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Narcissism

Navigating Narcissism: Raised by a Narcissist

The final part of our series seeking a deeper understanding of narcissism.

Key points

  • Being raised by a narcissistic caregiver can impact a person well into adulthood.
  • Narcissistic caregiving might look like harsh criticism, rejection, and forcing a child to meet the caregiver's emotional needs.
  • Narcissistic caregiving can impact a person's self-image, interpersonal relationships, mental health, and more.
  • Seeking therapy and setting firm boundaries can be good first steps to healing from a narcissistic caregiver.
Jose Jovena on Unsplash
Parents play a big role in shaping our lives, for better or for worse
Source: Jose Jovena on Unsplash

In this final installment of our "Navigating Narcissism" series, we will be looking into narcissism a little bit closer to home—it's a little bit trickier to manage than say, working for a narcissistic boss. This month, we are exploring common signs that you were raised by a narcissist.

In any context, identifying and dealing with narcissistic individuals can be a challenge. However, when the individual in question is a parent or guardian, it becomes exponentially more complicated.

This is because the majority of the impact from narcissistic caregivers is not during a 9-5 workday, or in a romantic relationship between two people in their twenties; narcissistic caregivers have a significant effect on those in their care: young children in their core developmental years.

Since children can’t separate themselves from a harmful situation in the same way that someone might quit a job, what does that mean for the children of narcissistic caregivers? It means that many people don’t realize that they grew up with a narcissistic caregiver until well into their adult years, if at all.

It also means that there are effects that may show up later in life that come from growing up with a narcissistic person, effects that we can link right back to the way narcissistic people tend to act as caregivers.

5 Signs You Were Raised By a Narcissistic Caregiver

1. Co-Narcissism

We’ve talked extensively about narcissism, but a key factor to discuss in relation to growing up with a narcissistic caregiver is a phenomenon called co-narcissism.

A telltale trait of narcissistic caregivers is expecting their children to meet their need for admiration and superiority. Co-narcissism is what happens when the child of a narcissist works to meet these needs for the caregiver, in order to avoid criticism or punishment.

This way of adapting to narcissistic parenting can lead to children growing into adults that view the world as if everyone they meet is also a narcissist. They are often extreme people-pleasers, struggle with insecurity, and are quick to give in to the opinions or needs of others instead of expressing their own.

As a result, adults with co-narcissistic traits might even approach relationships as if they inherently don’t deserve love or support from the other person.

Julien Hochgesang on Unsplash
Sometimes it takes until adulthood to recognize the effects of narcissistic parenting
Source: Julien Hochgesang on Unsplash

2. Parentified Behavior

Similar to co-narcissism, children of narcissistic caregivers may grow up showing parentified behavior to others in their life. Parentified behavior is just as it sounds—when children take on the role of caregiver to others, typically toward siblings or to their own parents.

Adults that were parentified as children might struggle with feeling safe in relationships, or might become involved in relationships that are unhealthy due to their need to care for others. It isn’t uncommon for these individuals to feel a sense of authority over others, one that might not be welcomed, depending on the circumstances.

3. Inaccurate Self-Beliefs

When we are growing up, part of how we learn about ourselves is through the perception of others. That means that early on, most of the information that we have access to about ourselves is from our caregivers.

Due to their need to perceived as superior or perfect, narcissistic caregivers are frequently hyper-critical or rejecting of their children, if they do not fit the caregiver's impossibly high standards. As a result, kids of narcissistic caregivers often develop beliefs about themselves that aren't really true.

For example, many adults that had narcissistic parents might describe themselves as selfish, demanding, or useless. They may say things like “I need to be perfect to be worthy” or “I always have to care for others.”

Phil Hearing on Unsplash
Narcissistic parenting can impact a ton of different areas in a person's life, even as an adult
Source: Phil Hearing on Unsplash

In her book Children of the Self Absorbed, Nina Brown describes these as injuries of the self, because being raised by a narcissistic caregiver appears to almost wound their child’s self-perception.

4. The “Rebellious” Response

So far we’ve discussed how narcissistic caregivers can lead to behaviors in their children that may be considered passive, or compliant, but not all children—and later on, not all adults—respond to narcissistic caregivers by taking on their emotional burden.

People that rebelled against narcissistic parents might become defensive in the face of criticism or might be instinctually distrusting and wary of other people. Some individuals might engage in risky behavior, and others might even have trouble accepting opinions or ideas from others.

All of these behaviors are in direct opposition to the behaviors of caregivers with narcissistic tendencies, as the person seeks to protect themselves from experiencing what they did growing up.

5. Presence of Mental Health Challenges

Mental illness can come from a myriad of different factors or combinations of factors. Narcissistic parenting is, unfortunately, one of those factors that can play a major role in the mental health of their child, well into their adult life.

Common mental health challenges faced by individuals raised by narcissistic caregivers include social anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, substance use disorder, and various issues with attachment.

These may not seem surprising to hear—if a person develops core self-beliefs that they are unworthy or unlovable, it makes sense that they may struggle with depression down the line.

However, some people are surprised to hear that being raised by a narcissistic caregiver can lead to the development of traumatic stress disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD).

Kulli Kittus on Unsplash
Mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or traumatic stress are common impacts of narcissistic parenting
Source: Kulli Kittus on Unsplash

This is because a traumatic event is not only a car crash or a sexual assault. If a child consistently does not have their physical and emotional needs met by their caregivers, that can also be considered traumatic.

In the case of narcissistic caregiving, constant rejection and harsh criticism add to this traumatic response from their child.

What's Next?

Being an adult and looking back to realize you have been impacted by a narcissistic caregiver can often be painful and frustrating. In some cases, though, it can also be incredibly validating, and can help people understand more about how their caregiver influenced their behavior. Regardless, a big question that typically comes to mind when this conclusion is made is “what now?”

If you have the means to do so, therapy is a highly recommended option for working through the effects of narcissistic caregiving, especially if you are struggling with things like anxiety, depression, or trauma as a result.

Therapists are trained to help connect the dots between these caregiver behaviors and present-day challenges, and to offer guidance on how to overcome those challenges. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Emma Simpson on Unsplash
Once you recognize narcissistic tendencies in your parent or guardian, what next?
Source: Emma Simpson on Unsplash

If this caregiver is still involved in your life, then it is important to manage their continued impact. Understanding the roles that each member of your family played and how the narcissistic caregiver fit into those roles can help you potentially identify and break patterns.

It is also critical that you educate yourself about narcissism and what it looks like. That way, you can recognize those behaviors and set/assert the appropriate boundaries you need to keep yourself safe.

In many situations, those boundaries can look like cutting contact with that narcissistic caregiver, which can be a difficult and emotionally taxing task. Ensure that you have a healthy support network that you can lean on, should you decide it is best to separate yourself from this caregiver.

While individuals with narcissism can be difficult to interact with in most contexts, children being raised by narcissistic caretakers are often trapped in a situation that will negatively affect them for years to come.

Still, even if you are an adult just now realizing for the first time that your parent or guardian is narcissistic, it can be an important and freeing first step to begin understanding how those behaviors might continue to influence you today.

Thank you for joining us on this journey of "Navigating Narcissism"! If you haven’t yet, feel free to visit "A New Beginning" to take a look at the previous installments of our series, to learn more about how to manage narcissistic individuals. See you next month!

References

Brown, N. W. (2008). Children of the self-absorbed: A grown-up's guide to getting over narcissistic parents. New Harbinger Publications.

Rappoport, A. (2005). Co-narcissism: How we accommodate to narcissistic parents. The Therapist, (1), 1-8.

Jacobson, S. (2017). The Impact of Parental Narcissistic Personality Disorder on Children and Why Legal Intervention Is Warranted. Cardozo J. Equal Rts. & Soc. Just., 24, 315.

Monroe, J. (2019, September 16). Parentification Impact on Mental Health. Newport Academy. https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/parentification/.

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