For me, one of the best examples of narcissistic parents is illustrated in the movie The Joy Luck Club, based on the novel by Amy Tan. In the film, a woman flashes back and, through voiceover, tells her story of becoming a child protégée as a chess champion. While the film plays one of her early victories, the woman’s voice says, “Even at that age, I knew I had an amazing gift: this power, this belief in myself... It was the only part of my life, to this day... where I trusted myself completely.”
The next scene flashes to the young girl being paraded around her neighborhood by her mother, who is carrying a Life magazine with her daughter on the cover. She greets each person on the street, showing them the cover and introducing her child as a “chess champion” — all the while taking personal credit for her daughter’s gift. Humiliated by her mother’s narcissistic behavior, the little girl declares, “Why do you have to use me to show off? If you want to show off... then why don't you learn to play chess?"
Most of us can relate, on some level, to scenes such as these — to ways our parents over-connected or lived through us, as a reflection of themselves. But when dealing with a narcissistic parent day in and day out throughout one’s childhood, the impact can be devastating.
For example, in The Joy Luck Club, the little girl quits playing chess in retaliation to her mother’s intrusiveness. Her mother responds by giving her the silent treatment. After weeks, the young girl makes an effort to regain her mother’s approval and announces that she’s decided to play chess again. Without so much as a glance, her mother coldly replies that it won’t be so easy for her anymore.
This cutting remark shatters the girl’s confidence, and, as her mother predicted, she can no longer win. Her voiceover concludes the story with, “This power I had, this belief in myself... I could actually feel it draining away… All the secrets I once saw... I couldn't see them anymore. All I could see was — were my mistakes, my weaknesses.”
The problem with narcissistic parents is that, although the focus seems to be on the child, there is actually very little regard for the child in their parenting style. When her daughter insulted her own ego, the mother in the film no longer saw any use for her the young girl’s talent. She didn’t support her daughter playing chess because it made her daughter feel good or gave her confidence. She supported it because it gave her the chance to feel like a winner, to bask in her child’s accomplishments, and to take credit for skills that were not her own.
The obsession or focus a narcissistic parent has on a child often has to do with the parent’s own emotional needs. Narcissistic parents support children’s “greatness” and encourage their talents, with the excuse that they love their child and are sacrificing themselves for the child’s future. In fact, just the opposite is often true. The so-called support these parents offer is actually a great deal of pressure, while the love they feel they’re giving their kids is, in truth, an emotional hunger that is draining to a child.
In my interview with psychologist Dr. Pat Love for PsychAlive.org, she wisely pointed out that the best thing a parent can do for their child is to have their adult needs met by other adults. When we relate to our children, it’s so important to continually ask ourselves, are we taking actions to meet their needs or are we using the child to meet our own? Is the hug we give them to offer them something or to take something from them? Is their performance in school important to us because we care about their future or because we care about our performance as a parent?
Too often, we use our children to compensate for our own unmet goals or limitations. When we don’t feel fulfilled in our own lives, we can over-identify with our kids. In the name of being “selfless,” we can selfishly lose perspective and focus all our dreams and desires on them.
A narcissistic parent doesn’t just apply this pressure by being strict or demanding. They do it by praising their child, bolstering them up, as they would themselves. In doing so, they may believe they are helping the child to become a competent and confident adult, but sadly, they are often doing just the opposite.
When we praise our child for qualities they don’t have or exaggerate their skills, we are actually handicapping the child. We arm them with the burden of being great or “the best.” They often grow up with the fear of disappointing their parent or the pressure to keep their parent happy, as opposed to vice versa. They carry a constant weight on their shoulders that can hold them back from truly reaching their full potential.
The emptiness these children feel can manifest itself in the form of an inner critic or “critical inner voice” that reminds them they are not good enough or that they need to be the best or they are nothing. Because their parents only value their accomplishments as they reflect on them, the child never truly feels they are good enough. They even struggle to develop their own sense of self.
A woman I recently met described how her mother would constantly compare her to other little girls around her. “You are much prettier than her,” “She is better than you at this, but you are much better at that,” etc. This led the girl to grow up with an internal rating system. Throughout her life, she found herself constantly ranking herself and others, without even thinking about it. Her mother’s own competitive feelings with her had ultimately led the woman to make these comparisons herself. As an adult, her mother’s voice had been embedded in her mind, leaving her to continue to put herself down or build herself up automatically in every interaction.
Even though it’s almost always unconscious, when we grow up, we tend to repeat patterns or live out our parents’ prescriptions for our lives. We can break this chain as parents by seeing our child as a separate person. We can acknowledge our kids for real traits they have and support what they love to do. For example, instead of saying, “The picture you drew is amazing! You are the best artist,” we could say, “I love all the colors you used in that picture. It really seems like you had so much fun drawing it.” Think about the effect your words, actions, and attitude will have on your child as a person. Do you want them to grow up to work hard for their achievements, or to give up when they realize that they fall short of being the best?
As mindfulness expert Dr. Donna Rockwell so eloquently expressed in another recent interview for PsychAlive.org, “The best way we can teach [our children] is by being interested in them as people. And instead of saying, ‘I need you to be a doctor or a lawyer or a candle maker,’ to discover what do you love about life and what’s interesting to you and what do you want to be… And they are born already gifted, already extraordinary at something, and we ruin that if we try to negotiate how they’re going to grow in life.”
The most we can do as a parent is to provide for our children, love them for who they truly are, and help them to develop into their own capable, unique person. We should always aim to care more about our child’s character than how he or she appears. What kind of person are they? Are they kind? Compassionate? Patient? Resilient? When we lead by example, we can help our children to be independent, and therefore, more confident in facing the world. When we do this, we teach our children that it is even okay to fail, that they are strong enough to persevere, push through challenges and improve to become the kind of person they themselves seek to be.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.