- Narcissistic parents can have a lack of empathy and unrealistic expectations.
- Narcissistic parents may expect their children to cater to their ego needs.
- Children of narcissistic parents may have low self-esteem and difficulty establishing boundaries.
- Adult children of narcissists can go on to have healthy relationships with themselves and others.
Having a narcissistic parent can damage a child's self-esteem, self-concept, and how they view the world. As adults, they may unknowingly be drawn to narcissistic partners or exhibit some of their parent's pathological behaviors.
Narcissistic parents often exhibit certain common behaviors that can affect their children:
Excessive Self-Centeredness. Narcissistic parents may prioritize their needs and desires over their children's. They may expect constant attention and admiration from their children and expect children to cater to their ego needs — and resent a child individuating or becoming independent.
Lack of Empathy. Empathy, a fundamental component of healthy parenting, is often lacking in narcissistic individuals. They may struggle to understand and respond to their child's emotional needs. The narcissistic parent views their needs as most important, leaving no room for a child's feelings or emotions.
Control and Manipulation. Narcissistic parents may seek to control children's lives and decisions, viewing them as extensions of themselves. They may use manipulation to maintain this control. A narcissistic parent may try to gain control through shame and guilt. The parent will tell the child, or show through their actions, that the child is a burden and that if they were only a better child, the parent would be happy. The root issue is that the narcissistic parent will never be satisfied.
Unrealistic Expectations. Narcissistic parents may have high, often unrealistic, expectations for their children, leading to constant pressure to perform and please. An unachievable bar has been set, and the child, to please the parent, will work tirelessly at trying to do what they feel will finally make their parent love and accept them. Even if the child does meet the unrealistic standard set by the narcissist, the narcissistic parent will create a new unachievable standard.
The impact of narcissistic parenting on children
Low Self-Esteem. Constant criticism and the feeling of never being "good enough" can lead to low self-esteem. Children of narcissistic parents may struggle with self-worth and self-doubt. They may question if they have rights to their feelings, opinions, wants, and needs.
Emotional Neglect. The child's emotional needs may be neglected, as the narcissistic parent is primarily focused on their own emotions and desires. This can result in emotional detachment and difficulty forming healthy relationships. A narcissistic parent may have little room for a child’s feelings, wants, and needs. The child may be told in various ways that they are taking up too much space by simply existing.
Anxiety and Depression. The pressure to meet unrealistic expectations, and emotional turmoil at home, can contribute to anxiety and depression. A narcissistic parent may resist getting their child treatment, as it would take the focus off the parent, and the parent may not want the child to disclose how they are treated at home. The narcissistic parent may set such an impossibly high bar of expectations for the child that a lifelong feeling of not being “good enough” can manifest.
Difficulty Establishing Boundaries. Children raised by narcissistic parents may struggle to establish healthy boundaries in their relationships, perpetuating the cycle of dysfunction. According to Salvador Minuchin, the founder of Structural Family Therapy, there are three types of boundaries: diffuse, healthy (clear), and rigid (Hyatt-Burkhart, 2019). People with diffuse boundaries may agree to do things they don’t want to do and later become resentful. They may also overshare in social situations, possibly to gain acceptance from others. People with rigid boundaries don’t disclose much information in social situations and may cut off communication if they feel someone is getting too emotionally close. Healthy or clear boundaries are ones in which a person’s boundaries align with their values and beliefs, and they feel comfortable setting a standard for how they will be treated.
Unfortunately, children of narcissistic parents risk becoming narcissistic themselves or attracting narcissistic partners in adulthood, continuing the cycle of unhealthy relationships. While the child of a narcissist may not qualify for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), they can carry harmful traits into adulthood. For example, they may gaslight a partner to create dependence. If an adult child of a narcissist recognizes that they have carried past behaviors into the present, they may seek help through therapy. Through introspection and guidance, they can go on to have healthy relationships with themselves and others.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Copyright 2023 Sarkis Media LLC.
Hyatt-Burkhart, D. (2019). Structural Family Therapy. Intervening for Stepfamily Success: One Case, Multiple Perspectives, 49.