9 Signs of a Narcissistic Parent
They demand obedience, admiration, and more.
Posted February 6, 2023 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Narcissism is often hardest to recognize in the people we know best.
- A narcissistic parent is preoccupied with their own “specialness,” and expects to be admired and obeyed.
- Take care to protect yourself from the ongoing toll of having a narcissistic parent.
John was overwhelmed by stress when he came to me for therapy. He had just been voted head of the family company after his father was dismissed for erratic behavior and several serious missteps. Now he was dealing not only with the demands of his new position but with his dad's ongoing demands for control.
The more John shared, the clearer it became that his dad was probably a narcissist. When I showed John the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, he immediately knew that the label fit. It felt validating to know that there was a well-established syndrome that captured the many challenging behaviors that John had experienced.
And while having a name for the pattern of behaviors didn't change his dad, it did make it easier for John to deal with him. Instead of being bewildered by his domineering and entitlement, John could understand that they were part of his dad's narcissism.
Narcissism seems to be on everyone’s minds lately, with several books and countless blog posts devoted to the topic. But it can be hardest to recognize the signature traits of a narcissist in the people closest to us, including our parents. We might think they’re “annoying” or “difficult,” without realizing we grew up with a narcissist.
Narcissism is defined in different ways; the signs described below are based on the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5.
1. They exaggerate their abilities or accomplishments.
Their actual abilities don’t come close to their self-image as someone of truly exceptional talent. Part of puffing themselves up might involve tearing you down.
2. They are constantly chasing dreams of unlimited success, power, beauty, or brilliance.
Your parent craves the recognition they feel is long overdue, and are preoccupied with achieving their outsized goals. They don’t just want ordinary success—they want to be the next Elon Musk or Oprah Winfrey.
3. They see themselves as so special that they should only be around other high-status people.
They might think that other “gifted” people are the only ones who can really get them. Interestingly they might label the people they associate with, including their children, as “perfect” or “geniuses” to make themselves feel more special. They also want to be associated with high-status or elite institutions and organizations (Harvard, Mensa).
4. They demand admiration.
Despite, or because of, their inflated sense of self-importance, they have a very fragile ego, which becomes apparent any time they perceive a slight. For example, they might feel crushed and angry if their arrival at a party isn’t treated as the most important event of the evening. If others (including family members) don’t sufficiently admire them, they may become sullen or fly into a rage.
5. They feel entitled to obedience and special treatment.
A narcissistic mother or father acts as if rules don’t apply to them, and they are constantly pushing people to make exceptions for them. They might become furious whenever someone doesn't bow to their wishes. Even now that you’re a full-on adult, they may still expect you to do as they say without question.
6. They exploit other people, even family members.
They are good at getting others to serve their needs, and they ignore the impact their demands have on others. For example, they might expect you to help them with a project they’re working on, even if it gets in the way of your own work or plans.
7. They lack empathy.
They can’t recognize others’ needs, wishes, priorities, or even full personhood. All of their energy and attention are focused on their own well-being. Even the smallest request for your needs to be respected is dismissed as “selfish.” They can talk nonstop about themselves, but have no interest in hearing about you.
Even if they call you to talk about something good that happened in your life, they wind up talking about themselves the whole time. Anything you tell them about your life they use as a springboard to launch into their next self-focused monologue. It’s exhausting to interact with them.
8. They envy others or think other people envy them.
Your parent wants what others have, especially anything that signals wealth, fame, or prestige. Their envy may even extend to their kids. They also assume others are equally envious of their own good fortune.
9. They act arrogant or haughty.
It can be embarrassing to be with a narcissistic parent in public, as they talk down to waiters, criticize nurses, or show disdain for others. They see their special status as a license to be mean and condescending. You might often find yourself doing “damage control” in their wake, and trying to be extra considerate to compensate for their behavior.
If you grew up with a narcissistic parent, it can help simply to name their patterns of behavior as narcissism, as John found. Seeing their actions through the lens of narcissism can help you understand many of the things your mother or father have done for as long as you can remember.
And while it’s good to extend compassion to others, including a narcissistic parent, take care to look after yourself. You may need to limit contact with your parent, though there’s a good chance you’re doing so already.
It’s not a benign experience to grow up with a narcissist. Beware of your own self-critical thoughts, which are common among those who grew up with a narcissistic parent. Start to question the stories your mind is telling when you’re being too hard on yourself, as I describe in Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
You might also find it helpful to talk with a sibling or your other parent about the narcissistic traits you recognize. It can be healing to identify the forces that have shaped your family dynamics and to some extent your own personality. Finally, consider whether it might be helpful to discuss your thoughts and feelings with a therapist.
Facebook image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
Gillihan, S. J. (2022). Mindful cognitive behavioral therapy: A simple path to healing, hope, and peace. HarperOne.