Children of narcissistic parents

Growing up with a narcissistic parent is not only traumatic in nature, but also debilitating and detrimental.

As a child growing up with a parent like this, one is loved on conditions - that is, as long as the child meets the parent’s needs, continues to adore and idolise the parent, and act as an extension of the parent and not their self, then all is good. Many other times, the child who rebels by having their own identity and refusing to be controlled is verbally abused and mistreated in other ways. Narcissistic parents view their own children as a threat and as competition. They react in extreme ways to being criticised, and this can lead them to even severely punish their children either verbally, physically, or psychologically. The parent feels that, as a parent, they are entitled to control you, and also believe that they can never do wrong or be wrong. So, not only do they never hold themselves accountable, but they also may never offer an apology, or a genuine one, at least. They tend to deny accusations and even shift the blame and guilt onto you.

This leads to children not feeling valued, and when they do feel valued it is not because of who they are but rather because of what they do. This can lead to the child feeling used, for they are seen more like an accessory to the parent rather than seen as a human being. Considering this, the child can come to adopt the false belief that they are unlovable or unworthy, because if someone close to us (such as a parent who is meant to love, value and protect us) proves incapable of doing so, then who will? This can then lead to trust issues with the child, and in later adult life not knowing who to trust, but also not trusting themselves.

The child will often feel invisible, not seen or heard, because the parent will dismiss, invalidate and ignore the child’s emotions and feelings and, in many cases, all will go back to the parent and how this makes them feel. The parent will get angry at being criticised rather than take it as an opportunity to look within themselves and change any hurtful or unhealthy behaviour. It will be all about them and nobody else; narcissistic parents lack empathy and cannot attune to their children’s emotional needs. They are very self-centred and selfish. They will use guilt trips and gaslighting to turn the attention away from having to hold themselves accountable, and so the child’s feelings and reality are not acknowledged. This will then contribute to the child experiencing self-doubt and not being able to trust their own judgement and feelings - therefore the child often suffers from crippling self-doubt, wondering what it is that they have done to deserve such treatment.

As Jonice Webb stated, 'a parent without empathy is like a surgeon operating with dull tools in poor lighting. The results are likely to produce scarring'.

The parent can, at times, have a child whose role is the scapegoat, and another whose role is seen as the golden child. Very often, the narcissistic parent will play their children off against the other. In fact, it is not uncommon for difficulties and conflicts to arise between siblings. In order to survive, one must be on mother or father’s good side and avoid being on their bad side, which can see siblings take the mother or father’s side and even join in the verbal abuse and gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a psychological tactic based on manipulation, where someone makes you feel crazy or causes you to doubt your own reality of events and sanity.

The child that most reflects the narcissistic parent will take the role of the golden child, and the child who doesn’t resemble the parent is seen as a disappointment and becomes the scapegoat; the one who is their own individual. This is because the narcissistic parent likes to play favourites.

Many times, the parent will manipulate the situation, and in doing so always retains the focus or spotlight on themselves and avoids being held accountable. The parent needs to feel and be in control at all times.

The parent often cares about others approval and not losing face at the expense of their own child’s needs and welfare; they tend to be self-absorbed and only value their children according to how well they reflect their own achievements as a parent. The child grows up believing that they don’t matter; they can become a people pleaser and put others needs above their own, find it hard to self care for themselves, and rely on external factors rather than internal to determine their worth and value.

The child can grow up never feeling good enough, feeling that what they do is either always wrong or not good enough, and feeling lonely, as for most of their life they have been due to being emotionally abandoned. They can find it hard to express themselves because they have never had a mirror to reflect back what they felt; they may have difficulties knowing or determining who they truly are because they have never been allowed autonomy, but controlled and conditioned to become an extension of the parent.

The parent often is always critical, damaging the child’s self-esteem which they can carry into adulthood, and perfection can result. Often, children of narcissistic parents tend to become overachievers because they feel loved or valued only through conditions of worth and when they are able to make their parents 'look good'. This makes a child feel used and manipulated.

Since narcissistic parents are often superficial in nature, image is incredibly important. Looks will, therefore, be important for them so much that children could be taught that their looks and appearance is more important than who they are or how they feel. When this occurs, image can be viewed as more important than authenticity, individuality, and diversity, since the myths of the ideal beauty standard in society are both unrealistic and limited, again limiting self-discovery, self-love, and the ability to develop one’s own sense of self and worth.

As a child or adult, the individual may seek the love, approval, and attention of their parent in vain, through achievements, looks or other ways, hoping that things will change, seeking that acceptance, and believing their parent will change. Children of narcissistic parents can spend many years carrying this hope - after all, children never give up on wanting these things from their parent. Hope for any human is the last to die.

Some children can only survive by identifying with their narcissistic parent, and they become like them or develop some of the same traits. Others will break free but may still struggle with the necessary abilities to separate their 'selves' and individuality from their parent's identity. The child has had to be the extension of their parent, has had to be controlled, has been given their identity instead of allowed to explore it, that understandably confusion and difficulties in this area naturally can arise. Many times, it is when children are teenagers that they go through the stage of self-identity and want independence, and the narcissistic parent is threatened by their child’s independence.

When the child is small, parentification may result, which is when the child is there for the parent but nobody is there to for them. This is, therefore, when the parent uses their child as an emotional crutch to cater to their own emotional needs. This can lead to children feeling emotionally empty and lacking in nurturance, which is what children need, and, on occasion, this can stunt emotional development and deprive the child of having a healthy role model in life for behaviours, boundaries, and healthy emotional connections.

The narcissistic parent will want their child to be the best, most wealthy, successful, and beautiful, but should the child outshine them at anything, the parent can then become resentful and jealous, and may resort to putting down their child through techniques of shame and humiliation.

The child may receive credit only when it suits the parent, and on other occasions receive none, and this can result in children not giving themselves the deserved credit they need. Whilst most children can grow up to become overachievers, they can also develop patterns of self-sabotage, or develop both of these traits but in different areas.

It is not uncommon for children to form or develop psychological distresses such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorders later in life. Other issues include co-dependency, weak boundaries and difficulties saying ‘no’, chronic feelings of guilt and shame, self-loathing, poor self-image, weak sense of self, trust issues, addictions, poor relationships, self-hatred, perfectionism, people pleasing, low self-esteem, emptiness, unidentified feelings of unhappiness, and an inability to express emotions, to name a few.

Feelings of guilt can be very strong, even in the healing process, as in addition to having to be made to feel guilty by the parent and others, additional cultural messages reinforce that children should obey their parents, that family is everything, and that children should never abandon or leave their parents especially when they are old, adds pressure.

Taking this on board for the child of a narcissistic parent, the guilt trip is felt not only by the manipulative parent, but society as well. However, it does not make anyone a bad daughter or son to distance themselves from a toxic family member, or to remove them completely from their life. Nobody is obligated to make room for people who cause you pain or make you feel small. It’s one thing if a person owns up to their behavior and makes an effort to change, but if a person disregards your feelings, ignores your boundaries, and continues to treat you in a harmful way, they need to go.

Parents don’t own us - we belong to ourselves. It is healthy and good role modelling to place boundaries that protect us, and to not accept unhealthy and damaging behaviours in our life; it is not up to us to change the other person, but up to them to change their hurtful ways - we can only control how much we allow them to do this by staying and how we react. We deserve to be treated with respect and to be safe. We cannot heal by staying in the same environment that caused us emotional and psychological harm. The best way is either to limit contact, have strictly controlled interactions, such as on the phone, where if someone crosses the line you can just put the phone down or, if necessary, remove them completely.

To accept that a parent did not love, value, protect, cherish or accept us is one of the most painful things one will do; it will take time and it’s a process. Often, one can find themselves flickering from denial, which is their child part who still needs to hang on to a sense of hope to survive, and the adult part who recognises that this was never acceptable and is identifying the damage done.

To heal the inner child wounds, one must re-parent themselves and give that inner child the love, value, and nurturance that it lacks and needs, the loving words it needs to hear and to be accepted by self unconditionally. If left unresolved, these wounds will continue to affect our life, our adult choices, and our behaviours.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Antonella Zottola MBACP, Dip. Counselling, CBT Cert, Psychotherapy Cert, PGCE

Antonella Zottola is a qualified integrative MBACP counsellor. Her private practise held in Sale is called Rising Phoenix. She also has a PGCE and teaches counselling; in addition she gave a presentation held by the BACP on domestic violence. Antonella is author of the Ebook; Shattering the myths: validating the pain; changing the culture.… Read more

Written by Antonella Zottola MBACP, Dip. Counselling, CBT Cert, Psychotherapy Cert, PGCE

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