Narcissistic personality disorder is a severe mental health condition that can cause turmoil for the affected individuals and their families. Adult children of narcissistic parents can experience the effects of the relationship even after moving away or cutting off contact. If your parent has narcissistic personality disorder, you should understand what the condition is, how it affects parenting, and what you can do to recover.
What Is a Narcissist?
Narcissistic personality disorder NPD is a mental disorder that is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, and a need for admiration. Although the disorder causes an outward appearance of extreme confidence, people with NPD typically have very low self-esteem and are highly sensitive to criticism.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an individual must show at least five of the following traits to be diagnosed with NPD:
- Grandiose sense of self-importance
- Fixation on fantasies of control, success, or brilliance
- Belief that he or she is special or exceptional and should only associate with others who are special or exceptional
- Need for excessive admiration and attention
- Sense of entitlement
- Shows interpersonal exploitative or oppressive behavior
- Lack of empathy
- Resentment or envy toward others or the belief that others feel resentment or envy toward himself or herself
- Arrogant or conceited behavior
NPD can affect every area of one’s life and functioning. People with this disorder may struggle at work or school, and they may not be able to create or maintain meaningful friendships. Family relationships can be especially difficult because partners and children of people with NPD are often witness to the worst of the behaviors.
What Are Narcissistic Parents Like?
Because self-importance and lack of empathy are two of the cornerstones of NPD, a narcissistic parent is usually focused more on himself or herself than on the child. A narcissistic parent denies their child independence even into adulthood because they rely on the child to serve their own needs.
People with NPD can react strongly to criticism. If they feel hurt, offended, or insulted by their child, they may withdraw or insult them back. This leaves the child wondering what they did wrong and trying desperately to appease the parent to win back their love.
Manipulation is another common sign of a narcissistic parent. The parent may try to make the child feel guilty for being ungrateful or for not performing well enough. Some parents force their children to adhere to their wishes by threatening to withdraw love, financial support, or other resources.
A narcissistic parent may also criticize, insult, or belittle their child if they see the child as competition. If they fear that their child’s success will overshadow their own, they may go to great lengths to try to remain superior. People with narcissistic personality disorder are especially likely to do this to their adult children as they establish their own careers and families.
Sometimes, a narcissistic parent may try to live through their children to compensate for their own unfulfilled needs or unmet goals. They may exaggerate their child’s skills or praise them for qualities that they don’t have, which can put too much pressure on the child to be perfect.
Damages of Being Raised by a Narcissist
Unfortunately, adult children of a narcissistic parent often struggle with the effects of this toxic relationship. Research has found that having a narcissistic parent greatly increases the risk of developing depression and anxiety. Adult children of narcissists who don’t have a diagnosed mental health disorder often still have issues with self-esteem and relationships.
One of the most common effects of being raised by a narcissist is chronic self-blame. Because children of narcissists are constantly blamed by their parent for every problem, they often internalize a sense of guilt that lasts into adulthood.
Relationships with a narcissistic parent can be inconsistent, volatile, and confusing. Adult children of narcissists may struggle to connect with friends or partners because they don’t feel secure in the relationship. They may feel intense anxiety about upsetting their friends or partners because they’re used to being berated or neglected for small mistakes.
Some people will avoid connection with others altogether if they believe that no one can be trusted. This extreme independence can start at a very young age, and it can prevent children of narcissists from ever finding meaningful, nurturing friendships.
Recovering From a Narcissistic Parent
Being raised by a narcissist can take a serious toll on your mental health, sense of self-worth, and relationships with others. However, it is always possible to recover from a toxic family relationship.
The first step toward healing is recognizing and acknowledging the narcissistic behaviors. When your parent’s behavior is all you’ve ever known, it may not be easy to accept that their words and actions are not normal. Reading about narcissism, speaking to experts, and educating yourself on the signs of the disorder can help you recognize your parent’s unhealthy behaviors.
It’s also important to work through feelings of grief and anger about the relationship. Feeling angry toward your narcissistic parent is normal, and safely processing the anger through crying, talking to a trusted friend, or speaking to a therapist can help you recover move forward. You can and should grieve the love and support you did not receive from your parent. Most importantly, remember that the unhealthy relationship was not your fault.
To give yourself space to recover from the toxic relationship, you may have to set firm boundaries with your narcissistic parent and with other family members. Seeking out healthier relationships is a valuable step toward healing, too. It takes time to trust people after growing up with a narcissistic parent, but forming healthy and safe relationships will help you feel love and support away from your parents.
Healing from the experience of being raised by a narcissist is challenging, but many people have successfully recovered from their unhealthy family relationships. Working with a mental health professional is critical during this process. A therapist can help you understand the effects that your narcissistic parent has had on your life and will provide a safe and supportive environment for you to work through your thoughts and emotions. Your therapist can also work with you to come up with actionable steps to set boundaries, develop coping skills, and build healthy relationships.
Dr. Howard Samuels is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. He has decades of experience with clinical mental health counseling for individuals and families. If you need support while you recover from your relationship with a narcissistic parent, reach out to Dr. Samuels today.