“Children who have a narcissistic parent are taught/programmed to believe that they have no rights. They learn that their feelings are wrong, invalid, and unimportant. Therefore the child hides their feelings out of fear of the parent’s wrath.” – Tina Fuller
Narcissism is identified by several key traits; among them, an inability to love or appreciate anyone but themselves. Sure, narcissists get married, have children, and otherwise engage in friendships and social relationships, but there is always a reason. A narcissist will not waste time in any situation unless they benefit.
Sadly, this is true even of their own children. Decades of research has shown that both clinical and nonclinical narcissists engage in self-promotion, interpersonal validation, and exploitation of others (Emmons, 1987; Paulhus, 1998; in Zuckerman & O’Loughlin, 2009). Every relationship must have a purpose, and that purpose must be to keep the narcissist in the spotlight and in total comfort.
Related: The Narcissistic Parent
Children are extremely vulnerable to a parent’s perceived narcissistic behaviors. Whereas some will grow up to become narcissistic individuals themselves, others are caught in a constant cycle of searching for relationships without manipulation and pain. Compassion, warmth, and stable emotions are all lacking in narcissistic relationships; being raised in an environment of non-empathy can lead to difficult relationships later in life.
Jenny*, a 25-year-old daughter of emotionally and physically abusive parents, confirms that her narcissistic upbringing has made it difficult to connect emotionally with others. “The intimacy struggle is real,” she says. “It’s hard to get close to friends. When it comes to a significant other, the fear of abuse is there. It’s a mess.”
Parental acceptance is a manifestation of warmth, affection, care, comfort, concern, nurturance, support, and love (Finzi-Dottan & Cohen, 2017). On the other hand, parental rejection is distinguished by controlling behaviors, disapproval, and strict discipline. Narcissistic parents may be incapable of creating or upholding a positive, growth-oriented environment for children.
“I was never comforted as a child when I was sad or hurt. I was left to cry alone or told to shut up,” Jenny recalls. Children of narcissists are highly susceptible to traveling down one of two negative roads: surrendering to the environmental influences and developing their own narcissistic traits, or spending their social lives in an endless cycle of codependence and negative relationships. Jenny has stopped trying to build a relationship with her parents and does not share details of her life with them.
Even children who grow into narcissistic teens and adults often do so with the intent of trying to please their parents. Sadly, such parents can never be pleased. The child will forever search for love, visibility, and recognition (Talmon & Ginzburg, 2019).
Says Jenny, “My parents are not proud of anything I’ve accomplished…and I feel like I’ve made it far. I’m taking college classes, have my own car and own apartment, and my puppy. I’m doing everything on my own, but nothing I do makes them proud. I cannot recall a single instance when they have been proud of me.” Jenny’s older sister, unfortunately, is “following in the footsteps” of their parents and exhibits the same negative traits. Jenny has limited contact with her as well.
Birthdays, holidays, and any positive event must focus around the narcissist, even if the celebration is for someone else. Adam, 18, grew up with a grandiose narcissistic single mother and recalls how his school achievements were heralded as proof of what a great mother she was, even though she did not help with studying or projects. “She took credit for every high grade I achieved, and it was all about her at parent-teacher conferences,” he says.
However, when Adam was in trouble at school for talking back to teachers or failing a test, his mother would fly into a rage: “She would scream at me and follow me around the house, shouting that I embarrassed her and how useless I am and what a disappointment. It always went back to what she did for me and how my behavior makes her look bad.”
Children of narcissists are not seen as individuals worthy of their own successes or mistakes; the child is simply an extension of the parent.