Children with overtly bullying parents learn quickly about self-defense. They read the signs of gathering rage like a fine-tuned seismograph and do what they can to brace for conflict. But what happens when a parent's guile is packaged as a smile, and cruelty is delivered as kindness?
Disarming the Enemy
By definition, the pathological covert narcissistic personality prefers passive aggressive tactics to control, dominate, outdo, and punish others. You don't have to read The Art of War to recognize the power of disarming your enemy, and what better way to disarm someone than to pretend to be a friend?
Dependent on their caregivers for physical and emotional survival, relational attachment, and identity formation, children have no choice but to return to the hand that feeds, even when it also grabs, slaps, and withholds. When a parent hides abuse and frames it as love, it is that much more difficult to recognize and even harder to call out.
How Covert Narcissist Parents Groom Children for Abuse
- They exploit cultural assumptions. Society tells us in countless ways that all parents want the best for their children. Questioning a parent's love and loyalty flies in the face of conventional wisdom and forces us to reexamine our most fundamental beliefs about family. Covert narcissist parents rely on cultural assumptions to hide their abuse and neglect, and they gaslight their children about their behavior by leaning hard into their unimpeachable status as "loving" parents.
- They play the paragon of virtue. It is common for a covert narcissistic parent to cultivate an image in and beyond the family that he or she is caring, principled, devoted, and/or self-sacrificing while also targeting a scapegoated child as a negative foil. Such a parent may be skilled at manipulating family members, such as an enabling partner or golden child, as well as people in that parent's social circle, to support his or her narrative. Children in this scenario struggle with the cognitive dissonance of what they are told about that parent versus how that parent actually behaves behind closed doors.
- They master the microaggression. By definition, the narcissistic personality is competitive, envious, and prone to hostile attacks. Unlike the overt narcissist's obvious one-upmanship, the covert narcissist parent uses microaggressions cloaked as oversights, slips of the tongue, humor, help, or caring concern. For the child treated to such abuse, it is death by a thousand cuts.
- They play the innocent victim. Assuming the role of victim allows the covert narcissist parent to pivot away from responsibility and blame while garnering sympathy for all the ways other people, especially their children, disappoint, neglect, and harm them. Parents who act the victim often use guilt and pity plays to solicit attention and care-taking from their children and others beyond the family.
- They operate within plausible deniability. Covertly narcissistic parents employ indirect forms of manipulation such as dismissal, redirection, minimizing, gaslighting, and triangulation. Typically they calibrate the abuse so it is within plausible deniability if their kids or other adults question them about it.
- They look good by comparison. In many narcissistic families, a covert narcissist parent is partnered with an overtly abusive and neglectful one, allowing the covert to appear reasonable, selfless, easygoing, or otherwise "good" by comparison while playing up the long-suffering martyr routine. Children have no choice but to seek out whatever caregiving they can get from the less volatile parent in the home.
- They give intermittent reinforcement. Covert narcissist parents typically exert ongoing control over their children by sporadically offering forms of desperately craved validation, such as attentiveness, praise, caretaking, and gifts. This confusing push-pull dynamic keeps children "in the game" and coming back for more.
It is common for children to continue to cling to the belief that a covertly abusive, neglectful, and abandoning narcissistic parent loves them and would never hurt them, even with ongoing ample evidence to the contrary. Groomed from infancy to accept and excuse that parent's exploitive, often cruel behavior, they blame themselves for the failures in the relationship. If there is also an overtly abusive parent in the picture, the lesser of two evils is their only option.
For the adult child, confronting the covert parent's lifelong patterns of underhanded abuse reveals a devastating and destabilizing betrayal. Often it takes years of reassessing the past and reckoning with the present to recognize it for what it is. Only when we release our fantasy of finally solving the riddle of how to win that parent's love do we realize that not only can we survive without it, but we have been surviving all along through the power of our own resiliency. We understand that it was, after all, not our unlovability that caused that parent to hurt us but that parent's profound impairment, perhaps rooted in far-reaching generational trauma.