What to do if your parent is a narcissist?

Many people, upon reaching adulthood, spend the rest of their lives trying to get what their parent(s) never gave them. This can be for many reasons - such as absence or neglect, but often it can also be due to a narcissistic parent. Narcissistic parents are responsible for a large proportion of confused and wounded adults. 

You may or may not be aware that you had one or two narcissistic parents, or you may suspect that you have had one and want to know what to do about it. This article may help you with these questions.

What is a narcissistic parent?

Narcissism comes on a spectrum so not all parents who have it may have all the characteristics below. If your parent has some, then they may be on the lower end of the spectrum, if they have more than half they may be high on the spectrum. Here are 10 pointers to the worst of the behaviours:

1. You may feel that you have always been a reflection of one or both of  your parents: your main purpose seems to have been to reflect glory back to the parent. For a narcissist, the main point of having a child is not to nurture and look after it but to show off and bring the spotlight onto themselves. For instance, you may have seen how celebrity couples give their children outlandish and attention grabbing names as another way of getting you to notice them. They just have to be right in the public eye as often as they can, even if such a name is likely later to cause the child great problems. Even if you were given a normal name, if any of this sounds familiar, then you may have a narcissistic parent.

2. A narcissistic parent will put you on a starvation diet of love. You won't get many hugs or be told that you are loved. As a child, you probably spent most of your time doing everything or anything to get their attention and nothing worked. And it still doesn't. If you ring them up, you may be allowed 30 seconds on how you and your family are, and then get half an hour about them, their neighbours or even their hairdresser's dog. They are not interested in you, whatever you've done, however exciting. 

3. You will have noticed that your parent will have been excessively controlling and mean to their spouse. They too would have been on a starvation diet and will have been regularly and cruelly emotionally abused or put down. This may have made you cringe, or you may have tried to step in and help, but it has never changed. The abused parent probably stayed with their partner because of a hook to keep them there.

4. You can probably tell many awful stories of yourself as a child - such as cruel put downs and acts, vicious name calling, the frequent taking away of toys or a more or less permanent ban on them. Perhaps you were always told you were not wanted or were "a mistake."

5. A narcissistic parent may fill their house with trophies of their successes (not their joys). Not just a shelf or two (which is normal)  - lots of walls or rooms full. There won't be many pictures of you or your children. If you've fallen out with them, there may be pictures of their other grandchildren, but certainly not yours.

6. A narcissistic parent will insist that everyone else is wrong at all times. They are never, ever wrong. Not in a million years. Even if they quite obviously are wrong and everyone knows it. They may fly into a rage if confronted on this, so you learn not to bother - it's easier.

7. A narcissistic parent may normalise dysfunctionality. Since the family is run on a grossly dysfunctional model, a denial of this is an effective smoke screen - everyone else's family is either weird or stupid in some way or other.

8. A narcissistic parent may have taught you a very unhealthy attitude to sex and relationships. Sex is either something to be craved or demonised. You probably learned that no one should ever be trusted in a relationship.

9. A narcissistic parent is extremely good at manipulation. They may exert heavy control over their partner and family - normally by anger, guilt, flashes of great charm (to win you back) or playing the martyr. It is possible that you have always been given money as a manipulation and substitute for love.

10. If both parents were narcissists, then they probably had an extremely destructive, combustible relationship that may have felt unbearable to you. There will probably have been violence, abuse or extreme neglect, and addiction may have been prevalent.  Both parents may have had numerous affairs.

Problems narcissistic parents can cause their children

  • You may find yourself constantly trying to find a partner like them (cold, cruel, abusive, selfish, using etc) or one that you can dominate and do that to yourself - perhaps for revenge or simply to copy what you have been shown.
  • You might go from one bad relationship to another, or get permanently stuck in a cold or abusive one. This is because, you might not be aware that you are creating a life-long attempt to get from a partner what your mother/father never gave you. By picking someone just like them, you are actually creating the perfect opportunity to get exactly the opposite - and sabotaging any attempt to get what you really need. 
  • You may become promiscuous as an attempt to gain affection or love, or you may be completely switched off from sex. You may rebel more strongly than usual or go completely off the rails. You may sometimes manage to break free of some of the habits although not all of the hang-ups and pain your parent gave you.
  • You may have found yourself still living your life around your parent or being made to feel extremely guilty if you don't. If you have tried to escape you will probably have suffered great abuse for the choice.

What can you do about it?

You cannot change your parent's behaviour or attitudes. 

Even the best psychiatrists on earth admit no high-level narcissist can be helped to change (because they believe everyone else has the problem not them). Only they can change themselves - and they never do - except (maybe) on their deathbed.

You have to change yourself, how you deal with your parent and how you form relationships with others (especially romantic ones).

You will almost certainly need the help of a good, understanding therapist to help you unpick the past, work through some problems around self-esteem and build a framework for the future. 

Because you probably have a large number of issues to explore and work through, there will be a huge impulse to run before the work is done - to work with these deep wounds is so painful that it may be easier to avoid them or hide from them. You will probably have ran from many things in your life already. But the only way to change things is to deal with the issues head on - to go through the pain barrier and into a much better life. It can be done and is done.

You can learn to deal with the problems a narcissistic parent has caused you - but it does take awareness, effort, thinking, planning and time.

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 David Seddon MA Couns, Dip, BA Philosophy, MBACP Accred - couples & individuals

David is a BACP accredited counsellor. He has an MA in counselling practise and a BA in philosophy and works in a person-centred, existential and short-term-solution-focussed way. He runs a private practice in Congleton, Cheshire and has also works for BUPA and worldwide via Skype.… Read more

Written by David Seddon MA Couns, Dip, BA Philosophy, MBACP Accred - couples & individuals

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