While a relationship of any sort with a narcissist can be emotionally taxing or even abusive, narcissism and parenthood are a particularly toxic combination. “Good parenting requires empathy, compassion, and being willing to make some of your needs secondary,” says psychologist Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, author of No Perfect Love: Shattering the Illusion of Flawless Relationships. “These are qualities that narcissists lack.”
“Good parenting requires empathy, compassion, and being willing to make some of your needs secondary—all qualities that narcissists lack.” —Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, psychologist
Because narcissism revolves around a self-entitled need for constant admiration, the narcissistic parent has a hard time seeing their child as having needs or emotions that deserve attention, or as having worth beyond serving as a tool for their own validation. “They might fly into a rage or become withdrawn and depressed if the child doesn’t make them feel good about themselves by getting good grades or the starring role in the school play, or by listening to their problems,” says clinical psychologist Stephanie Kriesberg, PsyD, author of the forthcoming book Adult Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.
Below, psychologists break down the common ways that a narcissistic parent-child relationship unfolds and share key behavioral signs that you grew up with a narcissistic parent, as well as how to manage the emotional fallout.
How narcissism presents in a parent and within the parent-child relationship
The narcissistic parent expects a child to fuel their ever-growing sense of self-interest and self-worth, either by asking the child to directly care for them and do things in service of them, or by pushing them to succeed in highly visible ways that the parent can then attribute to their own success in raising them. Largely, these tendencies spring from deep-seated insecurities, says Dr. Kriesberg. Essentially, the narcissistic parent is not secure in their own sense of self and needs to access that security through external sources, including their child.
“This typically shows up in two patterns: the grandiose pattern and the vulnerable pattern,” says Dr. Kriesberg. With the former, “the parent is brash, full of themselves, and always needs to be the center of attention,” not just professionally or socially but within their own home, too, she says. Their child is then enlisted to help them maintain that feeling.
But with the latter, the parent may seem “fragile, depressed, anxious, or needy,” says Dr. Kriesberg. “They may be ill, unstable, or unable to care or provide for their child.” In this case, their problems become the problems of their child, too, “of whom they demand a great deal of care and attention,” she says.
"[Narcissistic parents] tend to be emotionally reactive but do not allow their child to have an emotional reaction and may even shame their child for expressing feelings.” —Dr. Nerenberg
In either scenario, the roles of the parent and child are flipped, says Dr. Kriesberg, and the child is required to meet the needs of the parent, rather than the other way around. But should the child have their own needs or feelings, the narcissistic parent will often swiftly dismiss them. “They tend to be emotionally reactive but do not allow their child to have an emotional reaction and may even shame their child for expressing feelings,” says Dr. Nerenberg. Rather than being empathetic to the concerns of their child—were they to express, for example, fear, upset, or self-consciousness—the narcissistic parent would just tell them to “get over it,” she adds.
In the same realm, the narcissistic parent is prone to interrupting a child, if they deem whatever they’re saying to be unimportant, and may excessively criticize a child if they aren’t maintaining an image that props up the parent—whether by way of their physical appearance or performance in school or extracurriculars, says Dr. Nerenberg.
As a result, the child may begin to define their own worth by their looks or accomplishments and constantly strive for their parent’s nearly impossible-to-get approval. After a while, this unrewarded effort could leave them feeling as if they'll never be “good enough,” leading to low self-esteem. At the extreme, the child may even feel guilty for the perceived shortcomings that the narcissistic parent calls out and blame themselves for having caused hardship in their parent’s life, says Dr. Nerenberg.
5 behavioral signs that you grew up with a narcissistic parent
1. You people-please to a fault or find yourself constantly in a caretaker role
“Because of their familiarity with trying to please a difficult parent, a child of a narcissist may later choose to date or even marry a narcissist because the role of taking care of another person's needs is familiar for them,” says Dr. Nerenberg.
The relationship that first defined love for this person was transactional—they could earn their parent’s love by doing certain things for them or achieving certain successes—so they’ve internalized love as conditional and may seek out partnerships that also require them to meet certain rigid conditions. “We often end up choosing situations that are familiar to us and end up re-creating a similar dynamic,” says Dr. Nerenberg.
2. You regularly doubt yourself and your reality
In failing to give credence to their kid’s emotions, a narcissistic parent also often dismisses their child’s very understanding of reality. “They might have told you that certain things that happened didn’t actually happen,” says Dr. Kriesberg. “For example, let’s say you were upset because your sibling knocked over the block tower you just built. A narcissistic parent might say, ‘Your brother would never do that. You must have knocked it over yourself.’”
Over time, these kinds of experiences can “diminish the ‘sense of self’ that you bring to adulthood,” she says, “and leave you questioning yourself and your perceptions.”
3. You’re often on the hunt for external validation
A child of a narcissist learns at a young age that their own worth is intrinsically tied up in how much they can satisfy others. So, later in life, they could find themselves dead-set on receiving validation from others that they’re, in fact, serving them in some positive way.
“Children of narcissists can often ‘hear’ their parent’s overly critical voice in their head, like a recording that won’t turn off,” says Dr. Kriesberg. And one way to lower its volume is to solicit and receive from others the positive affirmations that their narcissistic parent rarely, if ever, provided.
4. You downgrade, dismiss, or hide your feelings or emotions
Perhaps one of the most common signs that you grew up with a narcissistic parent is the tendency to nullify your own feelings and emotions. As noted above, a child of a narcissist routinely has their feelings dismissed, so it only makes sense that over time, they’d come to believe that their own needs must be unimportant and inconsequential, says Dr. Nerenberg.
This belief can manifest in a few different ways: In some cases, you might just feel as if other people’s needs and happiness will always be fundamentally more important than your own (and, thus, you just ignore your needs). In other cases, you might actually have difficulty putting your feelings into words or even knowing how you feel, given that you were rarely allowed the space to articulate your feelings throughout childhood, says Dr. Kriesberg.
In still other cases, “you may feel the need to conceal your real feelings from a friend or partner in the same way that you once learned to hide your authentic feelings from a narcissistic parent,” says Dr. Nerenberg. “When you were vulnerable with a narcissistic parent, you were likely ridiculed or ignored, so you then learn to avoid being vulnerable with others later in life.”
5. You have difficulty trusting others
Lack of trust flows directly from the struggle with vulnerability noted above. As soon as a child of a narcissist feels as though they can’t open up to a friend or partner (for fear of criticism or ridicule, or just deep self-doubt), they close the door to trust.
“When you grow up with a narcissistic parent, you grow up with a parent who not only doesn’t see or validate your feelings, but also might actively make fun of or even deny your emotions,” says Dr. Kriesberg. As a result, it’s no wonder you might later put up a wall and have trouble getting close with or actually trusting others—largely as a mechanism of self-protection, says Dr. Nerenberg.
How to heal from the experience of being raised by a narcissistic parent
Both psychologists stress the importance of educating yourself on parental narcissism. It’s only through understanding the patterns of narcissism and its impact that you can “stop blaming yourself for not meeting the impossible needs of a narcissistic parent and avoid falling into the trap of dating or befriending narcissists,” says Dr. Nerenberg.
Learning about narcissism in parent-child relationships can also help you form connections between things that currently set you off (like a critical remark) or roadblock your relationships (like an inability to be vulnerable) and various traumatizing interactions with a narcissistic parent in your childhood. “These experiences from growing up tend to get stuck in the emotional parts of our brain, out of awareness,” says Dr. Kriesberg. “But making connections between these past experiences and current ones you’re having can help you learn how and why you’re getting emotionally frozen in certain reactions.”
Once you have that awareness, “you can begin to take steps to remind yourself that you’re in the ‘here and now’” and no longer need to respond or react as you once needed to do, says Dr. Kriesberg. A few of her in-the-moment grounding recommendations? “Calming breathing, moving your body, talking to yourself with kindness, and repeating a soothing or empowering phrase in your head,” she says.
Long-term, it’s also essential to recognize and label the feelings that bubble up around relationships and the needs you have of others in your life, says Dr. Nerenberg. By doing so, “you can find empathy and compassion for yourself,” particularly after having had your emotions and needs so readily invalidated by a narcissistic parent, she says. In that realm, she also suggests prioritizing friendships and mentor relationships where empathy is the norm, and seeing a therapist who can guide you toward supportive relationships and away from destructive ones.
While you’re moving through this healing process, it’s also important to set boundaries with your narcissistic parent. “For example, you might set a boundary that your parent(s) can’t call your home after a certain time or aren't able to show up unannounced,” says Dr. Nerenberg. “Limiting your time with your narcissistic parent is crucial to healing and living your own life.”
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