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Is Your Estranged Son or Daughter a Narcissist?

Lack of empathy might not mean what you think it does.

Source: WavebreakmediaMicro/Adobe Stock
Source: WavebreakmediaMicro/Adobe Stock

As another birthday (or Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or holiday) passes without word from your adult child, you feel more hurt than ever. Doesn’t my child have any empathy? you ask yourself. Doesn’t she care about what it’s like for me, not hearing from her today?

It’s very sad to think that your own flesh and blood could feel less concern about leaving you alone on a special day than a stranger might. And a lack of empathy is one possible (but not required) criterion in the diagnosis of narcissism. But before you rush to pin the label “narcissist” on your adult son or daughter, consider the following.

Hurt People …

There’s a pithy saying that’s all too true: Hurt people hurt people. One of the most difficult ideas for parents to wrap their minds around is that, despite your best intentions and honest efforts, your child feels hurt somehow by the way you relate to him. And that’s why he doesn’t want to be close.

We have research on this, and it’s true across the board. Adult children cut off their parents only as a way to protect themselves. It’s not to punish you, or because they don’t care about you. It’s because they’ve been hurt too many times.

That’s an extremely painful and confusing reality for most parents to grasp. Especially if you’ve tried your hardest to love and protect your child all her life. And yet it’s possible to do your best and still unwittingly do damage. It’s part of human relationships, and none of us can ever really escape that risk. Especially parents.

Another Explanation

If your child isn’t expressing empathy for you on your special day, it’s most likely for one of two reasons:

  1. She is empathetic, but because you and she aren’t talking today, you have no idea that she’s feeling bad for you; and/or,
  2. She’s feeling sorry for herself today. She’s feeling a sense of loss because she doesn’t have the kind of relationship with you that would make her want to call, write, or come by to celebrate. And that's as much a loss for her as it is for you.

When people are busy licking their own wounds, they don’t have the bandwidth to attend to the pain of others. It’s a natural blip in empathy that co-occurs with suffering.

It hurts to be ignored by your own child, particularly on special days; there’s no denying that. But unless he meets diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, your child’s apparent lack of empathy can be better explained another way.

Hurt people hurt people. It’s a vicious circle. And it can only end when one person—the "bigger" person—decides to listen and attend to the other’s pain first.

It’s really hard to do, but empathy begets empathy. Can you be the change you wish to see in the relationship?


Blake, Lucy. (2017). Parents and Children Who Are Estranged in Adulthood: A Review and Discussion of the Estrangement Literature. Journal of Family Theory & Review. 9. 10.1111/jftr.12216.

Kristina M. Scharp, Lindsey J. Thomas & Christina G. Paxman (2015) “It Was the Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back”: Exploring the Distancing Processes Communicatively Constructed in Parent-Child Estrangement Backstories, Journal of Family Communication, 15:4, 330-348, DOI: 10.1080/15267431.2015.1076422.

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