The Narcissist And Their Children (2023)

The relationship between a narcissist and their children is a unique one, full of contradictions. You see, not only will a narcissist subject their children to all the usual abusive behaviours that they subject everyone else to, but at the same time, they view their children as extensions of themselves; as not being separate from them.

"This means that a child should want what they want, should be who they want (preferably a ‘mini - me’) and should do what they want."

They should enjoy what they enjoy, eat what what they like to eat, be good at what the narcissist is good at, and generally subjugate who they are as an independent, unique person to the desires of their narcissistic parent.

If the child wants a scooter for their birthday, the narcissistic parent might suggest a mountain bike instead, because they they want one. If the child wants to play the piano, the narcissistic parent might insist they learn the violin, like they did. If the child wants to be a nurse when they grow up, they might suggest the job they always wanted to do, or do do, instead, whatever that may be, no matter how vastly different it is from what the child wants. It’s subtly different from just being controlling (which of course narcissists also are). Their demands on their children are often wholly unreasonable, coming from a place of pure self-interest with no ability to put themselves in their child’s shoes and view things from their perspective.

This is a complicated relationship. Because they don’t see the child as being separate from them, they violate their boundaries, even more than with other people. They might read diaries, go through their belongings, read their emails, or enter their room without knocking. They might vet their friends or attempt to become too ‘pally’ with them, perhaps even flirting with teenage children’s boyfriends or girlfriends. They might track them closely using their phone, or demand to know where they are at all times. They might become over-involved with their hobbies, intrusively so. A narcissistic parent will expect instant replies to messages, and if these are not forthcoming, especially when they can see that a message has been read, or that their child is online, this will induce narcissistic rage, as it challenges their version of reality of being one with their child.

This over-identification with the child also means that narcissists can find it very difficult to tolerate ‘imperfection’ (which can really be anything that is different to how they want them to be) in their child. It’s extremely common for narcissists (if they are the sort who have a need to appear invincible) to deny illnesses or conditions in their child, either not allowing them to be diagnosed in the first place, or not allowing them to be treated, as treating them would be an admission of imperfection. Asthma, dyslexia, even broken bones can be swept under the carpet by the narcissistic parent, in their own need to be all-perfect, and special. This is more than the child’s ‘weakness’ reflecting badly on them - it is an admission of weakness in themselves, which they simply can’t tolerate. They are their child, and their child is them. This is personal - quite literally.

(Note that some narcissists play the victim card and are riddled with illness, pain and disability, which they use an tool to gain sympathy and attention, so that they don’t have to openly hog the limelight. These narcissists may also use any illnesses in their children as a means to secure narcissistic supply and attention from others, mollycoddling them, and inventing or hyping up illnesses in them to this end). Some even go as far as full blown Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, instigating hospital investigations and treatments for their children’s false illnesses.

"The strange thing is that at the same time as seeing their children as extensions of themselves, narcissists will treat their children in the same abusive ways as they treat others."

Their children are not immune from being at the receiving end of the narcissist's cycle of ‘idealise and devalue’, where they are alternately lovebombed, (showered with praise and attention), and then subtly devalued, criticised, withdrawn from and put down. This leaves them confused and hurt, and they start jumping through hoops to please the parent enough to re-enter the idealisation phase again. This is a cycle that repeats ad infinitum, over and over again, even when the child becomes an adult themselves.

Narcissists’ children will be triangulated and played off against others (often their own siblings or cousins), and will find themselves vying for the narcissist’s attention. They will be gas-lighted - lied to by the narcissist to the point where they their own reality is dismissed as false, so that they stop trusting their own perceptions of reality. They will be demeaned and shamed. If they are particularly good at something, behind closed doors they may find themselves on the receiving end of the narcissistic parent’s jealously. Confusingly, the narcissist may then, in front of an audience, hold up their child’s talent as a source of pride, as just another way to gain positive attention for themselves.

Now add to that the variant of triangulation that narcissistic parents often engage in - the dynamic of the ‘scapegoat’, the ‘golden child’ and the ‘invisible child’, and things become even more destabilising for the child. The children are assigned their roles, either as the one who can do no wrong, the one who can do no right, or the completely unseen and unheard one. Each resents the other, either secretly or openly, and each craves to be in the position of the golden child. And suddenly, often without warning, the roles change. Role shifts can occur every few days or every few years, keeping the children on their toes, on high alert. And even worse, the other parent often turns a blind eye, and enables the narcissistic parent in their appalling behaviour. They often even join in with the abuse, themselves as they try to curry favour with their narcissistic partner, themselves a hapless victim of covert emotional abuse.

In households where the narcissistic parent is single, children may find themselves being parentified, expected to discuss and look after the parent’s emotions or finances, to be their confidante, and have have household responsibilities inappropriate to their age. Guilt and responsibility sits heavy on the shoulders of these youngsters.

Children are often expected to vie for the role of ‘primary adorer’, and live in awe of their narcissistic parent. And they, almost inevitably will find themselves subjugating their own needs in preference for the needs of the parent, in order to keep the peace and avoid their parent’s narcissistic rage. Walking on eggshells becomes the norm for these children.

It is no wonder then, that children of narcissists very often become narcissistic themselves, having ‘learned’ narcissism from their very own beginnings. In developing ‘work arounds’ to appease their narcissistic parent, they are actually wiring these patterns into their brains as normal. This is also true of those children of narcissists who do not go on to become narcissists themselves. These children tend to become adults who exist to please others, and who see toxic behaviour from others as normal - a baseline. They go on to attract narcissists into their lives as partners and friends, and may go on to endure anything up to a lifetime of narcissistic abuse.

The tragic reality is that narcissists don’t (and can’t) love their children in the way that ordinary people do. They will tell you that they do (and most likely they will believe that they do), but their love can only be of the transactional, conditional type, even with their children. Narcissism is a condition of low empathy, entitlement and interpersonal exploitation. These, very sadly indeed, do not form the solid foundation required for unconditional, deeply felt love. And although the narcissist’s professions of love for their children might look convincing to the outside world (but more often, they look a little over the top), whatever feelings they do have are shallowly held, and changeable.

In short, and to put it bluntly, narcissists do not have what it takes to be good parents. They cannot put another’s needs first. They cannot care enough about another to have their best interests at heart (unless they gain narcissistic supply in some form from giving the appearance of caring). They can pretend, and they can pretend well, because pretending lies at the very core of their personality disorder. Every day they pretend to be the false persona, the outward image, that they project to the outside world. They do this because they have to - they cannot bear the feelings of shame that would result from having to face their own feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy that are actually simmering under the surface. They can even fool their own children, even into adulthood, in many cases, that they are a the best parent a child could have, and that they should feel lucky.

"Don’t forget that grandiose, overt narcissists can be immense fun. They can be the life and soul of the party. They can turn heads and deploy devastating charm. Their charisma will likely have their children’s friends telling them how very lucky they are to have such a ‘fun’, or ‘cool’ or ‘nice’ dad or mum. This type of narcissist can be simultaneously brilliant and awful. Flashy and irreverent. Delicious rule breakers, with numerous sycophants in tow. It’s easy to see how a child, who understands none of this, has little chance of protecting themselves from abuse that they cannot even recognise."

How narcissists treat their children in divorce

In divorce or separation, where children are involved, things can get even more complicated. Here, a narcissist will weaponise the children, turning them into instruments of abuse against the other parent. They will badmouth the other parent, lie about them in order to alienate the child from the parent, stop paying for the child (eg stop paying school fees or for after school activities) so that the other parent has to pay, using them as tools of financial abuse. They will try to be seen as the ‘winner’ by trying to get the child to primarily reside with them, regardless of the practicalities of this, inflicting a painful blow on the other parent. The child will be seen as a way to cause suffering on the other parent, who they wish to annhilate, as a result of their narcissistic rage caused by the breakdown of their relationship. They will refuse to cooperate on anything at all, and co-parenting becomes a tiring game of counter-parenting. And all the while, the narcissistic parent will be lovebombing the child, giving false justifications for any of their actions which might otherwise arouse suspicion in the child. All this will be delivered to the child with trademark conviction and magnetic allure.

"Being the child of a narcissist is hard, but so is being the non-narcissistic parent."

As the non-narcissistic parent you have an important job to do in setting up your child for a heathy future. Whilst badmouthing the narcissistic parent is a no no, and will mostly likely back-fire against your relationship with your child, you have a fine line to tread. If you are badmouthed by the narcissist, you should (if the content is age appropriate) provide the truth to your child, without actually accusing the narcissist of lying. When the narcissist is late picking up or returning the children, you should stress the importance of being on time, and respectfulness, again without being openly critical of the narcissist. But mostly, you need to lead by example. Be the parent who encourages the child’d hopes and dreams. Be the parent who supports them. Be the parent who listens to them and takes them seriously. Who celebrates them as an individual. Who loves them unconditionally, but who sets firm boundaries and rules. The stability of your love, and the equality of it with your other children will be eventually be noticed as contrasting with the narcissist’s behaviour.

Teach them empathy from an early age by discussing other peoples’ feelings. Even when reading bedtime stories you can pause to ask, ‘and how did you think the character felt then?’ If you can build empathy in your child, a skill which can be learnt, then you have effectively stopped your child from becoming a narcissist as an adult. So much narcissistic behaviour comes from the inability to care about others because they cannot feel things from another’s perspective, because they were never able to learn empathy. But, like all things, too much empathy is also a bad thing - it can lead a person to give and give to another, and set them up for being preyed on by users. Encouraging you child to learn how to recognise and express their own needs, and how to exert their own boundaries will also be important here. Again, leading by example is the way forwards.

"Parenting, as we all know, is a tough job, but it is twice as hard when you have to counteract the damage that is being (often covertly) inflicted on the child by a narcissistic parent."

Even years post separation or divorce from the narcissistic parent, you will be battling them regarding the children, feeding their narcissism through the drama, conflict and sympathy they will use the situation to garner from others. There is no such thing as co-parenting with a narcissist, and ‘Parallel Parenting’ is the best model to adopt, where you severely limit your contact with the narcissist to only the essentials regarding the children, and accept that the children live by the rules of whichever house they are staying in at the time. No school or family events are attended jointly, and you use the grey rock technique to communicate with them (see my communication tactics blog posts). Your own healing is important here too, and the closer you can get to the gold standard of ‘no contact’ with the narcissist by reducing contact to the absolute bare minimum, the faster you can heal.

As regards parenting, you’ll never do it perfectly, and you’ll always beat yourself up about it. You’ll even end up unwittingly inflict some damage on your children yourself, as all parents do, by definition, but at least with awareness of what you are facing, you stand a great chance of helping your children towards a healthy future.

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