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How Parental Narcissism Makes Children's Anxiety Worse

How to become more aware of narcissistic parenting traits that hurt children.

Key points

  • Studies show that anxiety in children is increasing.
  • Narcissistic parents tend to increase anxiety in children.
  • The remedy for children’s anxiety is empathic parenting.
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All of us who adore children and want to do the best by them as parents, grandparents, teachers, and helping professionals are familiar with common and disturbing reports: Anxiety in children is increasing and more needs to be done about it.

We know how debilitating anxiety can be for adults, and how it can become almost crippling at times. But adults can seek help and work on many self-care strategies to assist in their recovery. And even with this level of control, adults experiencing intense anxiety still find it difficult to cope.

Children who experience anxiety, however, are dependent on their caretakers and helpers, to guide them in dealing with their fears. To do so, we must be aware of the root causes of their anxiety. At the moment, there are three major issues causing high levels of anxiety in our children: school shootings, the pandemic, and parental narcissism.

Los Angeles Times Letters Editor, Paul Thornton, wrote after recent shootings in California, “Our children can handle mass shootings. And that’s a shame.” He was referring to the “lockdown drills” that students are becoming accustomed to. “They know to keep utterly silent when their teacher shuts off the light, locks the door and covers the door window with a map or seating chart or any opaque material that will block a killer’s view…”

Unfortunately, being schooled in such emergency measures doesn’t prevent children from enduring anxiety, and recent studies have shown increased anxiety in children stemming from both mass shootings and pandemic concerns. Time magazine cited research by Kira Riehm, postdoctoral fellow at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, showing that “even when children aren’t directly involved in school shootings, they are deeply affected by them and often experience anxiety and depression as a result.” A 2020 survey of 1,000 parents around the country, facilitated by the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, revealed that 71% of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health.

While these societal issues are worrisome enough, for a child who grows up with a narcissistic parent, dealing with anxiety brought on by current cultural factors can be even more challenging. The underlying reasons for this are essentially twofold:

  1. A narcissistic parent’s inappropriate, self-centered reactions to a child’s normal emotions prevent the child from learning how to deal with their feelings in a healthy way.
  2. Narcissistic parents unconsciously and sometimes consciously teach their children to hide their feelings.

There are spoken and unspoken rules that govern the narcissistic family, one of which is: Don’t show your true feelings. When kids grow up in a narcissistic family—a family led by one or two narcissistic parents—they learn that their feelings are a burden for the narcissistic parent to have to deal with, so they learn to shut down and keep their feelings to themselves. If you are sad, fearful, or angry, that’s too much trouble for your parent; if you are joyful or excited, that’s too threatening to them.

Among the effects of growing up in a narcissistic family:

  • The child won’t feel heard or seen.
  • The child’s feelings and reality will not be acknowledged.
  • The child will not learn to identify or trust their own feelings and will grow up with crippling self-doubt.
  • The child will likely suffer from some level of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and/or anxiety.

In a narcissistic family, the parent’s needs take precedence over the child’s. Although children of a narcissist aren’t shown empathy by their parent, they are nonetheless expected to demonstrate empathy to that parent and to relieve the parent’s feelings of insecurity or vulnerability. Narcissistic parents are there when they need you.

You can see how this dynamic fails to create an emotional safety net for children. They end up forever questioning whether or not their parent will be there to comfort, support, and love them. The inconsistency in providing loving assurance leaves a child in a state of confusion and anxiety.

As parents, professionals, and caregivers, we must keep these issues in mind as we try to help children cope with anxiety. Whether or not the child we are caring for comes from a narcissistic family, in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives we must never forget that children need us to be tuned in to their emotional lives on a daily basis.

Learn more in my new book, Will the Drama Ever End? Untangling and Healing from the Harmful Effects of Parent Narcissism.

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