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How to Deal with Parental Narcissism During the Holidays

10 tips to help you maintain your authentic self.

Key points

  • Many adult children of narcissistic parents’ report struggling with holidays.
  • It is important to set boundaries with dysfunctional family members.
  • There are ways to maintain your sense of self and not get pulled into a narcissistic web.
Shutterstock/LightField Studios
Source: Shutterstock/LightField Studios

If you come from a narcissistic family, meaning a family led by a mother or father who is a narcissist, you are probably starting to either dread the approaching holidays or worry about how to handle family gatherings. Pre-holiday anxiety is common in other types of dysfunctional families as well: Will your uncle drink too much again this year? Will there be angry arguments with no resolution? Will you get triggered by the hostile dynamics of your unhealthy family? Will the family expect you to play “your role” in the family—the one you were assigned as a child? Can you manage to be yourself at a holiday get-together and maintain your authenticity with grace?

These are the kinds of concerns I begin to hear from clients right after Halloween. Those who come from dysfunctional families headed by a narcissistic parent worry about how they’ll get through the holidays with their sanity and self-respect intact. They may wish they could look forward to a holiday celebration surrounded by loving, respectful, generous, caring relatives, but unfortunately that rarely, if ever, is the case for adult children of a narcissist. So I counsel clients that our sanity, mental health, and well-being are an inside job. The more we are able to engage in recovery from the trauma of being raised in a narcissistic family, the easier our lives become and the more able we are to handle difficult situations with family members.

Parental narcissism essentially means this: The parent’s needs take precedence over the child’s needs. A narcissistic family is one in which other members of the family become entangled in the narcissist’s web, often enabling the narcissistic parent’s behavior. (My upcoming book, Will the Drama Ever End?: Untangling and Healing from the Harmful Effects of Parental Narcissism, explains the dynamics of the narcissistic family in further detail.) Children who grow up in this unfortunate environment do not get their emotional needs met and are left with trauma that must be resolved in their adulthood if they are to lead authentic, fulfilling lives. Children and adult children from narcissistic families are accustomed to a lack of empathy; parental entitlement; grandiose, dishonest, superficial behavior; envy and lack of support; criticism and judgment; being taken advantage of; not feeling valued for who they are but rather for what they can do; and feeling that to gain acceptance they must provide excessive admiration for the narcissistic parent. Not a very happy holiday, right?

Several of my clients who have endured such parental behavior have reported how they are anticipating the upcoming holidays:

  • Nick, 45, the son of a narcissistic father, told me, “I have avoided being with my family for the last several years while I’ve been working on my recovery. This year, my wife and I decided to go to my parents for the holidays, so I had to prepare her and my children for what my family is like. I had to warn them about my narcissistic father, explaining that he will likely talk only about himself and what he thinks are his amazing accomplishments. He won’t ask about us or act interested if we talk about what we’re doing. My mom will enable and support him, and the whole family will orbit around his needs. I realize that my wife and kids won’t really understand what my family is like until they actually see it play out in real life. I wonder if it’s even worth it getting together at all, but I’m going to give it a try. I know I will have to stay very neutral, not be vulnerable to their judgments, and stand up for myself if I have to.”

  • Ruth Ann, 36, told me that going home to her family at the holidays was usually a nightmare, so she was trying to decide what to do this year: “I know what’s most important for Mom is that everything be absolutely perfect, according to her standards. She will expect us all to look the part of the big, wonderful family, and she’ll be critical if we don’t dress up, so I’ll have to make sure the kids are groomed to the max. Of course, there will be pictures taken to show off on Facebook. Then, after the meal, my narcissistic mom will expect praises to fall at her feet for her incredible cooking and preparations, she’ll expect endless thank-yous, and everything will be all about her. I will be expected to take orders and do what she requests without question. And what’s most hurtful is that no one in the rest of the family sees anything wrong with her behavior or her expectation that all of us should just fall into line. They just go along as if everything is normal, which makes it super uncomfortable for me and my kids. We really can’t be appreciated for who we are or be our authentic selves in this environment, so I really don’t want to go.”

Adult children of narcissistic families struggle with how to be themselves at family gatherings. They typically hope that things will be different this time around, only to find that nothing has changed: Their narcissistic parent has not altered their behavior, and enabling family members continue orbiting around the narcissist. The only thing that can change is an adult child’s own recovery, which includes insight regarding their narcissistic family dynamic and tips for how to cope during family get-togethers.

Let’s look at some of those recovery tips:

10 Tips for Maintaining Your Authentic Self with a Narcissistic Parent

  1. Think ahead about what boundaries you may have to set and keep.
  2. Don’t be too vulnerable in sharing your life and current issues.
  3. Stop any kind of emotional abuse if it occurs, and leave if it doesn’t stop or a fight begins.
  4. Don’t engage in arguments or get drawn into the drama.
  5. Practice being yourself, but if criticism or judgment comes your way, stand up for yourself in a kind and gentle way.
  6. If you need to express feelings, use I statements, such as “I am not comfortable with that” or “I feel hurt by that comment," and don’t tell other people what to do.
  7. If you have children, keep guard closely so the kids are always protected from judgment.
  8. Try not to get pulled into the narcissistic web of how you used to act or react in the family; rather, try to be more of an observer outside that dysfunctional web.
  9. If you find yourself getting triggered, try not to be reactive; rather, observe and journal about it later.
  10. Try to be aware of others’ projections that have nothing to do with you.

Make your own memories this holiday season, stay in the moment, and celebrate your authentic self. Remember: Recovery work is the key and so worth it.