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The Narcissistic Parent

And the effect on the child.

Parenthood is a job of the heart. It is a job that is meant to facilitate an authentic response to life on the part of the child—key word there is facilitate. That’s not the same as creating, or molding, or forcing. By facilitation, what I mean is that the parent provides for the child an accurate mirror for the child to look into, in which the child may see his own authentic Self. The child does the work of seeing. The child does the work of being. But the parent holds the mirror.

How does one hold a mirror for a child? One sees the child being who and what the child is and communicates that to the child. “I saw you working so hard over there on your picture. Tell me about it.” Such a response to the child allows the child to both be seen and be able to define her own work. As opposed to “Oh, what a pretty picture”—which defines the work for the child and leaves off any recognition of the child’s work. That’s just one example, but the idea is that the child’s natural, organic Self is recognized by the parent. Because the parent is able to hold on clearly to his own Self, he is thereby able to avoid projecting his unresolved issues onto the child, while holding up that mirror for the child. The child is able to look to the parent as an affirming reflective mirror, who loves her unconditionally. Therefore, the child learns to affirm and love Self.

Nothing like that happens when a parent is narcissistic. In fact, when the parent is narcissistic, the child is used as a receptacle for the parent’s projections about life and about the parent. How does this happen? A parent who is narcissistic might be looking for the child to be a reflection of the parent, or to take care of the parent rather than the other way around. The narcissistic mother, for example, might demand that a daughter look, talk, walk, think, feel, and behave exactly like the mother. A father with unresolved authority issues, who is also narcissistic, might be very demanding that the child fix his loose ego, by always complying with the father’s needs for aggrandizement.

The narcissistic person is wounded at the level of self-image. Image has everything to do with how one is seen by one’s world. It may have little to do with actual Self, but it does have to do with image. By self-image what I mean is the image we have of ourselves. The wound to this image convinces the wounded child that the only way he will survive that woundedness is to be completely absorbed in self-interest for the sake of self-image. In other words, that child must see himself in a worthy light, regardless of the reality of his actual behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Therefore, even when he is cruel and vindictive to others, for example, he will still need to see those behaviors in a light that makes him feel worthy of high esteem. This child may grow up to be a parent who needs others to take care of this image of self. His children will become victims of his woundedness.

Narcissism is made up entirely of these kinds of distortions of reality. Therefore, the effect on the child of the narcissistic parent is that the child will distort her own self-image around the parent’s needs for ego aggrandizement. Particularly sensitive children will pick up and carry around these needs, as if these needs belong to the child. Therefore, the child will become a crusader for the parent—one who will defend the parent from the child’s own awareness about what is really going on between the parent and the child. The child will therefore, argue against his own intuition and knowledge of the parent’s actual behavior in order to protect the parent from having to become aware of her own behavior. Children of narcissistic parents will often live well into adulthood, having crashed on the shores of many a crisis, before waking up to the fact that they were raised by a narcissistic parent who insisted that they give up Self in order to attend to the needs of the parent.

Children of narcissistic parents will very commonly blame themselves for any number of issues that belong to the parent. They do a lot of “if only I’d…” thinking. In other words, the parent is not held accountable for his actions; rather the child takes that responsibility. "If only I'd not spoken up, then Mama would not have gotten so upset that she stopped speaking to me for days."

This means that children or adults of narcissistic parents may consider themselves to be selfish anytime they speak up for themselves. They may consider themselves to be crazy anytime they think of arguing with the parent—or with others. They may believe that developing self-confidence is a betrayal of the parent’s needs—calling self-confidence ego instead. As you can see, because the parent distorts reality around his woundedness, the child will distort reality around the parent’s needs.

This becomes a dance that the child is compelled to continue to dance until and unless the incumbent crises become so intolerable that the child, now adult, seems to have no alternative but to betray parent by going to therapy. At this point, there is a feeling of guilt that comes with the very idea of trying to take care of Self. But if the child or adult can push through, and seek out a therapist who can see what’s been going on, she may find healing and an authentic life for Self.