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Breaking the Trauma Bond Forged by Narcissistic Parents

Tips for undoing a dysfunctional parent's hold on you.

Key points

  • A trauma bond is the type of emotional attachment that forms between abusers and victims, such as narcissistic parents and children.
  • Trauma bonds are forged over time as a narcissistic parent trains a child to respond in particular ways to feed their ego and narcissistic needs.
  • Untangling oneself from a trauma bond with a narcissist can be difficult, so it is essential to engage in self-healing during the process.

When you’ve been raised by a narcissistic parent, your sense of “normal family life” can be tragically skewed. You may not be totally sure that your own childhood and adolescence were different until you reach adulthood and are able to gain distance and perspective on what exactly was “wrong” in your household.

Unfortunately, many true narcissists do not have the self-awareness necessary to recognize that their behavior doesn’t fit with normal expectations regarding behavior exhibited by fully functioning adults. They have developed the traits associated with narcissism over many years and when others in their orbit didn’t play by the narcissist’s rules, they replaced them with someone who would be a better sidekick. Thus, their behaviors have been reinforced through their relationships rather than extinguished.

For these parents, having a child assert their independence, no matter how old the child might be, may rank among the most excruciating narcissistic injuries they may suffer. But remembering that narcissists don’t actually “feel” emotions the way other people do may provide you with the support you need to finally break the unhealthy bond that keeps you from asserting your independence and living the type of life that you deserve.

Breaking the Trauma Bond

A trauma bond is the type of emotional attachment that forms between abusers and victims (Casassa, Knight, & Mengo, 2021). This type of bond describes the attachment between narcissistic parents and their children and these attachments can maintain their grip even as children grow into adults. The hallmark traits that identify trauma bonds include an imbalance in power between the parent and child; a mixed pattern of both negative and positive engagement from the parent; a confusing experience for the child in that they are grateful for the parent’s positive attention, but also feel responsible for and deserving of blame for any negative attention; and a child’s shaping of their self-esteem filtered through their perceptions of their parent’s esteem for the child.

When you are ready to begin untangling yourself from the trauma bond between yourself and your narcissistic parent, accept that this may be much harder than you have planned. Perhaps even more than any other person in a narcissist’s life, they may perceive a child of any age as a possession to which they have total rights of ownership. You are a prized supply to their narcissism and to remove yourself from their hold and to establish yourself as a fully independent and separate individual is one of the most significant narcissistic injuries that your parent might suffer. Because of the magnitude of the injury, finding your way out of the bond may be hindered by the efforts of your parent to maintain their unhealthy hold on you. Don’t let yourself be deterred by the drama that your parent creates around your actions to cut yourself out of the narcissist’s Gordian knot. Every point of engagement is more fuel for the narcissist’s pathological behavior.

How to Begin the Process of Self-Healing

  1. Don’t pretend you have not been hurt by the experiences of neglect, rejection, abandonment, or alienation that your parents created for you. It’s okay to feel your feelings, name your feelings, and explore ways to heal the hurt.
  2. Don’t let yourself begin believing your parents’ lies that their poor treatment and abuse of you was due to some inner failing of your own. Your parents chose their actions, you were a child trying to survive and navigate a dysfunctional family system. Your parents were adults who knew what they were doing as they built dysfunction into the family system.
  3. Don’t believe you are not worthy or “good enough” to live a life filled with people who value you for who you are and not what need you could meet for them.
  4. Don’t become the inverse of the narcissist – a people-pleasing, boundaryless, co-dependent to the next narcissist who targets you as an adult.
  5. Don’t hold onto false hope that your parent will change with time; often narcissistic behaviors just grow more ingrained over the years and your parent may never be able to love you in the way that other parents love their children.

How to Separate Without Harming Yourself

  1. Create boundaries that you are willing and able to maintain. Isolating your parent from your life is not always easy depending on the level of obligation and guilt they have instilled in you. Recognize that less opportunities for contact translate into more opportunities to build a healthier sense of self and healthier relationships with others.
  2. When your parent attempts to cross a boundary or draw you back into their twisted bonds, keep up your guard and refuse to engage emotionally. Admitting that your parent’s behavior is affecting you is feeding the narcissist. Refuse to serve as the supply for their power and pain games.
  3. When narcissists throw grown-up temper tantrums or make threats, treat them as you would a small child engaging in those behaviors – you don’t give into their demands and you also rely on logical or natural consequences for misbehavior in children, too. Let your parents know your limits and the potential consequences if they try and push past them – and enforce the consequences. (“My family and I will be heading home if you continue to insult/threaten/tease me/us in this way.”)
  4. If any contact is too much contact, go “no contact.” Some people feel this is too extreme for their situation, but it is necessary for others. Going “no contact” can leave some individuals feeling like an orphan of sorts, but it allows for the creation of a “family of choice,” where relationships are built on mutuality and respect.
  5. If “no contact” is a no-go, consider using the “grey rock” technique – when in the company of the narcissist, engage only from the neck up – don’t risk being vulnerable or engaging your feelings or heart. Rather than investing in a conversation, keep your responses brief, noncommittal, and devoid of feelings or questions. Avoid eye contact, too. Keep to mundane topics, like the weather or other factual topics. Don't express opinions or ask questions. Unfortunately, this type of non-engaged interaction requires you to stifle your own normal reactions, which can be a challenge in itself. Grey rocking is a technique for specific situations with specific individuals – not a healthy way to engage with those who care about you or with whom you want to maintain or deepen intimate relationships.

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Casassa, K., Knight, L., & Mengo, C. (2021). Trauma Bonding Perspectives From Service Providers and Survivors of Sex Trafficking: A Scoping Review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.

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