Until you have a child, you never really know what kind of parent you or your partner will be. But raising kids tends to clarify a person’s psychology, letting both strengths and weaknesses shine through. Because, whether kids are triumphant or having a tantrum, parents have a choice of reaction somewhere between selfishness and selflessness. However, for narcissistic parents the reaction will only ever be selfish in the extreme. Everything their child does is a reflection of who they are as a person, and the outcomes don’t tend to be particularly healthy. So how do you spot a narcissistic parent, or recognize those traits in yourself?
Just Narcissism or a Disorder?
It’s important to understand that there are parents who have sub-clinical narcissistic tendencies and those who have a mental health condition known as narcissistic personality disorder or NPD. The disorder is more prevalent in men than women, but is exceedingly rare, affecting maybe 1-percent of the U.S. population. So while the chances of parenting with or being raised by someone who has NPD are vanishingly small they are not nil.
“Parents with NPD often have a hard time attuning to the needs of their children,” says William Schroeder, a licensed professional counselor and co-owner of Just Mind Counseling. He grew up with an NPD parent and notes that those who suffer with the disorder often use narcism as a coping mechanism for their own chaotic upbringing. “The result tends to be an inflated ego and an inability to sit with their own emotions. They require others to cater to them and they expect to get what they want.”
Other Narcissistic Parent Traits
Subclinical narcissistic parents will likely share some of the same traits as NPD parents. One common attribute is that they will be unable to separate their own self-worth from their child’s achievements, according to Dr. Laurie Hollman, psychoanalyst and author of Are You Living with a Narcissist?
“Such a parent is insatiable for admiration and an audience that regularly is full of recognition to compensate for a deep and unconscious sense of inferiority,” Hollman says. And that requirement for praise remains even if the parent has done nothing to deserve it. “If they sense any criticism or even minor slight they might show undue rage at family members.”
Narcissistic parents will occupy their children’s lives. They expect perfection but often fail to give their children recognition of their achievements, instead choosing to take credit for the work their child does. The result is a parent who is both overbearing and controlling while being emotionally distant and stingy with positive regard.
How Do Narcissistic Parents Affect Children
It’s not necessarily easy to recognize a child who is being raised by a narcissist. In fact, the inherent behavior of narcissistic parents can effectively mask the serious issues that their children face, according to clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus.
“It can be hard for people outside the family to spot, because the child often looks well-put-together, has a great wardrobe and exceptional grades, and may still complain about the parent to others,” Daramus says. “The child then gets the message that they’re ungrateful for everything they have, when the truth is that they’re being manipulated and possibly emotionally abused to satisfy the parent’s narcissism.”
That dissonance between what a child experiences and people perceive can result in a deep sense of anxiety. Along with this anxiety can come depression and a low self-esteem. In some cases children may follow the parents example and start seeking and relying on others for validation, taking on narcissistic traits themselves.
But, as a child of a narcissistic parent, William Schroder notes that poor outcomes aren’t guaranteed. “There are many different paths within this. I can say that there is hope but it involves work in therapy,” he says. “You must build good self-awareness, build healthy boundaries, become mindful of your needs, and process how you got to where you are and where you want to go.”
In fact, therapy is the best solution for all involved in families of narcissistic parents. But convincing a parent with these tendencies to seek help can be extremely hard. So focus on the child’s mental health should be the critical concern. Parents who believe they are raising a child with a narcissistic partner should seek help, for both themselves and their child. There is hope.
“You can’t fix them but you can learn to live a healthier way of life,” Schroder says. “And you can change how you interact with them.”