Friday, November 18, 2011

Narcissism: Understanding the Effects of Narcissistic Parenting

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)

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  1. This is wonderfully informative and helpful. I am going to get this book.
    Thank you for exploring this in such detail

  2. Thank you! I am glad this article has been helpful. Dr. Meier's book is very informative. Later in this month I will list several other excellent reading resources on Narcissism.

  3. Thank you for such a life-changing information.I have immensely benefitted from it.

  4. Glad it has been helpful. I appreciate your kind comments.

  5. Great series, Kerry. I have a question: do children of narcissists tend to act more like narcissists, even if they are not one? Or do they act more like codependents?

    1. Great question!

      It depends.

      Some children behave more like co-dependents. They have learned that the only way to obtain approval and attention is by pleasing the narcissistic parent. This causes them to shelve their own dreams, desires, and opinions for the sake of the relationship.

      Then there are other children who begin to take on qualities of the narcissistic parent. They behave with the same callousness and grandiosity as their mother or father.

      Narcissists are often hypercritical of others. I think this is key factor in determining their children's future personality. Parents who conditionally love good behaving children can cause those children to become very concerned about pleasing others.

      However, parents who are critical of children who poorly represent them, such as in athletic, academics, or in other types of achievement, cause those kids to develop an inflated sense of ego, similar to their own. This is particularly true if the child is especially gifted or talented, and brings glory to himself and his narcissistic parent.

    2. What about my 10 year old nephew who's father has NPD. He is a mini version of his father and we fear he will be worse. He is a lying, manipulative, low self esteemed boy and has little character. We don't want our 5 year old daughter around him alone. He doesn't share and enjoys pushing and hurting her when nobody is around. He's a coward. We fear drugs and problems with the law later on in life. Will therapy be his only recourse?

    3. I understand your concern. I think your decision to supervision your daughter's contact with your nephew is very wise.

      With that said, it is very hard to determine the future course of a child since his development is in process. Much can happen to positively or negatively shape his personality. There is surprising research that suggests our hopes and beliefs about someone can actually impact their performance. So,I encourage you not to give up on this child.

      However, based on the information provided, counseling may be a very helpful outlet for this boy. As you mentioned, he may have a considerable amount of anger and insecurity, especially given the fact his father may have NPD.

      Don't underestimate the power of your relationship with him. You could offer a type of relationship with him that allows him to safely be himself.

      If you feel pulled to be actively involved in your nephew's life, consider doing one-on-one activities with him. This will encourage trust to build so that he can eventually openly share his joys, hopes, and fears with you.

  6. I appreciate the helpful information. I am just not around him enough as he is a 7 hour plane ride away. He comes for a week in the summer and we display discipline, respect to others, sharing, etc. He falls in line but when he's with other children he goes right back to his devious, selfish ways. This is all we can do in one week. I finally sent my sister in law an email regarding my concerns after ten years of not opening my mouth. I am sure you can understand over stepping your bounds with another family members child when you know they will get angry at you and tell you to mind your own business . Well, she appreciated my concerns and was not happy with some of the devious, lying stories I told her. She said he has been giving them trouble lately and she will work on him. So, my part is finished. I can't press on as I will upset her and them my wife will hear about it though my wife has mentioned his issues several times over the years. This boy is a function of neglect for the first few years of his life and then the next several years of giving him "stuff" and no discipline. Now, other children and society have to beat the brunt of this character less boy. I really am angry with the parents. They need an old fashioned scolding! Merry Christmas.

    1. Thanks for the update, Joe. Sounds like you have done what you can. It is at times like these that I lean heavily into my faith and pray.

      Thanks for the warm holiday wishes. Merry Christmas.

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