Imagine what it’s like for a child to grow up in a home with a parent who’s almost impossible to please. Where every time they looked for encouragement or validation, they were met with criticism or belittlement. Where their parent felt threatened any time their child stretched their wings and showed a glimmer of independence, or they responded with jealousy when their child accomplished something.
Childhood is meant to be a carefree time of security and self-discovery. Unfortunately, for those who were raised by narcissistic parents, the formative years are marked by impossibly high expectations, unpredictability and conditional love and acceptance. As adults, they may experience low self-esteem, frustration with every perceived imperfection and difficulty forming close personal relationships.
What Is a Narcissistic Personality?
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental condition characterized primarily by a heavily inflated sense of self-importance. Behind that façade, however, is generally an individual with very fragile self-esteem who is unable to cope with criticism.
Common characteristics of a narcissistic personality include:
- Having a grandiose sense of self-importance and expecting to be recognized as superior
- Being preoccupied with fantasies of extreme wealth, power, or beauty
- Believing that they are special and unique and should only associate with high-status people
- Needing excessive admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement and expecting favorable treatment
- Taking advantage of others to accomplish self-serving purposes
- Being unable to empathize with others
- Envying others or believing that others are envious of them
- Equating compliance with love
It’s important not to confuse a healthy sense of self-love or self-confidence with a narcissistic personality disorder. The truth is that everyone has a small dose of narcissism; in fact, it’s recognized as a normal stage of development in adolescents. It’s not unusual or even unhealthy for a child to be self-focused or to have an inflated view of their own abilities. For the vast majority of individuals, those tendencies go away and their views of themselves become more realistic as they’re exposed to different people, places and ideas.
For a narcissist, however, this sense of self-importance doesn’t disappear with maturity. Into adulthood, they continue believing that they’re special and entitled to being treated accordingly. They have a persistent need for admiration and tend to cut off relationships that don’t provide that satisfaction.
How a Narcissistic Personality Affects Parenting
Successful parenting requires a heavy dose of selflessness. It’s often a thankless and unglamorous job, particularly during the early years. In other words, it requires the very mentality that a narcissist lacks.
A narcissist needs constant praise, which is the feedback that children are unlikely to provide. This often leads to resentment and emotional neglect.
Narcissistic parents tend to see the world in a binary way: something (or someone) is either wonderful or worthless. Unfortunately, they put their children into these categories. A young child who has the natural drive to please their parent and stay in the “wonderful” category may learn to overlook biting remarks, neglect, and emotional abuse and provide the continuous positive feedback that their parent needs. They may let their parent control their lives just to avoid making waves. Pleasing their parent becomes more than a natural instinct; it’s a survival skill that they learn at an early age to ensure that life is harmonious.
Narcissistic parents view their children as an extension of themselves and an opportunity for self-advancement. For them, an attractive, well-behaved and accomplished child is a direct reflection of their own accomplishments. They tend to have very high expectations of their children, pushing them to succeed in sports, academics, and later on, in high-status careers.
Some kids never break the cycle of catering to their parent’s need for control and validation. However, many kids develop more confidence, emotional intelligence, and bravery as they become older. During adolescence, as their focus naturally shifts inward and they become more independent, pleasing their parent becomes less of a priority.
Narcissistic parents see this budding independence as a direct threat to what was once a source of validation. Unfortunately, in the parent’s eyes, this relegates the child to the “worthless” category. When their children rebel against the expectations placed on them, the parent typically withdraws their affection and disconnects from them.
This disconnection is very confusing and damaging to children. Unconditional love and approval, consistency and availability are essential for developing secure attachments that lay the groundwork for successful relationships later on. Early bonds with primary caregivers directly impact how the individual copes with stress, views themselves, and relates to others. Disrupting that bond can have an emotional impact that lasts a lifetime.
How to Come to Terms with a Traumatic Childhood
The effects of being raised by a narcissist vary widely depending on the unique dynamics of the relationship. In general, those raised in this environment are more likely to experience anxiety or depression. They may have low self-esteem, lack the confidence to face issues that arise in their career or relationships, and constantly feel inferior. If their parent placed a lot of stress on looking a certain way, the individual may experience disordered eating—either struggling with eating too little to avoid natural weight fluctuations or having a hard time regulating how much or the types of foods they eat. Low self-esteem, substance abuse and perfectionism are also common issues faced by those raised by a narcissistic parent.
Those raised in a household with a narcissistic parent may also have difficulty connecting with their siblings. The parent’s focus on their children’s accomplishments creates a higher-than-normal degree of competition among siblings. In some cases, the parent may sabotage their children’s relationships with one another to maintain control. These unhealthy dynamics often last well into adulthood.
For those who grew up with a narcissistic parent, it’s important to come to terms with the trauma received as a child.
Recognize the Abuse
Coming to terms with a traumatic childhood begins by recognizing the trauma and dysfunction. For many people who grew up with a narcissistic parent, looking back on their childhood is confusing. Even as they’re aware of how they were mistreated, they still have memories of how they were treated during the good times. They may even feel they were at least partly to blame for the bad times. It’s important to acknowledge the dysfunction and the responsibility rest on the parent, not the child.
Creating personal boundaries with a parent is difficult. However, if the goal is as normal a relationship as possible, boundaries are important. These may include not sharing personal information; restricting communication to one avenue, such as over the phone or email; and determining how to respond when the parent behaves in a certain way. Unfortunately, in some cases, cutting off communication, temporarily or permanently, is the best course of action.
A narcissistic parent places high demands on their child, and in an effort to meet those demands, the child may change how they look and act, what hobbies they enjoy and who they spend their time with. Over time, they may lose their sense of self. Healing from a traumatic childhood means putting aside the expectations imposed by the parent and embarking on a mission of self-discovery.
When an individual shares how they experienced growing up with a narcissistic parent, they may feel less alone. Talking to trusted individuals can help them remember that the abuse wasn’t their fault and that the pain they feel is valid.
Seeking Help for Healing
For those who spent their childhoods in a household with a narcissistic parent, seeking counseling is an important step in the healing process. An experienced therapist can help an individual who was raised in this environment recognize how their childhood impacts them today and re-frame their experiences, which can help them appreciate the survival skills they’ve built and the obstacles they’ve overcome. Therapists can also help the individual recognize unhealthy family dynamics and determine where to establish boundaries.
At FHE Health, trauma-informed counselors provide clients with compassionate, insightful guidance on addressing the trust issues, anxiety and depression that often stem from being raised by narcissistic parents. To learn more about our program and how you can benefit from a customized treatment plan, contact us today at (844) 775-5687.