Insecure Attachment in Children of Narcissists
Children of narcissists can struggle with attachment trauma and insecurity.
Posted October 20, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Secure attachment is the basis of relational trust and healthy psycho-emotional development.
- Children of narcissists typically experience relational trauma and insecure attachment.
- Narcissism and self-abnegation are common responses to narcissistic parenting.
"In order to ban autocracy, exploitation, and inequality in the world, we must first realize that the first inequality in life is that of child and adult." —Erik Erikson
For humans, a highly social species dependent on the group for survival, attachment is everything. What is attachment? It is our capacity for bonding with others, which is based on shared resources and shared vulnerability through demonstrated empathy, cooperation, and integrity. In a word, it's about trust—the ability to trust and be trustworthy.
Humans develop their capacity for trust—and its deepest form, love—primarily through their relationships with their parents/caregivers in the first two to three years of life. These relationships become the imprint that informs our relational expectations and behavior throughout our lives. If we receive “good enough” mothering/parenting, in which our emotions are mirrored empathetically and our needs are met most of the time, we form a secure attachment style. Secure attachment fosters self-trust and self-love, which enables us to trust and love others, and it is the basis for developing these key dimensions of a healthy personality:
- emotional regulation
- emotional literacy
- personal responsibility
- interpersonal boundaries
- intimacy with others
- moral integrity
If we do not experience an empathetic environment that is responsive to our dependency needs in childhood, healthy attachment is disrupted and insecure attachment patterns result.
Narcissistic personalities are incapable of providing the empathetic attunement that infants and children need to form secure attachment patterns. This is because they lack the self-regulation, emotional maturity, and capacity for intimate connection needed to form trusting bonds with anyone. Even if there is a loving parent in the family system, as the narcissist’s partner that parent may be likely to have an insecure attachment pattern (trauma bond) that denies and enables narcissistic abuse and models a fear-based relationship to the narcissist.
Because narcissists vacillate internally between shame and compensatory superiority (repressed self-contempt vs. an idealized persona) and continually project their own internal state onto others, they treat their children to a rollercoaster of idealizing and devaluing projections. They may shame and disempower their kids by:
- punishing them for authentic expression (i.e., natural feelings, needs, interests, preferences)
- rewarding conditional behaviors
- according them unearned praise and privilege
Narcissistic parents often create a survivalist home environment characterized by rage, neglect, inequity, boundary violations, and explicit or passive-aggressive abuse. Dynamics like the following are often the norm in narcissistic families:
- harsh comparison
- smear campaigns
Also typical of narcissistic parents is an ongoing propaganda campaign that denies abuse and promotes delusions of exceptionalism and/or victimhood, delusions that are often supported by outsiders deceived by the parent's persuasive public personae.
Insecure Attachment in Children of Narcissists
Children raised in narcissistic families face a terrible reality. From infancy forward, the people they rely on to meet their dependency needs for protection, nurturance, and modeling routinely violate their trust. There is no exit for children in this predicament. Attachment is necessary for survival but they only receive untrustworthy, fearful ambivalence.
A client of mine captured this predicament poignantly in her description of what she thought was a recurring nightmare but came to realize was an early memory: “I am in my crib. My mother is standing in the doorway, a dark silhouette. I feel her looking at me. I feel longing and fear, like drowning. I feel small, and it’s dark and scary, and I just want her to come get me, but I don’t want her to come.”
Children experiencing dangerous attachment with the adults in their life are habitually in fight/flight, a heightened state that, when chronically activated, hinders healthy development. Because their dependency prevents them from fighting or fleeing from their abusers, many children in this environment will dissociate from their natural feelings of anger and fear, deny the abuse, and blame themselves for problems in the familial relationship.
Dissociation, denial, and self-blame experienced as shame are necessary defenses in children who are emotionally neglected or abused by the people to whom they must turn for caretaking. As survival mechanisms they make sense, but they come at a cost.
Narcissism vs. Self-Abnegation
Children with attachment trauma struggle with underlying shame, a hyperactivated nervous system, boundary confusion, and insufficiently supported self-esteem and identity development.
Some may identify with the narcissistic parent and grow to become relationally abusive themselves. Children forming a narcissistic personality may close off their emotional self early on in their development and armor themselves with vulnerability-avoidance, relational antagonism, externalized (projected) shame and rage, and grandiose and/or victim delusions. Their narcissistic mechanism is a primitive response in the sense that it relies heavily on the childhood defenses of denial and projection, sacrifices profound aspects of psycho-emotional and moral development, and has a traumatizing impact on those around them, both individuals and social groups.
Insecurely attached children who develop empathy, by contrast, typically adopt patterns of self-abnegation—sacrificing their own interests in favor of the interests of others. Such children struggle with disrupted self-agency, unsafe boundaries, internalized (self-directed) anger, and vulnerability to bullying and trauma bonds in their social, work, and intimate relationships. In short, they are vulnerable to narcissistic abuse and to denying and enabling narcissistic abuse of others.
Both childhood trauma responses are adaptive compensations to support survival that must be overcome to achieve equilibrium, health, and healing in adulthood. The first props up the self at the expense of others; the second props up others at the expense of the self. It is important to note that these two personality types exist on a complex continuum that may combine aspects of narcissism and self-abnegation, as well as other coping patterns.
Because narcissistic personalities typically lack empathetic connection with themselves or others and function by repressing self-awareness and projecting negative aspects of the self onto others, they are rarely able to tolerate the emotionally vulnerable self-reflective work needed to build trust and compassion.
Self-abnegating personalities, on the other hand, have more potential to heal insecure attachment patterns because they have access to the vulnerable inner self, want intimacy with others, and have the capacity to tolerate self-reflection and take personal responsibility. Their path to healing and wholeness depends on a willingness to release denial, disengage from abuse (trauma bonds), and learn safe relational boundaries and self-advocacy.
Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity and the life cycle. Norton, p. 106.
Winnicott, D. W., Winnicott, C., Sheperd, R., & Davis, M. (1984). Home is where we start from: Essays by a Psychoanalyst. Norton.