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A narcissistic parent is a parent affected by narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder. Typically, narcissistic parents are exclusively and possessively close to their children and are particularly threatened by their children's growing independence. This results in a pattern of narcissistic attachment, with the child considered to exist solely to fulfill the parent's wishes and needs. A narcissistic parent will often try to control their children with threats and emotional abuse. Relative to developmental psychology, narcissistic parenting adversely affects children in the areas of reasoning, emotional, ethical, and societal behaviors and attitudes as they mature. Within the realm of narcissistic parenting, personal boundaries are often disregarded with the goal of molding and manipulating the child to satisfy the parents’ expectations.
Narcissistic people with low self-esteem feel the need to control how others regard them, fearing that otherwise they will be blamed or rejected and their personal inadequacies will be exposed. Narcissistic parents are self-absorbed, often to the point of grandiosity. They also tend to be inflexible, and they therefore lack the empathy necessary for child raising.
The term “narcissism,” as used in Sigmund Freud’s clinical study, includes behaviors such as self-aggrandizement, self-esteem, vulnerability, fear of losing the affection of people and of failure, reliance on defense mechanisms, perfectionism, and interpersonal conflict.
Narcissism tends to play out intergenerationally, with narcissistic parents producing either narcissistic or codependent children in turn. While a self-confident parent, or good-enough parent, can allow a child its autonomous development, the narcissistic parent may instead use the child as a means to promote their own image. The parent concerned with self-enhancement, or with being mirrored and admired by their child, may leave the latter feeling a puppet to their parent's emotional/intellectual demands.
To maintain their self-esteem and protect their vulnerable true selves, narcissists seek to control others' behavior, particularly that of their children whom they view as extensions of themselves. Thus narcissistic parents may speak of carrying the torch, maintaining the family image, or making mother or father proud and may reproach their children for exhibiting weakness, being too dramatic, or not meeting expectations. As a result, children of narcissists learn to play their part and to perform their special skill, especially in public or for others; but typically do not have many memories of having felt loved or appreciated for being themselves, rather associating their experience of love and appreciation with conforming to the demands of the narcissistic parent.
Destructive narcissistic parents have a pattern of consistently being the focus of attention, exaggerating, seeking compliments, and putting their children down. Punishment in the form of blame, criticism or emotional blackmail, and attempts to induce guilt may be used to ensure compliance with the parents' wishes and their need for narcissistic supply.
Children of narcissists
Children of a resistant or temperamental parent may not be supportive of others in the home. Observing the behavior of the narcissistic parent, the child learns that manipulation and guilt get the parent what they want. The child may also develop a false self and use aggression and intimidation to get their way. However, the opposite may also be true, as not all children of narcissists become aggressive, fake, manipulative adults. Instead, they may invest in the opposite behaviors if they have observed them among friends and other families. When the child of a narcissistic parent experiences safe, real love or sees the example played out in other families, they can very readily learn the difference between their life and that of a healthy family. For example, the lack of empathy and volatility at home may increase the child's own empathy and desire to be respectful. Similarly, intense emotional control and disrespect for boundaries at home may increase the child's value for emotional expression and their desire to extend respect to others. Although the child does see the parents behavior, they are often on the receiving end of the same behavior. When an alternative to the pain and distress caused at home presents itself, it is possible and maybe even likely for the child to focus on more comforting, social safety-inducing behaviors.
Some of the most common issues in narcissistic parenting result from a lack of appropriate, responsible nurturing, which ultimately contributes to the possibility of a child feeling empty, insecure in loving relationships, developing imagined fears, mistrusting others, experiencing identity conflict, and an inability to develop a distinct existence from that of the parent.
Sensitive, guilt-ridden children in the family may learn to meet the parent's needs for gratification and seek love by accommodating the wishes of the parent. The child's normal feelings are ignored, denied and eventually repressed in attempts to gain the parent's “love”. Guilt and shame keep the child locked in this developmental arrest. Their aggressive impulses and rage could become split off and are not integrated with normal development. These children develop a false self as a defense mechanism and become codependent in relationships. The child's unconscious denial of their true self, presuming this defense mechanism is relevant in the victim's life, perpetuates a cycle of self-hatred, fearing any reminder of their authentic self.
Narcissistic parenting may also lead to children being either victimized or bullying themselves, hypersexual in nature (media driven), having a poor or overly inflated body image, tendency to use and/or abuse drugs or alcohol, and acting out (in a potentially harmful manner) for attention.
All of the aforementioned research, however, must be considered as preliminary within the growing field of mental health. One must acknowledge the many layers of psychological reaction in children who have been emotionally abused by their parent(s). Specifically in cases of narcissistic abuse, it is as likely for a child to observe manipulation and aggression and engage in it later in life as it is for a child to experience the pain caused by such behavior, and instead focus on developing the opposite behavior.
Short term and long term effects
Having a narcissistic parent has many effects on a child. Due to their vulnerability, the effects of a narcissistic parent are most evident in their children. Narcissistic individuals often feel the need to control others. Because a parent's role often involves guiding their children and being the primary decision maker in the child's life, especially at a young age, a narcissistic parent will often abuse this power and become overly possessive and controlling. This possessiveness and excessive control dis-empowers the child; the parent sees the child simply as an extension of themselves. With time, this affects the child's imagination and level of curiosity, and they often develop an extrinsic style of motivation. This heightened level of control is attributed to the narcissistic parent not allowing for the "process of separate development".
Narcissistic parents are quick to anger, which puts their children at risk for physical and emotional abuse. In order to prevent this anger and further punishment, children of narcissistic parents often resort to complying with their parent's every demand, no matter the extent. This affects both the child's well-being and their ability to make logical decisions on their own, and they often lack self confidence and the ability to gain control over their life as adults. Identity crisis, loneliness, and struggle with self expression are also commonly seen in children raised by a narcissistic parent. The struggle to discover one's self as an adult stems from the great amount of projective identification that the now adult experienced as a child. As a child, one may never get the opportunity to experience their own identity as a result of projective identification.
Though each individual differs based on life experience, children of narcissistic parents often develop traits such as: introversion, kindness, agreeableness, and a keen interest and empathy for mentally ill individuals.
Mental health effects
Studies have found that children of narcissistic parents have significantly higher rates of depression and lower self-esteem during adulthood in comparison to those who did not perceive their caregivers as narcissistic. These outcomes are a result of the narcissistic parents using their children to "promote their own grandiose self-images" and to "regulate their own emotional experiences". The parent's lack of empathy towards their child is also a contributing factor, as the child's desires are often denied, their feelings restrained, and their overall emotional well-being ignored.
Children of narcissistic parents are eventually taught to submit and conform, causing them to lose touch of themselves as individuals. This can lead to the child possessing very few memories of feeling appreciated or loved by their parents for being themselves, as they instead associate the love and appreciation with conformity. Children may benefit with distance from the narcissistic parent. However, this may not be an option, particularly during a child's developing years. Some children of narcissistic parents resort to this option during adolescence if they grow to view the relationship as toxic.
- Sons and Lovers is considered to have explored a narcissistic mother.
- The Metamorphosis is considered to cover a narcissistic father.
- Sylvia Plath's difficulties have been associated with a need to please a narcissistic father through public display.
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