The Narcissistic Family Tree

Clinical experience and research show that adult children of narcissists have a difficult time putting their finger on what is wrong because denial is rampant in the narcissistic family system:

“The typical adult from a narcissistic family is filled with unacknowledged anger, feels like a hollow person, feels inadequate and defective, suffers from periodic anxiety and depression, and has no clue about how he or she got that way.”

—Pressman and Pressman, The Narcissistic Family

It is common for adult children of narcissists to enter treatment with emotional symptoms or relationship issues, but simultaneously display a lack of awareness of the deeper etiology or cause.

The narcissistic family hides profound pain.

Such families tend to operate according to an unspoken set of rules. Children learn to live with those rules, but never stop being confused and pained by them, for these rules block their emotional access to their parents. They basically become invisible—neither heard, seen, or nurtured. Conversely, and tragically, this set of rules allows the parents to have no boundaries with the children and to use (or abuse) them as they see fit.

The following are some common dynamics of this profoundly dysfunctional intergenerational system. (Keep in mind there are always degrees of dysfunction on a spectrum depending on the level of narcissism in the parents.)

1.Secrets.

The family secret is that the parents are not meeting the children’s emotional needs, or that they are abusive in some way. This is the norm in the narcissistic family. The message to the children: “Don’t tell the outside world—pretend everything is fine.”

 

2.Image.

The narcissistic family is all about image. The message is: “We are bigger, better, have no problems, and must put on the face of perfection.” Children get the messages: “What would the neighbors think?” “What would the relatives think?” What would our friends think?” These are common fears in the family: “Always put a smile on that pretty little face.”

 

3.Negative Messages.

Children are given spoken and unspoken messages that get internalized, typically: “You’re not good enough”; “You don’t measure up”; “You are valued for what you do rather than for who you are.”

 

4.Lack of Parental Hierarchy.

In healthy families, there is a strong parental hierarchy in which the parents are in charge and shining love, light, guidance, and direction down to the children. In narcissistic families, this hierarchy is non-existent; the children are there to serve parental needs.

 

5. Lack of Emotional Tune-In.

Narcissistic parents lack the ability to emotionally tune in to their kids. They cannot feel and show empathy or unconditional love. They are typically critical and judgmental.

 

6.Lack of Effective Communication.

The most common means of communication in narcissistic families is triangulation. Information is not direct. It is told through one party about another in hopes it will get back to the other party. Family members talk about each other to other members of the family but don’t confront each other directly. This creates passive-aggressive behavior, tension, and mistrust. When communication is direct, it is often in the form of anger or rage.

 

7.Unclear Boundaries.

There are few boundaries in the narcissistic family. Children’s feelings are not considered important. Private diaries are read, physical boundaries are not kept, and emotional boundaries are not respected. The right to privacy is not typically a part of the family history.

 

8.One Parent Narcissistic, the Other Orbiting.

If one parent is narcissistic, it is common for the other parent to have to revolve around the narcissist to keep the marriage intact. Often, this other parent has redeeming qualities to offer the children but is tied up meeting the needs of the narcissistic spouse, leaving the children’s needs unmet. Who is there for them?

 

9.Siblings Not Encouraged to Be Close.

In healthy families, we encourage our children to be loving and close to each other. In narcissistic families, children are pitted against each other and taught competition. There is a constant comparison of who is doing better and who is not. Some are favored or seen as “the golden child,” and others become the scapegoat for a parent’s projected negative feelings. Siblings in narcissistic families rarely grow up feeling emotionally connected to each other.

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Karyl McBride PhD, LMFT
Karyl McBride, PhD, LMFT Author of: Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers and Will I Ever Be Free of You? How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family. Karyl McBride, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Denver, Colorado with over 28 years in public and private practice. She specializes in treating clients with dysfunctional family issues. For the past seventeen years, Dr. McBride has been involved in private research concerning children of narcissistic parents, with a primary focus on women raised by narcissistic mothers. She has treated many daughters of narcissistic mothers in her private practice.Dr. McBride also has extensive clinical experience in the fields of trauma, sexual abuse, domestic violence, divorce and step family therapy, marital and family therapy, specialized trauma treatment in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), and individual adjustment issues related to anxiety, depression, and life transitions.Surveys“50 Ways to tell if you are in a Relationship with a Narcissist” Survey:“Do You Have a Narcissistic Parent?” Survey:
“Is this your Mom?” Survey:
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6 COMMENTS

  1. First off, could you please repost the image as it’s still illegible but obviously insightful! Thanks! This article is very interesting… I’m currently the parent orbiting the narcissistic while our two children are the victims of our triangulated conversations and pretense that all is ok. Well, not anymore — the divorce papers have been filed, hooray! I don’t necessarily see my husband as being quite as indifferent to our kids as is portrayed here. He seems quite caring and attentive, even tuned in to one child’s feelings. Maybe because he’s the more covert narcissist? Thanks, Karyl, for your work and books — Will I Ever Be Free of You was the first one I read when exploring this topic and it was very insightful! Fingers crossed I make it through this divorce relatively unscathed….

  2. I’m interested to know if you have any information on being the only child of a narcissist. I find I’m usually the scapegoat but alternate between that and the other types, because there is only one of me and it depends on my mother’s mood as to what I am.