During a recent, socially distanced, coffee date, a friend asked how my work had been over lockdown. I alluded to my residual fear for those dependent young people who were holed up with a narcissistic or abusive parent, with no school or work to escape to for respite. The conversation steered itself to why narcissists have children in the first place, when parenting is the epitome of selflessness. We spoke about parental narcissistic rage, which can arise when the child develops an identity of their own.
My friend shared a poignant moment she had once had with someone, who said that they adored their children for them not for themself. For me, this felt like an opportune time to think about putting pen to paper (or even fingers to keyboard!) to explore the theme of narcissistic parenting and give some thought to how the therapist might best work with this client group, which can present with a multitude of complex issues.
Locked down with the parents
While misery from recent lockdowns has been widespread, for there are few people who have come out of them totally unscathed, the suffering of young people has been particularly intense. And I am not talking about thwarted plans, disrupted routines and missed friends. The purpose of this article is to highlight the issue of young people living with a narcissistic parent or parents, with additional focus on the impact of lockdowns. Although it is not exclusively about lockdowns, it is important, in our therapeutic work, to be mindful of its possible implications, given that pre-existing family difficulties will undoubtedly have been amplified. Overnight, places that were safe havens for the children of narcissists – school, friends’ houses, clubs – were off-limits. Cue the merging of safety and misery. Take Gemma, whose ‘unconventional’ mother, Crystal, rebuffing COVID-19 regulations, threw parties at home while Gemma studied. Crystal ridiculed her requests for quiet, telling her to ‘Stop being selfish as mums need fun.’
To varying degrees, it can be damaging, paralysing and traumatic for a young person living with a narcissistic parent. For them, love is conditional upon the child meeting the parent’s needs and being an extension of them, rather than a separate human being. Children challenging this risk myriad ‘punishments’. As Dr Karyl McBride, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author, states, ‘Narcissism is a spectrum disorder, so think of it as a continuum ranging from low-level traits that we all have to some degree to a full-blown personality disorder. The higher the level of traits, the more damage gets done to children’.1
The narcissistic parent can impact their child enormously, for example, shaming them when showing signs of vulnerability or exploiting them to fulfil their own needs, as demonstrated in some ‘typical’ character types, as I will explain.
Mini-me with caveats: love me, love my child
One feature of narcissistic parenting is the insistence on the child being a credit to their parents and to being like them. A narcissistic parent becomes outraged if their offspring chooses a life path that is different from theirs or outshines them. The narcissistic parent demands their child be the best, most successful and most beautiful, but should they outshine their parent at anything, they can become resentful and resort to humiliating and shaming their child. When Archie was born, his artist father James was eager to recreate himself in his son. When Archie was four, James bought him his first art set. The child was hooked, and his talent grew, which James took credit for. At 18, Archie accepted a place at a prestigious art school. James had not enjoyed such success and realising his son was outperforming him, rapidly lost interest in Archie’s art, ridiculing it publicly. He was always ‘too busy’ to attend Archie’s exhibitions.
The carer: don’t leave me
There is an implicit expectation that the child will ‘take care’ of’ the narcissistic parent. When they are young, parentification may occur. This is when the child must be available to the parent, but the parent is unavailable to their child, using them as an emotional crutch. When 13-year-old George’s father left the family, George was expected to look after his mother, Fiona, adopting the role of husband, confidante and emotional dumping ground. When children unwittingly adopt these roles, it can result in them feeling a lack of emotion and nurturance. For some, it hampers emotional development, depriving them of healthy role models associated with boundaries, personal connections and behaviours.
The competitor: anything you can do, I can do better
Grace’s mother, Jackie, resented her daughter’s youth and beauty. On her 16th birthday, she took her to a mother-and-daughter makeover and photoshoot, which made them look more like siblings than parent and child. Jackie immediately uploaded the photo to her social media, basking in her friends’ flattering comments, including one that suggested Jackie might be the younger of the pair. Instead of it being Grace's day, her birthday turned into a celebration of Jackie’s role as mum of a 16-year-old daughter.
Working it all out
Having worked out early on that their parents’ focus is their own fulfilment, narcissists’ children realise that their role is to validate their parents’ existence. They learn to equate their parents’ happiness with their own, and they are expected to be devoted, loyal and grateful for everything their parents give them. The child’s emotional wellbeing is at the mercy of their parents’ whims. This, in turn, can leave the child living with uncertainty, fear and anxiety, and such behaviours can have the cumulative effect of engendering other psychological reactions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later in life. Narcissists’ children can internalise intense shame, which they then turn into anger at themselves for not living up to parental expectations. And yet, because narcissists believe they’re perfect, they maintain that they are doing their best, and any resistance from their child is deemed ‘ungrateful’.
It is worth noting at this juncture, some of the repercussions that therapists could encounter, and how these might manifest themselves in the work.
Lack of trust: from a young age, narcissists’ children learn to suppress their feelings and not to confide in others. Trust and intimacy in their relationships are sacrificed, at the cost of self-protection and safety. It is important for the therapist to acknowledge this early in the work, reminding the young person (and themselves) that if there are trust issues in other relationships in their life, they are not suddenly going to be comfortable building one in therapy. It takes patience, on both sides of the therapeutic relationship, and the therapist’s job is to create a safe space where the young person can learn what a trusting relationship might look like.
Next in this issue
People-pleasing: when a child is continually addressing their parents’ needs, valuing themselves only in relation to how they make others feel becomes their modus operandi. Keen to be a ‘good client’ in therapy, and one who is ‘making progress’, some young people might be inclined to tell their therapist what they think they want to hear, to make them feel that they are ‘doing a good job’. This might involve them enthusiastically telling the therapist how much better they are feeling, or how much therapy is helping them, even when these things aren’t true.
Poor recognition of values, wants and needs: when a young person’s life is lived as a reflection of their parents’ values, wants and needs, knowing what’s important to them becomes a mystery, to the point that they cannot trust their own feelings. For many, paralysing self-doubt can ensue. Parental expectations of a particular type of future might be all the young person has ever known, and the idea of not entering the profession chosen by their parents could seem inconceivable. Working through alternative possibilities in therapy, to acknowledge their authentic needs, wants and the possibility of an independent future, could seem daunting, overwhelming and unfamiliar.
Unlovability: narcissists’ children can grow up feeling they are never as good as their parents, absorbing along the way the sense that they will ‘never amount to much’ or are unworthy of other people’s love. In reference to her early years, which saw a paucity of parental unconditional love and affection, Jane Fonda, actor, activist and writer, states, ‘I feel like when I was an adolescent, and felt so unworthy of love and so empty, I moved outside of myself.’2 This feeling will be undoubtedly familiar to many children of narcissists.
It is unsurprising that children of narcissists often end up in relationships that are, to varying degrees, abusive, and in which they feel that love needs to be ‘earned’. They tend not to be in touch with what they need, so are unable to express this. Many will go on to replicate the dysfunctionality of home and unwittingly seek partners and friends who share the same traits as their parent. So, part of the work in therapy is to examine why the young person is making choices which perpetuate the cycle and unwittingly creating a life for themselves in which they feel unlovable. Supporting the client to accept that they are unlikely to have a healthy relationship with a narcissistic parent does not mean they will suddenly learn to stop seeking their approval. This takes work. And time. But explorations such as these can lead to the formation of healthy relationships, first with the therapist and then with other people.
Guilt: can be a heavy burden, even when the young person is in the throes of healing. As well as being made to feel guilty by narcissistic parents, societal and cultural messages reinforce the expectation that children should ‘obey’ their parents, never abandon them, particularly in their dotage, and that ‘family is everything’. Such beliefs only serve to add to an already heavy burden.
Sometimes, guilt can extend more broadly into the therapy. For example, when the young person is feeling unworthy of the therapist’s time and undivided attention (particularly if they are aware of the enormous waiting lists), they might express this by obliquely suggesting that there are plenty of other people out there who need therapy more than they do and that they (the client) are undeserving of professional care and nurturing.
Fostering enlightenment and change in the therapy room
So, how can we work effectively with clients whose needs go unmet by their parents? Direct reparation is unlikely, but we can sit with the client trying to make sense of why vulnerability is so hard to express, encouraging exploration and adoption of certain potentially effective tools. For example:
Boundaries: narcissists usually have little respect for others’ personal boundaries, and most narcissists’ children struggle to set boundaries. Consequently, many have poor self-worth. In order to heal from this, the young person needs to learn to create and stick to firm boundaries, knowing when to walk away, both literally and metaphorically.
Detachment and expectations:
an important part of the healing process is recognising that their parent is a narcissist and that they (the young person) are suffering. Acknowledging this helps some young people to create emotional detachment and the possibility of perceiving their parents as flawed human beings. Unfortunately, given that most narcissists see themselves as blameless, few, if any, wish to change. It goes without saying that it’s the young person’s expectations of their parents that need managing, as well as recognition of their limitations.
Looking for answers
Most importantly, when working with narcissists’ children, acknowledging other key people in their life who can meet their needs by hearing, validating and containing them (such as wider family, friends and teachers), is vital. Learning how to access their help can be really empowering. A word of warning: when the therapist offers the client the facilitative conditions of unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence, they should be mindful that these could feel alien to them. So, working within the client’s frame of reference and treading carefully is paramount. Hopefully, over time, the young person can begin experimenting with vulnerability in therapy and learn that they are not the cause of their shame. It can be challenging work, with some clients ending therapy suddenly, in part due to overwhelm. Patience is therefore essential, as helping young people to find a way to nurture their authenticity can take us on a long and bumpy road together. But given what we know
about treading carefully and slowly, for fear of overwhelm with all young people in therapy, how can we know when a young person is presenting with damage born out of narcissistic parenting, rather than less frequent and less destructive parent-centric behaviours? Such behaviours might include ‘showing off’ their children to others, harbouring a desire that they make them proud and having high expectations of them. What separates these behaviours from those of the narcissistic parent are the perpetual tendencies to view their child’s existence simply in terms of how much they serve their own needs and to deny them the opportunity they deserve to be independent, unwittingly or unconcernedly. Spending time locked down with narcissistic parents may well have provided space for the young person to begin noticing those metaphorical cobwebs. And the therapist’s job is to shine a light, with their young client, into these cobwebs and start making sense of them. To end with another quote from Jane Fonda, ‘Parents are supposed to give the child back to herself with love. If they’ve got duct tape over their eyes because of narcissism, it doesn’t happen.3
1 1 McBride K. The real effect of narcissistic parenting on children. Narcissists raise children who suffer from crippling self-doubt. www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love/201802/the-real-effect-narcissisticparenting-children (accessed 10 June 2021).
2 https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/jane_fonda_468018 (accessed 3 July 2021).
3 https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/jane_fonda_467996 (accessed 10 June 2021).