The Double Grief of Having Had a Narcissistic Parent
A childhood with disinterested parents is an ambiguous loss.
Posted February 9, 2023 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Narcissistic parents try to fill their emotional void through their children.
- Being raised by a narcissist can lead to a compromised sense of self in adulthood.
- Adult children of narcissists must grieve the loss of the "good enough" parenting that they never had.
- Ambiguous losses are notable for the conflicting emotions they fuel.
Bowlby and Parke developed a four-stage model of grief that focused on the aspect of attachment to the person who is gone. The stages include shock and numbness, yearning and searching, despair and disorganization, and reorganization and recovery. Bowlby’s research into attachment focused on the ways in which children form attachments from infancy. Looking at attachment as a means for survival, Bowlby’s perspective suggests that separation anxiety is driven by the abject terror of being abandoned by one’s parents. Unfortunately, children who grow up with narcissistic parents may never experience a deep sense of secure attachment to their mother or father. It's important, however, to recognize that some parents who were unable to be fully focused on their parenting roles may have been suffering from other debilitating conditions, not narcissism. If a parent dealt with physical or mental illness, their behavior was not necessarily drive by narcissistic personality traits, but by other more elemental concerns. Explore your concerns with your parent before labelling them a narcissist with finality. The sense of loss, however, may be similar due to the ambiguous shape it may take.
Being Raised by a Narcissistic Parent
Narcissists are so focused on their own needs, desires, and appearance to others that their ability to care for another person, especially a child, is severely compromised. Narcissistic parents may view their children as an extension of themselves and will only provide support and engagement to their children if it is a means by which to raise their own status or enrich their own ego. Narcissistic parents feed on their children’s successes to stoke their egos but diminish, berate, or ignore their children when they fail to live up to the narcissist’s expectations of what a “good child” should be. Unfortunately, narcissists seldom are capable of being a “good enough” parent. Narcissists can be transactional parents who mete out love based on their child’s performance. Insecure attachment is often seen in these children as there is an absence of unconditional love, underlying support, and dependable consistency, which are essential to parenting success.
Carving Out Identity in Adulthood
While narcissistic traits are the kind that drives away most people, children are bound to the narcissist by birth, and as they grow into adolescence and adulthood, they may remain entangled in their narcissistic parent’s web. Bound by guilt and obligation, it can be difficult to move on and disengage. To do so, a clean break may be needed; limiting contact with parents and learning to ignore their calls and texts. Most of us receive a message to honor our parents and show them obedience, but narcissistic parents fail to earn their children’s respect due to the emotional disruption they trigger. Individuating from your parent and building your own sense of self may require you to consciously set aside any hopes that your parent will change and acknowledge that they can never be, nor have they ever been, the “good enough” parent that every child deserves. Accepting the loss of what you never had can free you to become the person you know you were meant to be.
Letting Go of a Narcissistic Parent: Shock and Numbness
According to Bowlby and Parkes, grief commences with shock and numbness. Children of narcissists may be so numbed to the world around them due to the pressures that are put on them by their parents, they may not realize that their parents and their relationships are not like those of peers at first. Children of narcissists may already be emotionally shut down due to the parent’s controlling and demanding behavior.
Yearning and Searching
As the child matures, they may learn how different their own family dynamics were from others and experience a sense of belonging within these other spaces. Yearning and searching are the activities of the second phase of grief and children of narcissists may be hungry for a “normal” family, where each person is seen for who they are and where family members function interdependently, not codependently. Other adolescent or adult children of narcissists may not have access to these same safe spaces to find a sense of normality and may just experience an aching yearning for things to be different. Narcissists work to fill the void inside themselves, and their children may experience their parent’s presence as a void, in itself.
Despair and Disorganization
As adult children of narcissists separate from the narcissist and their influence on their lives, they may enter the third stage of despair and disorganization. During this stage, the full weight of the loss of a relationship they never had can hit. There may be an overwhelming sense of despair that can present differently depending on the person. Some of us may isolate ourselves and withdraw from our social circles to ruminate on the past and heal from the pain. Others may turn their despair into action and seek out relationships to fill the void left by the acknowledged loss. Some may experience the loss through physical symptoms – fatigue, irritability, oversleeping, headaches, stomachaches, or heaviness in the chest. Anger and acting out may be expressions of despair for some, too. When we feel helpless and unable to find our way to safety, especially when accompanied by the loss of a relationship that never existed, we may regress to primal-level survival tactics.
Coming Back to the Surface: Re-Organization and Recovery
The last phase is re-organization and recovery. This is the space where the adult child of a narcissist is able to assess the damage, take a deep breath, and begin putting their loss into perspective. Accepting the past for what it was, a painful place, and what it is now, the past, allows space to acknowledge the grief for the emotional absence of a parent who was physically present. Ambiguous losses require us to psychologically give shape to enigmas in order to put them to rest. This reflects the reorganization of your life to put the loss in perspective and to recognize your parent’s shortcomings were deficits, but they are not deficits that you, yourself, cannot overcome in adulthood. It’s important to allow yourself to grieve the parent you never had while grieving the unsatisfying relationship with the parent that you did have. Bowlby and Parke describe the need to psychologically store the loss away so that it draws less focus and less energy than it did when it was first experienced or acknowledged.
Give yourself permission to “hold” the pain, but don’t allow the pain to keep its hold on you. Some people may quietly acknowledge to themselves the birthdays of the parent they had who couldn’t be the parent they needed. Some others may hold onto a gift or memento that represents their parent at their best. The feelings of sadness may bubble close to the surface at times, and that’s just a testament to the emotional depth you were able to develop in spite of your narcissistic parent’s efforts to stunt your emotional development. Remind yourself that it’s okay to be sad, but it’s not okay to give your parent the power to continue to disrupt your life in the present. Turn that pain into fuel for healthier relationships with the people you choose to allow into your life.
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Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss. New York, NY: Basic Books; 1980
Bowlby, J. (1961). Processes of mourning. The International journal of psycho-analysis, 42, 317.
Parkes C. Bereavement: Studies in Grief in Adult Life. London, England: Tavistock; 1972