When it comes to narcissism, there is a spectrum of severity. While many people have narcissistic traits, some people have personalities that are highly narcissistic. Others have full blown narcissistic personality disorder. It’s well known that narcissistic exposure can damage an adult badly enough. But the traumatizing effects of being raised by a narcissist leaves psychic scars which drive many into therapy later in life. These scars can be thought of as common traits of children with narcissistic parents
Every parent-child relationship involves some amount of occasional conflict, stress and confusion. This is not exactly breaking news and has been the premise of many a pop culture offering. We expect it, accept it, and, for the most part, manage it.
However, there are instances where things go far past the normal family pitfalls. A particularly dangerous example involves the presence of a highly narcissistic parent. In this case, family life and it’s inevitable conflict looks nothing like a T.V. sitcom. And the harm done is not easily undone.
Traits of Children With Narcissistic Parents
Many Refer To Themselves As “Survivors Of Narcissistic Parents”
The child of a narcissistic parent faces more red flags than they can name. They spent their “ordinary” family life dodging the slings and arrows of narcissistic abuse. This abuse can be physical and/or emotional. And sadly, many adult children of narcissists may not be aware until many years (and much pain) later. Like a poison that takes years to clear your system, the toxic impact of these early relationships seeps into adulthood and taints adult relationships.
Fortunately, trauma can be resolved. You can recover from such abuse. A giant first step? Learning more about narcissism, trauma bonding and how it may have shaped your life.
Over the last 20+ years as a practicing psychotherapist, I’ve seen a large number of trauma survivors in my practice. Most of them described to me how their early life with their narcissistic mother and father cast a long shadow across their lifespan.
The parents they described sounded as if they were highly self absorbed, and had difficult life situations, and perhaps other mental and emotional disorders.These drove their high levels of self absorption and emotional immaturity. They faced things like:
- Drug and alcohol problems
- Domestic violence
- Mental illness
- Untreated trauma
- Chronic Medical Illness
Obviously these are all highly stressful life situations. And it’s easy to see how being exposed to them could be traumatizing to a child. Below I’ve described some damaging traits their caretakers had and the traumatic effects which led shaped the traits of children with narcissistic parents.
6 Common Traits of a Narcissistic Parent and The Trauma Symptoms They Can Cause
The word that comes to mind is “grandiose.” The narcissistic parent will exaggerate and lie about themselves. They’ll demand your attention while neglecting your needs. Worse, they often view their child’s increasing independence and autonomy as a threat to their own interests. If so, they likely squelched and sidelined your talents, interests, and growth and kept the focus on their dreams.
Being raised around someone who takes up all the psychic space can lead a person to feel chronic shame, worthlessness and unimportance.
2. No Respect For Boundaries.
A narcissist seems incapable of recognizing that other people have needs. As a result, they will not respect the boundaries their child sets. In fact, a narcissistic parent is adept at making their kid feel guilty for even daring to set a healthy boundary. Their wishes and demands are framed as something you owe them and should want to do. Guilt and manipulation are common ways that your boundaries are breached.
In a sense, boundary issues are the hallmark of early trauma. Inadequate boundaries are one of the most challenging traits of children with narcissistic parents. Many of my clients have struggled to strengthen weak, wobbly or non-existent boundaries. Others were at the opposite end of the spectrum. They needed help letting down their walls and allowing someone in. After what they endured, trust in others did not come so easy.
3. Communication as Warfare
To put it mildly, you will not experience honest communication from a narcissistic parent. For years, your mother or father may make it a habit to put you down, making it clear that they are superior and in control. They will be inappropriately or hurtfully competitive, persistently critical, unfavorable comparisons, subtly humiliating, and more.
Over time, the way they invalidate you and keep you off balance wears down your self-esteem. It robs your relationship, such that it is, of genuine positivity. Instead, you feel confused, rejected, and traumatized by the lack of love and acceptance. Have you experienced a parent who
- Talks over you
- Makes every conversation about them
- Avoids topics of importance to you
- Assumes dominant and threatening postures
- Never asks about you
- Doesn’t listen
- Interrogates you
A major therapeutic task for many of my clients has been to learn how to break the deeply ingrained survival response of fawning. This is the tendency to make yourself invisible and focus on meeting the needs of others. It’s a survival strategy that evolves out of our nervous system’s natural ability to submit and withdraw when we feel we are in the presence of a predator and are facing mortal danger.
Other patients I’ve worked with were stuck in constant battle. They sought my help because they had to learn to disengage their fight response. Our therapeutic work involved softening their chronic defensiveness and belligerence. It was making them miserable..
Don’t expect your narcissistic parent to own up to a mistake. They will manipulate you into believing you either misunderstood or made up the whole thing. By the end of the discussion, they may even have you apologizing.
While gaslighting is a term that is being bandied about these days, it’s a real thing. The lack of insight that a narcissist displays is very real and it’s effects can linger for years. For many of my clients, growing up with parents who played mind games resulted in endless bouts of self doubt and genuine confusion about their perceptions. Their lack of self confidence led to chronic difficulty making decisions. Haunted by aloneness, many felt as if no one could understand or believe their story.
Support and encouragement helped them to learn to trust themselves and the safe people in their lives.
5. Playing the Victim
Expect to be provoked into confrontations. The moment you show anger, your narcissistic parent will likely accuse you of attacking them. It’s also very likely they will accuse you of being abusive yourself. Often very narcissistic people will punish you by mounting a smear campaign against you. They may badmouth you and try to damage your reputation. This effectively keeps you quiet, frustrated, and prone to doing their bidding for the sake of peace.
Remember the saying, “hate usually comes from below?” This means that the reason the narcissist lashes out is because they are desperately trying to ward off deep feelings of shame in themselves. One client put it like this “This has left me with a bucket of emotional slime that I’ve spent years wiping off me”. That slime included; chronic anger, helplessness and fear.
6. Abusive Behavior and Neglect
Aside from the more covert manipulation listed above, a narcissistic parent will also engage in openly abusive behavior. Without a hint of compassion or empathy, they may subject you to mockery, humiliation, and physical threats or violence and neglect.
This type of behavior led my clients to battle some of the more classic symptoms of complex traumatic stress disorder. The common symptoms have included:
- Emotional numbing
- Distrust and fear in relationships
- Emotional regulations problems.
- Flashbacks- Emotional and physical
- Difficulty with relationships
- Self loathing- and a particularly vicious inner critic.
- Arousal dysregulation of the nervous system. (problems with fight, flight, freeze, submit)
- Stress related health problems
Healing The Traits of Children With Narcissistic Parents- Recovery is Very Much Possible
As a child, you wished for parents that would protect, nurture, guide, and love you. Give yourself time to heal and to mourn this profound loss. In addition, it’s crucial that you learn how to set and enforce healthy boundaries. This is most important if your narcissistic parent is still in your life.
It’s best to do such work is with the support of a skilled complex trauma therapist. You’ve undergone childhood trauma and will very likely need help to recover. If you are struggling with some of the traits of children with narcissistic parents reach out to me. I’m an experienced therapist and offer compassionate help for you on this healing journey. Please read more about trauma therapy and contact me soon for a consultation