Narcissistic parents can take a lot of different forms. It could be the father who’s so invested at yelling at his son to run faster from the sidelines during a pee wee soccer game that he doesn’t realize he’s embarrassing himself. It could be the social butterfly mother who excels at networking and who everyone admires. It could be a well-respected doctor who’s known in the town she lives for having achieved top honors at an Ivy League university. There’s more than one way to be a narcissistic parent, and that’s why children of narcissistic parents sometimes don’t even realize that they’re the victims of this damaging personality disorder.
In his Psychology Today article on narcissistic parents, Preston Ni expresses exactly what makes narcissistic parents different than other parents who might just have other flaws in their parenting styles: “What distinguishes the narcissistic parent is a pervasive tendency to deny the offspring, even as an adult, a sense of independent self-hood. The offspring exists merely to serve the selfish needs and machinations of the parent(s).”
So how do you know if your parent or caretaker shows narcissistic traits? Ni says that looking for signs like these is a good place to start:
1. Narcissistic parents interpret all of their children’s actions as directed at them personally.
For instance, as a child, you may have asked your mother if you could have a friend over for a sleepover. If she didn’t think the house was clean enough for a guest to see, she might have said something like, “Why do you keep doing things like this to me? Why are you so inconsiderate?” The action actually didn’t involve the parent at all, but the parent interpreted it that way because, as a narcissist, she interprets everything through the lens of how it relates to her.
2. They try to live through their children.
Probably the most classic and well-known example of this is a father who wants his son to be a sports star because he was never quite as good at sports as he wanted to be. This storyline does play out often, but remember this trait can take on other forms besides the fathers-and-sports form; it could, for example, involve a mother entering her 4-year old daughter into beauty pageants.
3. They see their children as their competition.
For some narcissists, their need to be the best and most admired extends even to their children. Unlike most parents, who are not only comfortable with seeing their children exceed them but are proud and happy to see their children exceed them, some narcissistic parents feel threatened and undermined when their children show any sign of superiority to themselves. They’ll therefore try to keep their children down, not giving them a chance to excel and criticizing them harshly.
4. Narcissistic parents manipulate their children.
Ni lists several different ways narcissistic parents might do this: guilt trips, blaming, shaming, negative comparison (such as to a sibling), unreasonable pressure, and emotional coercion. As he explains, “A common theme running through these forms of manipulation is that love is given as a conditional reward, rather than the natural expression of healthy parenting.”
5. They act dependent on their children or foster co-dependency.
A classic example of this kind of behavior is when parents expect their children to support them for their entire lives to an extent that is unreasonable, such as a huge financial burden for the child or an impossible time commitment from the child. As Ni notes, the expectation that children will care for their aged parents isn’t in itself unhealthy, but the expectation of an unreasonable amount of help is. It shows that the parent thinks they are the center of the universe and are entitled to their child’s entire existence.
6. They neglect their children.
Lastly, narcissistic parents can sometimes be absent parents who go for long stretches at a time without even thinking about how their lack of physical or emotional availability is affecting their children.
In addition to these signs that you can look for in parents, there are also some signs that you can look for in yourself when trying to find out if you were raised by a narcissistic parent.
7. You’re not assertive, and you let people walk all over you.
The logic here is pretty obvious: You got used to being railroaded by your narcissistic parent, so you internalized submission as a general way of behaving. You also feel a deep need not to act like your parent, so you go too far in the opposite direction and completely avoid asserting your own needs.
8. You never really feel like anyone will love you unconditionally.
Because your narcissistic parent’s love was conditional on something – doing exactly what they wanted you to do, letting them shine, putting their needs before your own needs even as a child, etc – you’ve come to believe that love is dependent on your achievements, not on anything inherently lovable about you.
9. You’re not sure how you wound up in your current life.
Narcissistic parents often force, manipulate, or pressure a child into their own idea of a best life plan, regardless of what the child wants. If you look around you and feel like none of the big parts of your life (job, significant other, place you live, etc) are results of your own choices, then there’s a good chance you have a narcissistic parent.
If these descriptions are sounding like you and your parents, then make sure to come back for my next post, which will be all about what to do if you have a narcissistic parent! Although nothing can make up for the difficulties you’ve already faced with such a parent, there are strategies you can use to move forward in your adult life.
If you are interested in talking more about the effects of narcissistic parents in your own life and what you can do about them, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult.