What if you were told that the person who is supposed to be the most important in your life, the one who is supposed to love and protect you, was actually someone who caused you a lot of pain? This is the reality for children of narcissists. Narcissistic parenting can leave children feeling confused and alone. They often struggle with self-esteem issues and have difficulty building healthy relationships. If you are a child of a narcissist, know that you are not alone.
What is narcissism?
Narcissism is generally known as an intense admiration for oneself. It can show up like someone who lacks empathy for other people but gets excited when those same people give compliments. They expect to be admired. It might look like fishing for methods to receive praise. In moments when praise isn't given--or they instead get criticism--they get angry. The exterior appears to be this impenetrable self-confidence that no one can challenge. However, once it is, its fragility and insecurity shines, often at the expense of the person who points it out.
Before we jump the gun and say narcissism is an extreme personality trait, we need to set the record straight: everyone is a little bit narcissistic. Hence, there are two types: normal narcissism and pathological narcissism. Normal narcissism doesn't usually harm anyone and can even help create a healthy self-image. Pathological narcissism can be a serious personality disorder that has major negative effects. It's characterized by a desire for controlling others while also having a lack of empathy for them. Even moreso, pathological narcissism can be broken down into two types: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism.
Grandiose narcissism is that traditional kind that we see: someone who is very extravagant and loud in their accomplishments or bids for praise. They tend to be more outwardly expressive and positive. Vulnerable narcissism is a quieter kind; someone might have big expectations and desires for praise but act very timid or insecure on the ourside. Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism, though, can show up as someone being hostile toward the person challenging their inflated self-esteem.
So, what does this have to do with parenting?
The Narcissistic Parent
Parents in general are known to influence the way we see ourselves, our relationships, and the world. When you add a parent who is interested in inflating themselves, who lacks empathy for their own child, but also has a fragile self-esteem, the world can feel confusing even into adulthood. Based on research conducted in 2020 by Määttä and Uusiautti, there are a few phrases by children of narcissists that stood out:
"Nothing I ever did was good enough."
A parent that focuses on their own praise is going to find it very difficult to praise others, even when it comes to their own child's accomplishments. A kiddo might be very excited or find passion in a hobby that is minimized over and over again. After many years of this, a child can internalize this as an adult and think that they are ungrateful and difficult rather than a normal kid who's learning what they like and who they are. A narcissistic parent will constantly see themselves as the final authority and always right without listening to their child, and expressing opinions to the parent is seen as arguing. As adults, children of narcissists have incredibly low self-esteem or believe that they are useless.
"I could never feel relaxed at home because I never knew what would make [my parent] angry."
A narcissistic parent might only focus on the things that a child is doing wrong and react explosively or by humiliating them. Children of narcissistic parents might do everything they can at home to try to keep their parent happy and still get scolded or told that what they're doing is not good enough. That cornerstone of lacking empathy, whether it's shown through warmth or love, can be very painful.
"[They] made me to be an accomplice with whatever reason."
Children of narcissistic parents might notice that even though they tried to find support outside of their parent, it wasn't allowed. They might not have even been allowed to tell others what was happening at home. Narcissistic parents often use their children to go and do things that they want done without any concern for how it will affect the child. This might look like a grandiose narcissist making their child lie to people about them or a vulnerable narcissist using their child as an emotional punching bag. If attention is given to others outside of the parent, it could mean trouble or punishment for the child. As adults with more awareness, narcissistic parents might say that they only remember good times and not the pain of their child.
"[They were] the master of finding someone to blame afterwards. Even showers of rain were [someone else's] fault. [They themselves] had no flaws."
In normal circumstances, taking the responsibility for someone's harm can mean doing what you can to make them feel better. Narcissistic parents may take this and run with it, demanding some sort of reparation for something no one can control (or something that was their own fault). This can make a child feel more dependent or indebted to their parent. As adults, it might make it hard to trust other people because of all the things they were told to think were dangerous. There might even be fears that others in their life might treat them the same way that their parents did.
"I didn't have a childhood."
This can be one of the most painful thoughts that arise. A child is so busy surviving a relationship with their parent or parents that they don't get to explore themselves, feel loved, or look back on memories from home that make them feel happy. Instead, they often have a lot of trauma and anxiety to process. As an adult, this can make it difficult to connect with other people or feel like they're good enough. They might not ever feel like they had a "home" to go back to.
Where hope lives
If you find yourself resonating with any of these phrases, we want to tell you a few things.
You were, and always have been, good enough. Despite what your parents told you, you were and are worthy. You are worthy of love, of gentleness, of compassion.
There is nothing wrong with you. You did not deserve a childhood where you didn't get to hear about all of the things you're doing well. Children are always learning, always growing, and there is no fault in that. There was nothing wrong with you learning, growing, and expressing yourself.
Not everything is your fault. We all have times in our lives where we mess up, but it is not your responsibility to hold your parents' mistakes. Their problems are theirs.
You deserved a childhood. You deserved a childhood full of love, gentleness, and warmth. You deserved parents who would cheer you on, show you kindness when you were hurting, and lifted you up when you were feeling low. We know our words don't take any of the pain away, but we hope you know you are not alone as we sit with you as you feel it.
Hope can mean talking to others who have the same experiences with narcissistic parents. We know, however, that it can be really hard to share the things that were not allowed to be spoken of in childhood. Cultured Space therapists can be there for you to look at the parts that are hurting and help you heal. If you're looking for extra support, reach out and schedule a free consultation to learn how we can start your healing journey.