Our inner character informs the ways we live into our various roles in life.  When a person with strong narcissistic tendencies assumes the role of parent, dysfunctional patterns inevitably emerge with repercussions that can be powerful and long-lasting.  

Narcissists are strongly controlling, competitive, and selfish, so they can perpetuate tension as they attempt to guide children through their formative years.  It is essential to recognize that a child’s attempts to be independent can be quite threating to the narcissistic parent.  In such a home, children are rarely loved just for who they are.  Instead narcissists, being agenda driven, assume the child exists to serve the parent’s needs and wishes.

With that in mind, let’s go over a checklist of behaviors and attitudes that are common when narcissists assume the role of parent:

  1. Maximum telling, minimal discussing.  This is especially true in moments of conflict.
  2. Reminding the child of the chain of command.  Authoritarianism and dominance are central to the narcissistic parenting style.
  3. Inconsistent public versus private persona.  Image is of utter importance, both for the parent and the child.
  4. “Discipline” is not discipline.  In the classic sense of the word, “discipline” means to teach.  Narcissists prefer submission and conformity.
  5. Manipulative use of rewards and punishments.  Beyond reasonable consequences, narcissists will either threaten or offer bribes to get what they want from the child.
  6. Erratic moods, often set off by trivia.  They can create a walking-on-eggshells feeling.
  7. When the child is immature or edgy, the parent is more so.  Constantly is search for narcissistic supply, narcissists readily engage in codependent reactive patterns.
  8. Turning the child’s separate preferences into a referendum about the parent.  They often use phrases like “Why are you doing this to me?” or “Don’t you know how much stress you are creating for me?”
  9. Unavailable during critical moments.  This can include absence either physically or emotionally in crucial times.
  10. Criticism is the norm.  This can include unsolicited advice, second guessing, or verbal haranguing.  The child learns that the parent is hardly ever pleased.
  11. Anger is abrupt, harsh, and demeaning.  Instead of using moments of tension to redirect behaviors, narcissists will blame, shame, and use guilt against the child.  The anger is virtually never constructive.
  12. Expects apologies, yet offers no apology.  There is little validation for the child’s hurt, even though the child is supposed to acknowledge hurting the parent.
  13. Unfulfilled promises.  The narcissist can offer an array of passive aggressive behaviors like being forgetful, unreliable, procrastinating, and such.
  14. Loyalty is not just expected, it is an obligation.  Sometimes they demand loyalty via threats, other times with sweet enticements.
  15. Punitive stonewalling and the silent treatment.  Narcissists withdraw, not for the purpose of gathering their wits, but to make the child feel awkward.

This is not an exhaustive list.  Narcissistic parents can impose sexual abuse, religious abuse, or financial abuse.  They can play favorites, and they can become impossible to reason with.

When you were a child, you probably had little recourse for these types of parental tactics, but as an adult, you have choices.  Foremost is the choice to become assertive regarding your needs.  This does not mean you will live with the illusion of changing the narcissistic parent.  But it does mean that you can recoup the independence that was denied in the earlier years.  You may find it helpful to speak openly with the parent about your distinctions, with no defensive persuasion, but plain talk. Or you may just do what you know is wise and best, knowing it will not be received well, yet it is right for you.  Likewise, you may also explain to friends and other family members about your decisions to lean into your independence.

Above all, if you had a narcissistic parent, your ultimate goal is to define for yourself who you will be from today forward.  Learning from your past, you can determine not to perpetuate what has been done to you.  Instead, you can anchor in dignity, respect, and civility.  That’s when you know you have surpassed the narcissist in the maturity category.

~Les Carter, Ph.D.

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