Reversing the damage caused by a narcissistic parent

Are you an adult who was raised by a narcissistic parent? Here's some practical advice on how to take back control of your life

daughter sad, father ignoring her

More and more adults who thought they were brought up in a dysfunctional family or who believed that they had a selfish parent are realising that there was something more sinister going on. They are learning that one [or both!] of their parents suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This disorder is characterised by two basic elements that are at the core of the behaviour of the narcissist: a grandiose sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for others.

No conscience

If you lacked empathy, what could you do? And lacking empathy means you do not feel bad for others, there is no guilt or remorse, no shame or embarrassment. It means you don’t get upset at anything you do, other people’s pain or distress does not affect you.

If you never felt bad about anything you did, then you could potentially do anything—abuse, take advantage of, inflict pain on others—and never lose sleep over it. For those who do have empathy, who do have a conscience, this idea is an alien one. But if you are an adult child dealing with narcissistic parents, it’s vital for you to understand and accept this.

Narcissistic parents have a long-lasting and often devastating effect on their child

That big ego

The huge sense of self-importance and entitlement, means that the narcissists put themselves first. Their wants, their needs, their desires are much more important than those of other people. In fact, they consider themselves special and superior and as such they believe they deserve favourable treatment from everyone.

They will typically make themselves the centre of attention. Think of Bette Midler in the movie Beaches where, after talking at length about herself, she says, “That’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”

Narcissists will charm and entertain people with stories about themselves which indicate how good they are, how successful they are, how intelligent and beautiful they are and, if the attention drifts away from themselves, they will bring it back or lose interest in the group altogether.

They also want others to acknowledge how great they are. They want compliments and adoration and will even force people into saying nice things about them. This desire for constant recognition is called narcissistic supply and a narcissist cannot get enough of it.

Recognising that a parent is a narcissist is the first step in recovering from such an abusive childhood

Any threat to their ego or anything that the narcissist even considers a threat to their dominance may be met with narcissistic rage. This is a sudden bout of anger that may be out of proportion to what was said. However, these sudden and unexpected outbursts have the effect of ‘training’ the recipients how to speak and behave around the narcissist, i.e., criticism or objections will elicit rage and unpleasantness from the narcissist and compliments mean that such fury and nastiness can be avoided. This is often used as a simple punishment and reward system for controlling people.

If your spouse or boss is a narcissist, you can find ways to escape the wrath of their fury. But children have little protection from narcissists and narcissistic parents have a long-lasting and often devastating effect on their child.

The narcissistic family

There is no one ‘stereotypical’ narcissistic family. Some narcissistic parents are so busy in their own lives that they have no time for their children and the children are effectively raised by outsiders. Others micromanage their children’s lives, organising every moment, making every decision for the children—even into adulthood!—pushing them very hard to succeed so that the narcissist can take credit for their achievements. Some parents prevent their children from maturing, so the child believes they cannot survive without the parent. Others make their children believe that they have to look after the parents emotionally, physically and financially. These children do housework from a young age, pay the house bills as soon as they can work and even act as therapist to the parent.

Recognising that a parent is a narcissist is the first step in recovering from such an abusive childhood. The next step is a process of education in narcissism and the nature of the very controlling techniques and tactics that narcissists use to manipulate their victims. This step is best done with an expert in this field.

Narcissists use a combination of techniques to create dependency in their victims

Important things to understand

Why emotions were suppressed

The adult will now have many strong emotions about the family, but their emotions will have been very heavily controlled by the narcissistic parent and simply reliving and expressing these emotions is not enough to relieve the situation. They need to learn how and why emotions were suppressed so that they can make sense of their childhood.

The dependency aspect

Narcissists use a combination of techniques to create dependency in their victims. For example, alternating compliments and criticism, especially when it is unpredictable, will create dependency very quickly. Another tactic is to not allow children any privacy. For example, having to reveal all thoughts and feelings to the narcissist, or not being allowed to close the bedroom door, means that the personality of the child is not allowed to separate from the narcissistic parent.

This tactic is used in high control groups such as cults to create a very dependent bond between the members and the group, where the member loses his or her individuality and blends with the group in a destructive manner. Saying that such a child/adult is co-dependent is actually blaming the victim and does the victim an injustice.

The adult children dealing with narcissistic parents need to keep in mind that there is no cure for narcissism

As part of the dependency, the narcissistic parent will heavily influence the child’s decisions and will typically not allow the child to make their own choices.

Simply moving away from the family is not enough either… it doesn’t mean that the person’s personality develops naturally and they start making their own decisions. It takes work on the part of the victim to learn how they were controlled and how to take back control.

The risk of abuse

One common consequence of dealing with narcissistic parents is that the children often end up being abused in their own intimate relationships. Narcissists are very controlling creatures and will be able to tell when they meet someone who has been controlled by a narcissist before. The victim of narcissistic parents is therefore an easy target for a narcissist they meet later in life. The adult child of a narcissist does NOT seek out abusers as life partners. The narcissist seeks out easy prey. This is another example of how the victims get blamed for something that is not their fault.

The adult children dealing with narcissistic parents need to keep in mind that there is no cure for narcissism. A narcissist never changes. So, your narcissistic parents will not change. [They are superior beings, after all. And they are not the one with the problem, it’s everybody else. They see no need to change!]

An important decision to be made is how much time you are willing to spend with a narcissistic parent. There are all sorts of cultural values called into play here because of how one should treat their parents and so on. But understanding the nature of narcissism and how they control and manipulate people is vital to making an informed decision and taking action in order to put an end to the abuse that has been suffered at the hands of a narcissistic parent.

It’s not your fault!

If you are an adult child dealing with narcissistic parents, remember that it is not your fault. This is difficult for the victims to understand because narcissists never take the blame for anything, but it is vital to get to the point of understanding this fully in order to completely recover from the damage done by narcissistic parents.


A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing
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