Sons and Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers: Who Fares Worse?
How boys and girls of narcissistic mothers can be impacted.
Posted Jan 12, 2021
The experience of being raised by a narcissistic parent is gendered. It matters whether your parent was a mother or father. And it matters whether you were a boy or a girl.
Gender, of course, isn't the only thing that shapes the experience of a child with a narcissistic parent. Other contributing factors include how many children there were in the family, what parental dynamics were like, what your base personality is like, what type of narcissist your parent was, and how many narcissistic traits they displayed. But gender matters.
When it comes to narcissistic mothers, a brief look through recent articles suggests that the relationship between mothers and daughters has perhaps received more attention (and was featured in Karyl McBride’s wonderful book on the subject).1 The recent memoir of the late Scottish journalist and writer Deborah Orr, for example, describes the inherent "narcissism of femininity" within the relationship between mothers and daughters and the deep pain which can be caused as a result.2
But what of boys? Do they get an easier time than their female counterparts, or is their experience just very different?
I work extensively with both men and women who have been affected by narcissistic mothers (not to mention the men and women who have been affected by narcissistic fathers, which is the subject for a future blog). I also grew up in a family of three boys and two girls with a narcissistic mother at its head (and a narcissistic mother at the head of my own mother’s family of three girls and one boy). And yes, boys and girls both can suffer from narcissistic mothering.
Whatever gender you are, if you have a mother who is high in narcissism, you’re likely to experience many things in common—including being part of your mother’s narcissistic supply. Narcissists need other people to make them feel good about themselves, to make them feel better than other people, and to help them carry out whatever plans they have in mind to achieve these ends. Children of both genders are part of a narcissist’s supply and, for instance, may be used to help the mother gain power and superiority over the other parent or one of her children. While it might feel good to be a part of the winning team at the time, it can damage how you view people and runs the risk of you developing narcissistic tendencies yourself.
Narcissistic mothers tend to rely on secrets, lies, and gaslighting in order to maintain their position. Growing up with this can create pressure, stress, and a warped view of how to operate in the world. Almost all children of narcissistic mothers suffer in some way, even if it’s not apparent at the time.
Then there are the differences. While narcissistic mothers see all their children as extensions of themselves, this often transforms into their daughters being viewed as their “best friends.” They often tend to seriously over-share with their daughters with no regard for boundaries, and may envision their daughters growing up close to them and leading a similar life so that they can always hold their daughters close.
They may also become jealous of their daughter’s looks, youth, and greater opportunities in life and use tactics including criticism and mockery to make the daughter feel bad about herself. On the other hand, the narcissistic mother may take all the credit for her daughter’s beauty, talent, and brains, downplaying the autonomy of her daughter in shaping her own life.
Narcissistic mothers and daughters often become seriously enmeshed with each other, which daughters tend to experience as a feeling of suffocation and entrapment. Any move by the daughter to escape is taken as a severe rejection on the part of the mother. A narcissistic mother’s daughters may also have grandchildren, which could be seen as a potential next generation of supply (without the pesky interference of her son's partner).
Precisely because of this enmeshment that narcissistic mothers have with their daughters and this almost extreme version of the narcissism of femininity, boys can sometimes feel pushed out. My client Mark told me, “I saw the relationship my sister had with my mum and, although I can see as an adult that it wasn’t healthy, I actually wanted a bit of that growing up. They always had all these secrets and they were always gossiping about my other sister—and it seemed like I was just never included in that way.”
Sons are vitally important in terms of achieving and making the mother look like a good mother. But particularly in families where there are boys and girls, they’re often less important in terms of fulfilling traditional "female" responsibilities—such as caring for a mother in later life, or directly providing grandchildren who the narcissistic mother can have a significant influence over. This shapes how the narcissistic mother interacts with her sons, including the fact that many sons have a huge amount of pressure placed on their career choices.
In my own family, after I’d started university, my younger brother was exploring his own university options, including what to study. My mother stated that his options were a “waste of time.” I stuck up for him by pointing out that I was studying a fairly impractical subject myself to which she responded, “You’re a girl. It doesn’t matter. It matters what a man chooses to do.” It was important to her that her son prove himself as a "successful man," career-wise, whereas the girls in the family had no pressure to do well in that regard.
A narcissistic mother may also influence the nature of relationships that her children have with their father—and again, the impact may be different for sons and daughters. The narcissistic mother needs to have control over the family, whether she exercises this overtly or covertly.
Girls may become her confidantes, privy to all her secrets about her relationships with her husband, including inappropriate sexual and emotional details. The narcissistic mother may be jealous of her daughter, as another female, and may find subversive means of preventing the daughter and father from becoming too close.
Boys can also be used within the family dynamics towards their father. The narcissistic mother may compare her sons to their father as a means to make their father feel bad about himself. Alternatively, the narcissistic mother may demonstrate how much closer she is to her children’s father than they are and put her son down by claiming he’ll never measure up to his father.
One huge area of conflict with both sons and daughters is the introduction of partners into the equation. Narcissistic mothers often infantilise their children as a means to exert control and partners pose a threat to this mother-child relationship. In the case of heterosexual relationships, her son’s partner might be seen as the biggest threat of all because the narcissistic mother has a (perhaps mistaken) belief that she less control over her son in the first place. Narcissistic women tend to see other women as a threat—and potential daughters-in-law are the biggest threat of all.
Another client, Gary, told me that his mother had never accepted his wife. “Most of the nastiness is directed in a passive-aggressive way, little snide comments here and there. And I know my mother gossips about Helen all the time to my sisters. The atmosphere she creates when I’m there with Helen is so bad I’ve given up taking my wife with me when I see her.”
Narcissistic mothers can create toxic, damaging environments for their children, whether male or female. Sometimes it takes many years to recognise the damage that has been done. This is particularly true if you were the “golden child," but something triggered a sense of rejection or distrust in your mother (such as you forming a close relationship with a new partner) which resulted in her disregarding you.
If you have been affected by being raised by a narcissistic mother, please seek out help from a suitably qualified therapist. Visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory to find therapists in your area.
1. McBride, K. (2009) Will I ever be good enough?: Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers. Atria Books
2. Orr, D. (2020) Motherwell. W&N