The Narcissistic Family Tree: 12 Common Dynamics of a Dysfunctional Family

The Narcissistic Family Tree: 12 Common Dynamics of a Dysfunctional Family

People belonging to a narcissistic family tree end up having hugely dysfunctional childhoods, which haunts them even when they become adults.

The narcissist 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

The narcissist family tree
The narcissistic family tree

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.

Interested to know more about how you can handle a narcissistic family tree? Read How To Deal With A Dysfunctional Family and Find Your Happiness

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.)

12 things common in a narcissist family

The Narcissistic Family Tree: 12 Common Dynamics of a Dysfunctional Family
Narcissistic Family Tree

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.”

Want to know more about the impact a narcissistic family has on a child? Read How Toxic Family Dynamics Can Cause C-PTSD In Emotionally Intense Children

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.

13 thoughts on “The Narcissistic Family Tree: 12 Common Dynamics of a Dysfunctional Family”

  1. Avatar of Bonnie

    I am the lost child, my siblings were much older, 13 yrs difference to the nearest. Then my brother and other sister were 2 yrs apart from her. I read this and just wow it all makes so much since now. I was the baby or what was said constantly “your just a baby”. The siblings ghostlighted each other all their lives and mine. They’d go two or 3 yrs not talking then maybe a year talking just back and forth our whole lives. Our grandmother was an extremely narcissistic. My father was to a point. My mom suffered so much abuse from all of them it was unreal. But you were right about comparing us! That and the you’re not good enough to do that or that doesn’t make enough money when I said I wanted to be a photographer. So yes, it all makes so much sense now at 52. Just sad that I’ve spent most of my life with depression then finally bipolar 2. But have it under control now. My childhood was great but they all enabled me. Took me almost 47 yrs to realize. Just kept thinking it was all me but not anymore.
    Thank you so much

  2. Avatar of Mandy

    And when their kids grow up indifferent or actually hostile to their parents, it just proves to the parents how unfortunate they were to be saddled with such defective children. “After all we did for those little ingrates!!!”

    1. Avatar of Mandy

      I have a narssistic boyfriend who won’t even let me read what the dictionary says that a narssistic person is he defines EVERYTHING that is said about narssistic People and families

  3. Avatar of Trellony R Nixon
    Trellony R Nixon

    omg! Im adapting a man who family is just like this and sadly my mom side victimized her like this as well. Unfortunately the guy im dating has some of his parents narcissitic tendencies and he is also a victim the “lost child” to their narc ways as well.. Thank god I saw this because it explains why hes treating me the way.

  4. Avatar of Conner Wood

    All of these roles are a product of enforcing Collectivism, to sacrifice themselves for the family thinking it’s the right thing to do. It’s not.

  5. Avatar of Dogmom

    Accurate to my family! I wish there was advice on how to repair it with grown children

  6. Avatar of katieinrecovery

    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….

  7. Avatar of Catherine

    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.

  8. Avatar of KB

    Please link to a larger version of the Narcissistic Family Tree cartoon. It’s not legible when enlarged, nor is the copyright info. Thanks!

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