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How to Undo the Damage of Narcissistic Parenting

Adult children of narcissistic parents: Reclaim your life.

Key points

  • A narcissistic parent may push their child into serving their own needs, not their child’s.
  • Without boundaries, a child of a narcissist accepts that their purpose in life is to serve their narcissistic parent's needs.
  • An adult child of a narcissistic parent can reclaim their life by facing the reality that their parent is flawed and taking responsibility for th
Ekateryna Zubal/Shutterstock
Source: Ekateryna Zubal/Shutterstock

Every parent tends to think their child is the best, the brightest, and the most perfect specimen of humankind in the earliest days of parenthood. We need to feel that our kids are special and significant to the world to manage the 24-hour-a-day care that infants and children require from the get-go. It is hard work and we need to believe that our work has meaning. This narcissistic focus on the beauty of a newborn, though, should not grow into a narcissistic attachment that continues throughout the child’s life. Narcissistic parents can do a significant level of emotional damage to their children. Narcissistic parents are driven to control their children and wield their power in the family hierarchy; they use their children in a variety of ways to maintain the narcissist’s sense of self and inflated ego.

Some of the dangerous behaviors that narcissistic parents practice have been identified by researchers and include the following:

They Manipulate a Child’s Self and Development

Narcissistic parents manipulate not only the other adults in their homes and other milieus, they also manipulate their children through subtle and not so subtle means. They may push their children into certain activities or viewpoints that would serve the parent’s needs, not the child’s needs or interests. They may use gaslighting techniques, lying to their children, to extract particular behaviors and instill certain beliefs. They may use the child as leverage to get what they want from others, including tangible and intangible resources and rewards. They may shape the child’s behavior in ways that build up the narcissist’s ego through the tearing down of the child’s sense of self. As children get older and begin to seek more independence, a narcissist may use threats of self-harm or suggest that they will be “helpless” if the child leaves home to go to college or find a place of their own.

They Forbid or Ignore Boundaries

Narcissists cannot perceive their children as unique individuals separate from themselves in their own right. Much like a newborn baby who has a narcissistic perspective on life and doesn’t realize that his mother is not an extension of himself, narcissistic parents do not understand that their children are not simply extensions of them as parents. Without boundaries, children of narcissists accept that their purpose in life is to serve their parents’ needs and to reflect whatever values or traits their parents place on them. They are not allowed to develop independent ideas, beliefs, perspectives, or behaviors; they feel pressure to reflect the image that their parent holds of them.

They Triangulate and Alienate Family Members

This behavior creates power struggles and discord between a child and the non-narcissistic parent. Narcissists need to cling to their children for the purpose the child serves to support the narcissist’s ego and sense of self; they will find ways to alienate the other parent from the child. This is a form of emotional abuse of both the child and the other parent. It can happen through multiple means including creating and telling the child lies about the other parent, including accusing the parent of child abuse and feeding the child stories to corroborate accusations. It can also occur through “ownership” of the child, through convincing the other parent that the child “prefers” the narcissist or that the child “does better” with the narcissist’s parenting efforts.

Their Possessiveness Causes Isolation

Narcissistic parents do not want to share their resources; they do not share their material resources nor their human resources. They want to keep their children tucked around them and primed to serve as keepers of the parent’s ego and emotional wellbeing. Narcissistic parents tend to be highly possessive of their children and feel the need to control their activities in such a way that the time spent away from the home and in the company of other companions, more age-appropriate, or with other families is usually limited by the narcissist. They need their children to remain in their orbits as their over-identification and projection on their children blind them from recognizing that their children are separate and complete individuals in their own right. Unfortunately, growing up as an extension of another person can diminish the child’s resources for being able to function independently over time.

Children Who Distance Themselves Are Subject to Hoovering

This behavior is designed to suck others back up into the narcissist’s dysfunctional orbit. As children begin to recognize the unhealthy relationship they have with their narcissistic parent, they may try to distance themselves to protect themselves. However, narcissistic parents will create the drama or crisis or reward that they believe will woo their child back into their clutches. Because rejection is possibly the greatest fear a narcissist can experience, their efforts at hoovering their children can be overwhelmingly desperate and powerful.

They Try to Project Their Positive Traits

Narcissists will use both positive and negative projection on those around them to serve their most primal needs for positive reception. For instance, they will project their most coveted positive traits on their children to reflect well on themselves as parents. They’ll tell others how brilliant, artistic, mature, considerate their child is and take credit, implicitly or explicitly, for their children’s real or projected talents. Unfortunately, narcissistic parents will also project all of their shortcomings and failures onto their children, if relevant to their own self-esteem maintenance. They blame and scapegoat their children, the kids are the reason behind things that don’t go the way of the narcissist or for the narcissist’s poor choices.

Now That You’re an Adult, How Can You Claim Your Space?

  1. Accept that you will unlikely see a significant change in your parent no matter how objectively you see their behaviors or implore them to change.
  2. Take responsibility for your own life and your own choices, as you do have the power to control your responses and your behaviors and your future.
  3. Create boundaries and consequences for parents who cross them, and are willing to, enforce the boundaries if your narcissistic parent tries to disrupt them.
  4. As an adult, you can now see others as individuals in their own right through your own perspective. You may have to invest time and energy into re-defining and re-building relationships with those from whom your narcissistic parent kept you alienated as a child.
  5. Seek out connections and seek out models of healthy relationships; forge bonds that support you, but also that allow you to offer support to others. Understand that healthy relationships are built on mutual respect, mutual regard, and mutual trust.
  6. Set limits on the time that you are willing to invest in the relationship. Prioritize your own emotional well-being and don’t allow yourself to be drawn into parental drama to satisfy their narcissistic appetite for attention.
  7. Remind yourself that you are not responsible for your parent’s happiness or their sense of self and that you are not to blame for your parents’ failures or shortcomings.

Find out more about breaking the "trauma bond" that narcissistic parents forge with their children in this article.

Facebook image: Ekateryna Zubal/Shutterstock

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