says that she can’t live without me.”
― Anonymous college student
Some narcissistic parents may also maneuver their adult children into codependency. Psychology professor Shawn Burn defines a codependent relationship as one where “one person’s help supports (enables) the other’s underachievement, irresponsibility, immaturity, addiction, procrastination, or poor mental or physical health.”
9. Jealousy and Possessiveness
Since a narcissistic mother or father often hopes that the child will permanently dwell under the parent’s influence, she or he may become extremely jealous at any signs of the child’s growing maturity and independence. Any perceived act of individuation and separation, from choosing one’s own academic and career path, to making friends not approved by the parent, to spending time on one’s own priorities, are interpreted negatively and personally (“Why are you doing this to me?”).
In particular, the appearance of a romantic partner in the adult offspring’s life may be viewed as a major threat, and frequently responded to with rejection, criticism, and/or competition. In the eyes of some narcissistic parents, no romantic partner is ever good enough for their offspring, and no interloper can ever challenge them for dominance of their child.
“How dare that woman take my son away from me? Who does she think she is?”
In some situations, a narcissistic parent may choose to focus primarily on her or his self-absorbing interests, which to the narcissist are more exciting than child-raising. These activities may provide the narcissist the stimulation, validation, and self-importance she or he craves, be it career obsession, social flamboyance, or personal adventures and hobbies. The child is left either to the other parent or on his or her own.
“My husband’s an absent father. He’s always off doing something fun for himself, which he prefers to spending time with our child. He’s an extremely selfish person.”
For tips on how to deal with Narcissists, see my book (click on title): “How to Successfully Handle Narcissists”.
For tips on how Narcissists can attain greater emotional and social intelligence, see my books (click on title): “A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self”.
*In cases of serious family distress, contact counseling and mental health professionals for help.
© 2016 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
(1) Brummelman , E. et al. “Origins of Narcissism in Children”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. (2015)
(2) Horton, Robert S., Bleau, Geoff, Drwecki, Brian. “Parenting Narcissus: What Are the Links Between Parenting and Narcissism?” Journal of Personality. (2006)
(3) Horton, R. S., & Tritch, T. “Clarifying the Links Between Grandiose Narcissism and Parenting”. The Journal Of Psychology: Interdisciplinary And Applied. (2014)
(4) Otway, Lorna J., Vignoles, Vivian L. “Narcissism and Childhood Recollections: A Quantitative Test of Psychoanalytic Predictions”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (2015)
(5) Ramseya, Angela P. et al. “Self-Reported Narcissism and Perceived Parental Permissiveness and Authoritarianism”. The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development. (1996)
(6) Trumpeter, Nevelyn N. et al. “Self-Functioning and Perceived Parenting: Relations of Parental Empathy and Love Inconsistency with Narcissism, Depression, and Self-Esteem”. The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development. (2008)