How a Parent’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder Affects Their Child

How a Parent’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder Affects Their Child

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William E Krill Jr
I am a licensed professional counselor. My practice focus is in general counseling, depression, anxiety, couples, custody issues, and LGBTQ.

The NPD Parent

Young children of a mother or father who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder are genuine victims of their parent and the disorder—as much as any child who lives through life with an addicted parent, or one guilty of physical or sexual abuse. The narcissistic parent abuses in an intensely subtle and devious fashion: they are guilty of severe emotional and mental abuse, and no one outside of the family would ever suspect anything wrong. These child victims quite often go unnoticed, untreated, and unassisted by other adults outside of the immediate family. This is due to the nature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The overriding behavioral sign of a NPD parent is their almost total lack of concern for their child. On the surface, and in public, the NPD parent is often unnoticeable as an abusive person. Inside the family, there is no doubt for the child that there is something very, very wrong. In some cases, this parent will begin to ‘heat up’ and make mistakes that bring negative attention to them and shine a light on their NPD, but in most cases, the abuse continues for years unabated.

One might consider NPD a kind of ‘spectrum’ with varying degrees of disorder and behavioral inconsistency. While some NPD adults express their disorder in a fairly mild fashion (think the beauty pageant mom or the dad who pushes his child to do a sport they do not want to do), others are experts at hiding their abuse and are able to manipulate others at will (including teachers, ministers, police, lawyers, and even judges).

Due to the disorder, NPD parents have little to no regard for their child’s individuality, ambitions, or emotions. This parent is quite simply all about themselves, all the time. This is a very difficult concept for most normal people to grasp; it is hard to relate to a parent who has no genuine concern for their child other than how that child can enhance the parent’s image, or how the child can be drawn from as a source of ‘narcissistic supply’. People with NPD consistently look for and groom people by using charm, false interest, and lavish gifts to get them to commit to a relationship. If they have a child, they have a built-in ego-supplier. An individual with NPD absolutely needs to see reactions in the people around them in order to reassure themselves of an identity. And they do not really care what kind of reaction it is, as long as they get a reaction. So the NPD parent will rapidly transform from the most charming, loving, and giving parent on the planet to the most enraged, unfeeling, cruel parent imaginable (think of the film Mommy Dearest).

Young children of a parent who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder are genuine victims of their parent and the disorder—as much as any child who lives through life with an addicted parent, or a parent guilty of physical or sexual abuse.

The Child’s Experience of NPD Abuse

People complain about spoiled children, but children really have very little power over their parents. This is even more true in the case of a child with an NPD parent, since that child intimately knows the unpredictability, implied threats, and intense rages that the parent demonstrates. The child learns early in life to ‘duck and cover’ by constantly appeasing the childish whims (that change with the breeze) of the NPD parent. The child becomes terrified that if they speak to anyone outside of the family about their very ill parent, no one will listen or believe them, since the NPD parent is a master of the ‘false face’ in public. Secondarily, the child is terrified that their complaint will get back to the NPD parent, and they will pay a high penalty.

Narcissistic mothers and fathers elicit intense fear in the child in several ways.

  • First, they may tell the child that they have ‘eyes and ears everywhere’ and the child can hide nothing from them. One father of three little girls gave them necklaces that he told them they had to wear at all times, because he had special powers and could see everything the children did through the necklaces. They were terrified to keep them on, and terrified to take them off.
  • Another way that NPD parents incite fear is to make either vague or direct threats to the child that the parent will abandon them, or that the parent will not be able to live if the child is not compliant to the parent’s will. A child naturally loves and wants to please their parent; NPD parents can never be pleased and the child is never good enough.
  • Yet other NPD parents make it clear ‘between the lines’ that if the child should ever be disloyal to the parent, grave and dangerous things will happen, up to an including harm to their non-NPD parent or the child themselves.

The child victims of NPD parents are simply there to supply the parent with admiration and ego-boosting reassurance; the parent needs the child to adore and agree with them always, something that the child gets very skilled at doing when in the presence of the parent. Away from the parent, these children are often depressed, anxious, and morose, as if they have simply given up on being a normal child. While some school counselors or coaches may notice that the child is having difficulty, they may never suspect it is due to NPD abuse, especially if they know the child’s NPD parent. Should the child tell the adult about the parent, the child will instantly be suspected as having some innate emotional or mental health problem; this plays right into the hands of the NPD parent when the school counselor calls for a meeting. The child is then caught in an impossible trap: the child gets diagnosed with the mental health problem.

The personality disordered parent can slip up sometimes, letting their real character show. This might happen when the parent, intent on what they want, creates an embarrassing public scene with the child present. In fact, they will at times use their children as levers in public situations to get others to back down or give them what they want. The witnesses to such public rages will give in just to save the child the intense embarrassment that their parent is willing to put them through.

The child learns that they must set aside the things that are important to them or the things that they would like to do, because it is only what the NPD parent wants that counts. The parent always places their own desires and needs before the child’s, often cloaking this fact with an altruistic statement that the parent is just doing what is best for the child. The child has no real choice not to buy into their parent’s plan for them, even if the child has no desire or any real talent for the activity that the parent is forcing them to do. Emotional blackmail is a given. On the other hand, some NPD parents will simply ignore any achievement that the child makes on their own, and may even belittle the achievement in private while taking full credit for the child’s accomplishment in public, if the accomplishment reflects the NPD parent as Parent of the Year.

In private, NPD parents will present to the child as either over-controlling, totally neglectful and angry, or overly kind, giving, and generous. These presentations can alternate in rapid fashion, leaving the child constantly emotionally off balance. This is, in essence, a form of mind control and torture well known to survivors of POW camps. So the child is faced with a very narrow choice of how to respond: they can choose to submit in total compliance (and so lose their identity), wait patiently until they turn eighteen and then get as far from the parent as possible and try to find healing, or through constant exposure and training, become narcissistic adults themselves. The latter child may be treated like a little prince or princess by the parent, at the expense of any other siblings who have chosen a different path of coping.

Narcissistic Injury refers to any threat (whether real or imagined) that the narcissist perceives is being done to their grandiose false-self in any given moment. With every narcissistic injury experienced by the narcissist’s fragile ego, they will exhibit a reflexive urge towards a violent rage.

Maturing and Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents

The normal development of children dictates that they begin to individuate and differentiate as they grow, meaning that they blossom into their unique selves. This normal progress gains momentum as they get older. The NPD parent begins to be very uncomfortable when the child begins to assert their individuality or independence; the parent perceives this as betrayal, disloyalty, or disobedience. Children often realize their parent’s illness fairly early in grade school when they have the chance to compare other children’s parents to their own. As the child gets older, the stress in the family system may grow to intolerable levels.

Some NPD parents can develop a reputation in the community as difficult, at least, and at worst be considered unpredictable and dangerous. NPDs may ‘heat up’ and pose real danger because they view their children (and spouse) as possessions that they are privileged to dispose of should they wish to do so. Many cases of domestic violence and murder can be pinned to an NPD individual.

The truth is, narcissistic parents don’t have children because they want to nurture and guide their offspring through life; they have children so that they have an automatic, built-in relationship in which they have power, one in which the narcissist can write the rules without any checks and balances.

— Seth Meyers, Psy.D.

Separating From an NPD Parent

Even if the non-NPD parent is able gain the upper hand and find assistance to extract themselves from the relationship, the courts often support standard custody agreements. The child, fearing the narcissistic parent, might not speak to counselors, lawyers, or judges about the situation. The disordered parent has proven over and over again that they will not be discovered for what they are, nor will they be prevailed upon or held accountable. The child has no faith that these adults can help. In fact, the narcissistic parent often ‘plays’ the legal system so well that lawyers and judges are taken in and believe the non-NPD parent is exaggerating due to the emotions of the divorce situation. Indeed, the accounts that the non-NPD parent gives of the NPD parent often sound so ‘off the wall’ that a judge has a hard time believing them. The child believes that there is no one in the world that can help them from the narcissistic parent, so will support them publicly.

Clinical counselors are always very hesitant—if not completely avoiding of—treating children involved in custody cases when a parent is perceived to have NPD. Most clinicians will only very rarely publicly identify a person as having a personality disorder, lest the narcissist turns their full wrath on the counselor (meaning hauling them into court to testify or, more often, harass them about their work, competency, etc.). Once again, the narcissistic parent does not really care about the child or what the child needs in terms of therapeutic support, only that the narcissistic parent might be able to use the counselor against the non-NPD parent and make themselves look better in court.

Judicial Intervention

Ultimately, true intervention for the child can only come from the court system, as this is the only institution that a narcissist respects and fears. Again, the problem is that judges often miss the fact that one of the parents they are dealing with has this personality disorder. In addition, it is often very difficult to demonstrate emotional and mental abuse, since the nature of the relationship with the NPD parent prohibits the child from speaking honestly to the judge, and the non-NPD parent is most assuredly being considered biased. Since few, if any, counselors are willing to testify about the abuse and place themselves in the path of a narcissist, the court is left to discern these things on its own. By learning the many characteristic behavioral clues that NPDs inevitably leave in a wide trail behind them, custody courts can begin to identify and then make valuable interventions for children with NPD parents.

If a court were to provide for a moratorium on the child’s contact with the NPD parent, it could give the child enough time to begin the healing process and gain courage to enter counseling treatment in a fashion that can be genuinely helpful. In addition, the court would need to provide greater protection for the counselor from being called into court and testifying (which effectively destroys the therapeutic relationship with the child into the future) so that they can do their jobs and help the child recover and generate coping mechanisms for dealing with their NPD parent more effectively.

How NPD Will Effect Divorce and Custody

In a nutshell: Expect a fight. Because in order to stoke their grandiose and inflated ego, the narcissist will enter divorce court and custody battles intending to win at any cost. A no-holds-barred, dirty, bloody battle will be unpleasant for everyone, but especially for the child who will be manipulated and used as a pawn to win and inflict maximum emotional damage.

It might help your case if you kept a journal documenting exchanges or a folder full of emails and screengrabs of text messages. Get an attorney who has experience with personality disorders and knows what to expect.

Narcissistic Parent Checklist: Signs of Being Raised by a NPD

  1. Children of NPD parents blame themselves. Instead of blaming the parent, a loving child might take on the responsibility for the negativity and sacrifice their self esteem. They begin to believe it’s their own fault their parent does not love them, or they hold out hope that by changing themselves, they might earn their parent’s love.
  2. They feel invisible. These children may have no sense of themselves or what they want or need. The parent’s grandiosity eclipsed the child so completely that it resulted in a person who has no idea who they really are as an individual.
  3. They become so acclimated to narcissism they may either choose narcissistic relationships or avoid relationships entirely. The neglect, abuse, rage, lack of empathy, and emotional games can be so overwhelming they can make a child grow to expect that kind of treatment in all their relationships, develop insecure attachments, or to distrust people and abandon emotional intimacy altogether.
  4. Narcissism breeds codependency, care-taking, low self esteem, guilt, or more narcissism. These children often adapt by either erasing themselves, sacrificing their own needs, developing PTSD, or joining the ‘winning’ side and becoming narcissists themselves.

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