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Raised By Narcissists? Here Are the Signs And How to Break the Cycle

Many adults don't realize they were raised by narcissists until they are well into adulthood. The ramifications can be passed down through generations.

Were you raised by narcissists? Growing up with a parent who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) — which is a disorder in which a person has an inflated sense of self-importance, is likely derived from genetic and environmental factors, and is more commonly seen in men — can be difficult, and many children raised by those with NPD struggle to maintain healthy relationships as they grow older and shed the unhealthy one that was modeled for them. 

“Narcissistic parents view their children as extensions of themselves — experiencing emotional separation or boundaries as a rejection,” says Dr. Dana Dorfman, PhD, psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast “2 Moms on the Couch. As such, people might have been raised by narcissists if they struggled to separate themselves from their parents emotionally, or struggled to gain their empathy when going through the basic struggles of growing up. Narcissistic parents are self-involved, can view their children as possessions, and struggle to see their kid’s actions as anything more than an extension of themselves. 

If their parents were extremely sensitive to criticism, either put their children on a pedestal or demeaned them with barely any in-between of treatment, or if kids felt they had to compromise their sense of self in order to receive love from their parents, they were likely raised by narcissists, says Dr. Dorfman. 

Because children only have their parents as models for what is normal, adult behavior, impressionable kids struggle to stand their ground against parents who exhibit extreme self-involvement, and might not even know that their childhood wasn’t normal. Kids raised by narcissists can struggle to empathize with others, have a sense of entitlement, an exaggerated sense of self importance, the tendency to either idealize or devalue oneself or others, have nonexistent emotional boundaries, and insist on receiving others’ admiration. These behaviors often show up in small, manipulative moments, and for kids who are growing up with their parents exhibiting this behavior, they can believe it’s normal because, quite frankly, these are the only parents they know.

But it’s not. As the children of narcissists grow up and start their own relationships and families, they might struggle to find a positive role model in parenting and think that the way that they were raised was normal. That’s not the case. Here. Dr. Dorfman speaks to us about what habits children raised by narcissists need to break in order to be a good parent.

How Those Raised By Narcissistic Parents Might Struggle

Children raised by narcissists might struggle with maintaining healthy relationships with romantic partners, friends, and children, as they grow into adulthood. “They are conditioned to be ‘pleasers,’ having mastered the art of attuning themselves to the emotional needs of others, often at their own expense,” says Dr. Dorfman. 

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While this might make them an attentive and caring partner or parent, these behaviors often come at the expense of their own sense of self and true, emotional happiness. They can also make for an emotionally volatile environment, as children of narcissists struggle to understand emotional boundaries between them and others, something they were not taught as children. People raised by narcissists often have low-self worth and will bend over backwards in order to improve their sense of self. Chronic feelings of emptiness and compromised feelings of self-worth are also common. 

Those raised by narcissists also often engage in “hiding” parts of themselves from their partner or spouse that they felt they had to hide from their parents growing up, and they likely experience love as “conditional,” per Dorfman. In practice, that means that small screw-ups might feel like the death knell of a relationship for someone raised by narcissists — on either side of the line. These beliefs can derail an otherwise happy relationship if not dealt with. 

So how do you deal with these issues in a healthy way? Those raised by narcissists are healthiest when the following steps have been taken. 

They Work Through Their Childhood Before Having Children

The most insidious part of being raised by parents with NPD is that the cycle of narcissistic abuse can repeat itself, even if the one raised by NPD parents doesn’t have NPD themselves. 

If one has not worked through or examined their own upbringing, it is possible that they will replicate some of their parents’ parenting style — making love conditional, viewing children as extensions of themselves, difficulties maintaining or creating boundaries, relying on their children to meet their emotional needs, and difficulty empathizing or validating children’s feelings,” says Dr. Dorfman.

If an adult was raised by parents with NPD, going to therapy before having children is an absolute must. Otherwise, they might pass down to them the traits they struggle with themselves, and the symptoms of narcissism will reverberate for generations, affecting their children’s relationships with others and themselves.

They Don’t Just Stop at Therapy

Therapy is, of course, extremely helpful and strongly recommended for people who were raised by parents with NPD, but therapy only goes so far. Outside of the quiet room with the couch, parents need to take real steps and practice setting boundaries and checking themselves daily in order to ensure that they don’t create the same environment their parents did, wittingly or not, for their children and for their spouse. “Self-awareness and insight are key ingredients to making change and stopping the cycle from repeating itself,” says Dorfman. 

They Remind Themselves That Their Child Is Not An Extension of Them

Dorfman notes that parents need to remind themselves of the fact that their child is separate from them, and value that difference. Kids will do disappointing things, and that’s not a reflection on mom and dad. They will choose different paths than mom and dad, and that’s still not a reflection on their skills as parents. They might even make horrific mistakes — that are theirs to make. In other words, parents need to remind themselves that their kids aren’t an extension of them. Parents also need to practice empathizing and validating their child’s feelings — without demeaning them, devaluing them, or the entire situation about them. After all, per Dorfman, narcissism often plays itself out in disregarding others feelings if they differ from one’s own. This is an important cycle to break. 

They Seek Emotional Fulfillment In Other Relationships

A common behavior of those with NPD is to put almost all of their emotional stock in their children. This leads to kids feeling pressured to please their parents, hide their failures, and not be emotionally honest with them about their desires and needs. This is obviously a lot for children to go through — and parents who are trying to break the cycle of narcissistic abuse need to lay off their kids from time to time. “Parents should develop open communication and ongoing fine tuning with a co-parent or spouse,” says Dorfman. “They can get emotional needs met from adult relationships — and not burden their children with them.” 

They Remind Themselves That Rejection From Others Is Not Cause for Shame

Those with NPD or those raised by people with NPD often struggle with rejection or emotional separation from others. This is what makes parenting an especially difficult prospect, as kids begin to emotionally separate themselves from their parents — and even reject their judgment and guidance — as they grow older. Parents who were raised by narcissists need to remind themselves that this rejection is not only developmentally appropriate, but not about them, and therefore not something to feel ashamed about. Even when the rejection is about them (say, in the event of a divorce or a crumbling friendship) they still need to remind themselves that they are enough, and should not be ashamed of who they are, per Dorfman. 

They View Their Child Through The Developmental Stages

One way parents can break the cycle of narcissistic abuse is to view their child’s behavior through the developmentally appropriate stages. When children start to become more defiant around puberty, parents who struggle with boundaries and understanding that their child’s actions are not a reflection of them can remind themselves that puberty makes kids become little monsters. These small reminders will make even the toughest of developmental stages more easygoing for parents who can realize it’s not about them — it’s literally biology. 

They Apologize When They’ve Done Wrong

Parents who want to break the bonds of abuse apologize when they’ve overstepped their boundaries, says Dorfman. One thing that parents with NPD don’t often do is admit when they’ve reacted disproportionately to their children’s actions or apologize when they’ve committed wrongdoing. They often put the blame on others. One of the most powerful ways to distinguish yourself from your own childhood is to apologize for the wrongdoing you’ve done, and admit your imperfections to your kids. This is huge, per Dorfman.