Treating Adult Children of Narcissists
How to heal from the neglect and invalidation caused by narcissistic parents.
Posted September 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Narcissistic parents treat their children as instruments for their own self-enhancement, largely ignoring their children's developmental needs.
- Children of narcissistic parents often suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression as adults.
- To heal from the effects of a narcissistic parent, evaluation by a licensed mental health professional is always key.
At her initial psychotherapy session, “Kathy,” a 33-year-old married female, presented with problems of periodic depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and special difficulties related to self-image and self-esteem. She reported lifelong struggles to feel worthy, cohesive, and whole. She often had a sense of not existing, or not deserving to exist, at all.
Over time, I observed that Kathy had highly charged, ambivalent feelings toward her parents. She denied any instances of overt childhood abuse or abandonment. It was only gradually, as the therapy unfolded, that she began to reveal a disturbing history of emotional neglect by self-absorbed parents exhibiting a curious indifference to her childhood needs. In response to my expressed concerns about the damage that such treatment conferred, she would immediately rush to disavow the reality or importance of what she had just shared.
Narcissists as Parents
I have come to view the above difficulties as part of a syndrome associated with a particular type of childhood emotional neglect and invalidation (Zaslav, 2018) stemming from having grown up with one or more narcissistic parents.
Narcissistic parents seldom set out consciously to undermine or ignore their children. They merely treat their children as they do other people—as instruments for self-enhancement.
People with narcissistic personalities display traits of grandiosity, excessive need for admiration, lack of empathy, a marked sense of entitlement, intolerance to criticism, and a tendency to manipulate others. Unable to view children (or anyone else) as separate from themselves, having their distinct attitudes, motivations, or feelings, narcissists are neither interested in, nor able to empathize with, the developmental needs of a child.
Through the work of attachment theorists, we have learned the crucial importance of parental attunement to healthy brain and emotional development. It is through the process of interaction with a caregiver capable of understanding and reacting reciprocally to the child’s behavior that the child gradually develops emotional self-regulation functions. The child identifies with, and eventually internalizes, feedback from an engaged caregiver in the course of developing a stable, positive sense of self. Parents preoccupied with self-enhancement are not capable of providing this nurturance. A child’s need for attention and care may be seen as an intrusion into the parent’s self-preoccupation, inspiring boredom or resentment.
Misattunement and lack of parental attention exert their effects on the child’s developing brain within the first few years of life. This can result in anxious attachment, a condition manifesting in the low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression displayed by Kathy well into adulthood.
Lacking the early experiences that instill capacities for self-regulation, behavioral or addictive problems like eating disorders may emerge as a way to manage a lurking hunger for nurturance. Compulsive intake of food, drugs, or alcohol become routines of self-regulation.
Echoing across playgrounds around the world is the eternal exclamation, "Mom, watch me!" Especially early in life, children require parental attention and acknowledgment for their efforts. But for the narcissist, a child’s accomplishments tend to incite envy or competitiveness.
For example, in Kathy’s case, she recalled being a good student but receiving little acknowledgment when she brought home her grades. Instead, at the mention of any school achievement, her father would seize the opportunity to reminisce about his own academic experiences, musing that young graduates of today in his firm were merely “book smart,” lacking his real-world brilliance. This type of invalidation continued into her adult life, with the result that Kathy had largely given up trying to share her current life and career successes with her parents.
There is a special type of invalidation resulting from a family dominated by the theme of parental self-gratification. The family system normalizes and demands participation in, a grandiose fantasy of parental perfection—no error or problem can be acknowledged. The child raised in such a family comes to doubt the legitimacy of his or her quite contrary observations and feelings. Children in this situation feel virtually nonexistent. They assume that their needs must be unimportant.
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Further complicating the picture, at times self-absorbed parents may intrusively and thoughtlessly breach boundaries, burdening the child with their personal, private issues. A child starved for attention may thus adopt the role of parentified confidante. In this way, the child becomes the parent, simultaneously disavowing unmet childhood needs.
What Brings People to Treatment?
As is not uncommon, the impetus for Kathy to seek treatment in adulthood was the experience of having a family of her own. Like most neglected children, Kathy had assumed that she received the level of attention and care in childhood that was customary and deserved. It was only when inundated with a profound (and very normal) degree of interest and care for her own children, that she was struck with a retrospective sense of shock at the inattention to which she had accommodated in childhood. She always had a very strong undercurrent of negative feelings toward her parents, avoiding contact and feeling guilty for doing so. Suddenly, she began to question whether her chronic psychological issues might be connected to this awareness of her childhood neglect.
As we see, the adult personality of children of narcissists floats on a vague, poorly differentiated childhood sense of self compounded by systematic invalidation during later development. These problems are entirely amenable to psychological treatment. The first step is to review exactly what happened in childhood, breaking through lifelong patterns of denial fostered by a narcissistic family system.
If you are a child of narcissists, it will be important to let go of guilt or feelings of disloyalty as you go about your review. You deserve to heal. You will also need to relinquish any fantasies or hopes that your parents will come to acknowledge or accept responsibility for your problems. In my experience, if you attempt this, blame will be angrily directed toward you by your family as unappreciative and “selfish.”
Therapy can work on several fronts. With your therapist, you can review the diagnostic signs of narcissistic personality disorder manifested by your parent. In the empathic presence of a competent therapist paying attention to your needs, noticing patterns of emotional reactions, and providing them context, there will be an element of being reparented. You will begin to practice self-compassion, essentially learning who you were and are. Perhaps now a parent yourself, you will come to understand what was lacking in your childhood and how to move forward in life.
I always recommend writing about your childhood, including what you remember, your feelings about what you recall, and what confuses or eludes you. You will be surprised how initially challenging, but ultimately clarifying, this can be. It is also helpful to write at least a brief summary of your feelings and reactions after your current interactions with your parents. What have you noticed, and how might this behavior have affected you as a child? Again, I advise against sharing these writings with your parents.
Obviously, your issues will differ depending on your history and any underlying inherited predispositions. Evaluation by a licensed mental health professional is always key. But healing from the effects of a narcissistic parent can begin at any time.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.