Modeling Narcissism

Do you flaunt the rules in front of your children?

Posted Nov 27, 2020

Beginning with Freud, psychoanalysts have discussed how psychopathology gets passed from one generation to another. Freud talked about the compulsion to repeat as central to the intergenerational transmission of a pathological relationship: Adults recreate their early negative relationship experiences in their relationships with their families.

Anna Freud discussed identification with the aggressor from a similar point of view. The child who is threatened with overwhelming aggression by parents may respond by being excessively aggressive to other children or siblings to cope with fear and hopelessness.

And following Bowlby, attachment research has empirically demonstrated the intergenerational transmission of patterns of attachment. These patterns are frequently enacted in the transference relationship.

Cristina Zaragoza/Unsplash
Source: Cristina Zaragoza/Unsplash

Another aspect of the intergenerational transmission of psychopathology is identification with parental narcissism. In her memoir, My Turn, Nancy Reagan wrote that her mother had a profound influence on the woman she turned out to be. But I am not sure she was fully conscious of the most profound effect.

Reagan wrote that her mother told her she was supposed to be born on the Fourth of July, but the Yankees were playing a doubleheader that day, so she delayed the birth until July 6. Reagan tells this as if it is an amusing anecdote, but it is not funny. It's a powerful example of a narcissistic parent who has no self-consciousness, and the daughter repeats it with the same lack of awareness.

I knew the son of an attorney. His father had a radar detector in their car so that he could break speed laws without concern for getting a ticket. The message my friend learned was: “The law does not apply to us. We are special. Only suckers obey speed limits.”

President Trump has flaunted the idea of disregarding social norms and government advice. He has sent a message that “The law does not apply to me; only suckers obey the law.”

This Thanksgiving holiday demonstrated that the intergenerational transmission of narcissism is widespread in this country. Many states, such as New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, issued stay-at-home advisories; the CDC issued an advisory against traveling over Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, Thanksgiving eve was the busiest air travel day since the pandemic began; many others drove to visit relatives. All of these families disregarded government advisories and sent a booming message to their children: “We are special. We do not have to obey the government. We don’t even have to worry about spreading a deadly virus."

Of course, it is difficult to tell how much Trump’s refusal to wear a mask or social distance influenced the mass flaunting of safety warnings. President-elect Biden will have to confront a large constituency of people who refuse to follow guidelines and are proud of their defiance.

The good news is that the intergenerational transmission of individual psychopathology is not inevitable. It can be altered through the experience of later relationships. A good friend, spouse, or therapist can help someone work through adverse childhood experiences so that they are not acted out and passed on. The first step is to be more aware when we are flaunting the rules and ask ourselves: “Is this what I want to teach my children?” 

For more on narcissism, see this post.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.