Since Freud, researchers have studied various environmental effects on maturing personalities, and it has been well documented that parenting styles are profoundly involved in the shaping of children’s developing psyches. It is hard enough working with a narcissistic boss or living with a narcissistic spouse, but being raised by narcissistic parents has several serious emotional consequences.
What are some of these effects? Dr. Paul Meier in his book, You Might Be a Narcissist If . . . How to Identify Narcissism in Ourselves and Others and what We Can Do About It, identifies four consequences of narcissistic parenting. They are: 1) the development of a false self; 2) the desire to behave with perfectionism; 3) chronic habits of passivity; and 4) increased vulnerability to addictive behaviors.
The Development of a False Self
Since narcissistic parents unconsciously need others to help soothe their fragile sense of self, they naturally turn to any available relationships for this support, including their children. Other people are not seen as whole, separate individuals, but rather as objects to exploit. As a result, children of narcissistic parents quickly come to understand that their role is to take care of their needy parents. They learn to take cues from their environment on how to act. They become who their parents need them to be, instead of being true to themselves. These expectations cause these children to develop a false self. They become proficient at looking good which requires them to become disconnected from their own internal world. By learning to tune out their emotional needs and desires, they eventually don’t even know how they feel. They become perpetual actors and seem as if they are fine, even when they are not.
Behaving with Perfectionism
Children of narcissistic parents also learn it is very important to live up to their parents’ high expectations. Their performance brings pride and glory to their parents, and their parents often take credit for their successes. Children of narcissistic parents begin to pressure themselves to perform well. They drive themselves to be the best, whether it is at sports, getting all A’s, or making first chair in the school’s band. This drive is not motivated by their own interest, but rather to win their parents’ approval. They learn early that failing to perform brings shame to their parents, so they work hard to avoid this painful consequence.
Habits of Passivity
Since children of narcissistic parents are regularly working to meet their parents’ psychological demands, they must constantly delay or deny their own interpersonal and intrapersonal needs. They learn to tune out and ignore their own opinions, thoughts, and desires, and to behave compliantly and easy-going. After all, they have discovered disagreeing with their narcissistic parents has severe consequences. These parents often retaliate in some manner that punishes outspoken or demanding children, such as emotionally withdrawing from their child or becoming enraged when challenged. Children of narcissistic parents learn that passive compliance keeps the peace with their dysfunctional parent.
Vulnerable to Addictions
It is not surprising with all the compromises that children of narcissistic parents make that they become extremely vulnerable to addictions. This includes eating disorders, sexual acting out, alcohol or drug abuse, and overeating. These children have learned a long-term practice of suppressing their emotions. They go to excessive lengths to please others and frequently are made to feel like a failure when their parents are unhappy. Addictive behaviors become a convenient way to distract themselves from their internal distress or pain.
Children of narcissistic parents often benefit from counseling. Through the support of a trained professional, they can learn to listen and respect their own psychological and interpersonal needs. They can also get the necessary support to begin to define and maintain healthier interpersonal boundaries with their narcissistic parent(s).
For more information on finding a mental health specialist, please visit How to Find a Good Therapist . It also might be helpful to read more about narcissistic parenting in Dr. Meier’s book, You Might Be a Narcissist If. . . How to Identify Narcissism in Ourselves and Others and What We Can Do About It. ( Paul Meier, PhD, Lisa Charlebois, L.C.S.W., Cynthia Munz, L.M.F. T., Langdon Street Press, 2009)