When we think of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, C-PTSD, it’s often in the context of children who were raised with abusive parents. Sometimes that abuse was physical, such as hitting. At other times, it was emotional cruelty, such as telling a child they are not loved or not worthy. But when someone is coping with C-PTSD symptoms, it’s because the abuse they endured wasn’t a single terrifying event. Instead, it was prolonged and repetitive.
Then, there is a form of abuse that contributes to C-PTSD that isn’t as obvious.
It results from being raised in a household with a narcissist, and suffering their prolonged and sustained abuse. Receiving narcissistic abuse is crushing as an adult. Just for moment, imagine the hell it is for a vulnerable child.
What happens to a child if they are raised by a narcissistic parent? The child feels the type of chronic stress and fear that comes from knowing they can only expect the worst. They learn early that they can only count on being overlooked or attacked by their parent. They know they won’t be helped or soothed. Instead they sense that their parents are adversaries who use them to meet their own needs. The result is that they can grow up severely emotionally damaged from the experience. Consider the fallout below:
When Mom or Dad is #1 All the Time
One way that life with a narcissist contributes to C-PTSD is that a child sees the way a parent treats themselves as the most important consideration- all the time. A narcissistic parent doesn’t much consider the needs of anyone else first and models this for their child. A range of possibilities emerge from this type of childhood, often they include:
- A child learns that whatever their needs are, no matter how important they are to them, take less priority than their parents’ needs. So, the child learns to ignore, numb or push down those needs for those of others. They might become a chronic people pleaser, or feel chronically overwhelmed and helpless. This, in turn, greatly wears down their self-esteem.
- The child tries to mimic their parents to put themselves first all of the time. This lesson sticks with them into adulthood as they try to form relationships of their own. They take up all the space, and ignore or dominate their loved ones.
However, the result is that the child, in either scenario, will struggle with forming safe, cooperative, healthy intimate relationships. Instead, their relationships take on a “one up, one down” quality. In these types of relationships, one person wins, the other person loses.
Using People Rather Than Cherishing Relationships
Another way narcissism affects children and compounds C-PTSD occurs when the child tries to create relationships with other people. Again, it’s possible to see two outcomes. On the one hand, a child of narcissists struggles with relationships because they don’t know how to see themselves as equals with others. They have a hard time expressing their emotions. When they do, it often comes out the wrong way. Or, the child learns from narcissistic parents that people are meant to be used for their own gain. This has a few effects:
- People are objectified.
- Any relationship formed is one in which someone is being used
But healthy relationships aren’t meant to work that way! Rather, they are supposed to be fulfilling for both people, based on mutual trust and friendship.
Living in a Narcissistic Dreamworld
Narcissists are often stuck in a kind of perfection based dream world. And in this world, which cannot go wrong. Usually the narcissistic parent lacks insight. So they don’t see or acknowledge their own faults. Being unwilling to acknowledge their flaws and mistakes, they usually heavily rely on criticism and blame; so the narcissistic parent usually doesn’t take much responsibility for problems
In their dreamworld, they think of themselves as better. Often they believe they are smarter than everyone else and will have fantasies about their own power. A child living with narcissists might buy into that dreamworld and adopt it as their own. Making things even more difficult, the parent often subjects them to “gaslighting”, which leads the child to deeply doubt his/her own reality.
Or, they may realize that there just isn’t any place for them in their parents’ world. So, they drop out, feel chronically alone and helpless. Sometimes they end up feeling like a chronically misunderstood outsider, and struggle with anger and fear. Or, they try to find their own way but may get caught on the wrong track.
In an effort to find relief from deep wounds, many children of narcissists may use substances to cope with the rejection of their parents.
The Result of Narcissism and C-PTSD
If you have grown up with an abusive narcissist, it’s likely that you deal with:
- Emotional flashbacks
- Chronic intense feelings of shame, fear and anger.
- Self doubt
As we can see, living with narcissistic parents can deeply harm children. But, when you add in C-PTSD, it’s even worse. Narcissism amplifies the trauma. On one hand, the child will grow up feeling rejected. Or, they too become narcissists and have no doubts about their own superiority; dominating, demeaning and distancing others. Neither will have processed and healed what has happened to them as a youth. So, they carry that unresolved trauma with them. This, in turn, has an impact on their relationships as adults and with adults throughout life.
If you lived with narcissists when you were young, then it’s time to get help. Know that it is possible to resolve C-PTSD so that it no longer affects and controls your life. Find out today how trauma therapy can work for you.