For better or worse, parents will have a powerful impact on their sons’ and daughters’ quality of life, and that impact will last a lifetime.  Ideally, a child’s history on the home front would include a solid foundation of love, empathy, trust, and reliability.  But sometimes it does not play out that way.

Meaningful parenting is goal oriented, with a primary goal of making oneself less necessary, encouraging autonomy.  Likewise healthy parents teach emotional competence, a solid work ethic, coping skills, and conflict management.  Healthy parents want their kids to be curious and creative.  Emotional safety and security are prioritized.  And they also provide perspectives on family history, emphasizing what has and has not worked.

When you observe the parenting styles of narcissists, however, a very different pattern emerges. Foremost, narcissistic parents overemphasize compliance…and that compliance is for the parent’s comfort.  Also, there is ongoing mismanagement of conflict and anger, as well as messages of shame and humiliation.  Sometimes the narcissist is too intrusive, while at other times neglectful.  And consistently, narcissistic parents don’t discuss, they tell.

Having unfinished business within, narcissistic parents pass along their psychological chaos, unwittingly requiring the kids to carry their pain.

The impact experienced by children of a narcissistic parent is palpable.  Receiving intermittent reinforcement (consistent inconsistency), they can feel uncertain about person worth.  They also tend to have insecure attachments, either being avoidant or clinging…and often a combination of both.  Because emotions are not managed well, they grow up keeping secrets or faking agreement due to fear.  Commonly, they become susceptible to peer pressures featuring rebellion and irresponsibility.

Left unexamined, the influences of a narcissistic parent can lead to all sorts of strains deep into the child’s adult years.  

As a therapist, I talked with many adults who later in life concluded: “Something was very off-kilter in my childhood.  The lessons I learned have not served me well.  It’s time for a change.”  Of course, I would applaud such a conclusion, but I would also remind them that they might not receive the blessing of the parent as they make those changes.

Once narcissistic parents realize your desire move into a different direction, they will usually balk, or worse, resort to the anger and shaming employed in years past.  Going back to their need for conformity, they predictably remind the son or daughter of their subordinate role.  For instance:

  • They can insist upon you maintaining the “proper” opinions, beliefs, and lifestyle practices.
  • They require you to reveal your painful memories, then invalidate what you say. 
  • They will refuse to become personally vulnerable.
  • They will register a poor appreciation for boundaries, not respecting your adult distinctives.
  • They can speak offensively, then respond defensively when you offer a separate perspective.

With narcissistic parents, old habits die hard, so the likelihood of you moving forward in concert with each other is low.  That understood, you can still find healing.  Let’s look at how this might be managed.

  • Remember, the narcissistic parent almost inevitably received misguided information in his/her formative years too.  They are living out the dysfunctions passed along to them.  In other words, their complaints about you reveal how they have not come to terms with their own history of pain.
  • When it becomes clear the parent is unable or unwilling to introspect, cease any effort to plead your case.  Instead, individualize your psychological growth.
  • Refuse to play the ongoing role of an appeaser or enabler.  You no longer need to be subordinate to them…and remember, arguing keeps you stuck in the “rebellious kid” mode.
  • Separately, define who you want to be, focusing on your primary traits, priorities, and guiding beliefs.
  • Proceed with your definition of Self intact, knowing the parent will not approve.  
  • Offer no apology or ongoing defense for your independence. Let your reasonableness be its own statement.
  • When you know you will be in the presence of the parent and an emotional clash could ensue, mentally rehearse in advance how you will respond to the triggers of anger, shame, fear, and judgment.  In most instances, a bland or neutral response would be in order.

A defining feature of narcissism is the need for control, so when you indicate that you choose not to wither under the parent’s controlling agenda, it might not go well.  But when that prospect eventuates, remind yourself that you are being shown why you need to adjust.  No adult needs to be treated childishly by a bullying parent.

And when the parent presses for your conformity, implying: “Get back into the role I have assigned,” you are under no obligation to collapse and fall in line.  Instead, remind yourself:  The goal of healthy parenting is the teaching of responsible freedom.  And since the parent did not focus on that essential goal…I can and will.

~Les Carter, Ph.D.

To watch the video on this topic, click here.