It is tempting to blame the parents when a child grows up to develop a narcissistic personality disorder. However, there can be other factors that can contribute to that outcome or make a narcissistic disorder less likely.
James F. Masterson (1926–2010), the object relations theorist and expert on personality disorders, taught that the interaction of three factors combine to determine whether a particular client would develop a personality disorder, and which one was most likely: nature, nurture, and fate. By this he meant that bad parenting alone does not fully account for why some children develop one set of problems, while other children in similar circumstances develop a different set. Let’s take them one at a time:
Note: In this post I am using the terms “narcissist” and “narcissistic” as shorthand for narcissistic personality disorder.
By nature, Masterson is referring to inborn temperament. For example, some people are simply born with more emotional empathy than other people. Emotional empathy involves the ability to feel some of what other people are feeling, whether joy, sorrow, or pain. If we have emotional empathy, we are likely to instinctively wince when we see someone accidentally hit their finger with a hammer. If you are born with high emotional empathy, you are unlikely to become a narcissist because you will find hurting other people too personally painful.
Nurture refers to how the person’s parents and other caregivers treat the child from birth onward. For example, people with personality disorders do not have “whole object relations” and “object constancy,” despite being born with the ability to acquire both of these. Whole object relations (WOR) is the ability to see oneself and other people in a relatively realistic, stable, and integrated way that simultaneously contains both like and disliked traits. Object constancy (OC) is the ability to maintain that integrated picture when one is feeling hurt, disappointed, angry, or physically distant from the other person.
We mostly develop WOR and OC from the way our family treats us and how we observe them treating other people. If they “split” and sometimes treat us as all-good and other times as all-bad, it is nearly impossible to learn to integrate these two conflicting views into a single coherent picture of ourselves. Fortunately, these capacities can be developed as adults with a bit of hard work and appropriate psychotherapy. “All-good” to a narcissist means perfect, special, idealizable, and entitled to special treatment. “All-bad” means worthless, defective garbage, and entitled to nothing.
Family Values: If your family has a narcissistic value system, you are likely to adopt its standards because of some mixture of the following factors:
- Children want to please their parents
- Small children see their parents as god-like figures who know everything
- Children do not want to be rebuked or punished
If the parents are narcissistic, they are likely to be hierarchical and very focused on status and achievement. They are unlikely to teach or reward kindness and empathy—unless they get their narcissistic supplies from appearing to be nicer than they really are.
Love is conditional: In this type of family, there is no such thing as unconditional love. To love unconditionally requires whole object relations. Instead, the children of narcissistic parents feel loved and lovable when they please their parents, and unloved and unlovable when they do not.
Type of narcissistic parent: All narcissists devalue or idealize their children, but some are worse parents than others. For example, malignant narcissistic parents enjoy destroying their children’s self-esteem, while high achieving exhibitionistic narcissists may reward their children with positive attention when their achievements reflect well on the family.
Children who develop a schizoid personality disorder: If the parents are particularly abusive, neglectful, and intrusive, their children may develop a schizoid personality disorder instead of a narcissistic one. This means that they learn to defend against abuse by dissociating from whatever is happening to them, leave their body behind, and go away into their mind. As a result, they tend to develop very rich fantasy lives. They are also likely to grow up with little or no basic trust in other people. This may lead them to become both socially avoidant and very independent. Interpersonal safety becomes a primary concern.
Children who develop a closet narcissistic disorder: If the children are punished if they seek the spotlight for themselves, or if they are not very confrontative by nature, they may develop a closet narcissistic disorder. Instead of exhibiting themselves for admiration, they may feel special by pleasing people whom they idealize.
Children who become dependent: Some children raised by narcissists do not qualify for that diagnosis, but because they were never encouraged to develop or trust their own opinions, as adults they may have trouble identifying what they really like and dislike. They may solve this problem by attaching themselves to more assertive people who are willing to take responsibility for life decisions and tell them what to do next.
Narcissistic inner voice: We all have an inner voice that is like a programmable app. It is designed to absorb our understanding of what our parents and our culture rewards and punishes and then guide us through life. At its most functional, it rewards us with a feeling of pride when we succeed or follow its value system, and punishes us with shame and guilt when we do not. Children who grow up in narcissistic homes, even ones who do not become narcissists themselves, are still likely to internalize an overly harsh, devaluing, perfectionist internal voice that supports their narcissistic parents’ values.
Borderline children of narcissist parents : I have a number of clients who qualify for a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder who have internalized their narcissistic parents’ devaluation of them. They can never please their inner persecutory voice that is modeled on their narcissistic parents’ criticisms. As a result, they have very low self-esteem and believe they do not deserve to be loved. They blame themselves for literally everything that goes wrong in their relationships. When they try and move forward in life, their inner voice tells them some of the following that demotivates them from trying:
- You do not deserve success
- You are doomed to fail
- Don’t try
- Everything bad that happens is your fault
Instead of being motivated to try harder by their inner voice, they become demotivated. This often leads to an attitude of “what’s the use of trying? I will just fail!” This leads to avoidant behavior and low self-esteem. Eventually, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even though these clients are not inherently narcissistic, because they have internalized a narcissistic inner voice, some of these clients choose very narcissistic type solutions for their problems. For example, one very smart man from a wealthy narcissistic family told me some version of the following. Please note the mix of both a sense of grandiosity and inadequacy.
- I have to be the best
- Billionaires are the best
- I should be a billionaire
- I can’t be a billionaire
- I am a loser
- I should kill myself
With this type of inner guide, there is no internal peace or sense of contentment, only self-imposed stress. One client phrased his dilemma like this: “I have only two real choices: Give up, admit I am a total loser, and kill myself—or become a billionaire. If I become a billionaire no one will dare mess with me.”
By “fate” Masterson meant all the unintended events that impact small children at crucial times in their development. For example, Margaret Mahler (1897–1985), the psychoanalyst and researcher on infant development, lays out her theory of the impact of parenting during children’s first three years of development in the book she wrote with Fred Pine and Anni Bergman, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infan t (1975).
Mahler stresses that very important developmental stages occur during this period that relate to young children’s ability to separate and individuate from their mother. If their mother is not sufficiently available during this period—for any reason—this will have a negative impact on the child. If someone, like an aunt or a grandparent steps in as a maternal substitute, then disaster can be averted or at least minimized.
Many things can occur that separate young children from their mother that are no one’s fault, such as illness, wars, deaths, divorce, post-partum depression, or even just having too many young children competing for the mother’s attention. Depending on exactly which developmental stage is center stage when maternal unavailability occurs, different results can occur.
Punchline: When clinicians and theorists look at why one child develops narcissistic personality disorder, while another develops a different set of problems, most do not simply blame the parents or bad genes. A combination of three things are generally recognized as contributing to the child’s personality: the child’s inborn temperament, how they are parented, and the consequences of unintended and uncontrollable events that negatively affect the child.
This is an adaptation of a Quora post.
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