A child with a narcissistic personality disorder parent is raised in a lonely and highly stressful environment. Some of the characteristics of the NPD parent include being controlling, self-focused, impulsive, demanding, entitled, manipulative with the tendency to distort reality. Often the NPD parent is successful in his/her career but will have a very poor track record with regards to interpersonal relationships. They do not have the maturity to accept any responsibility for conflict or relationship difficulties. As a result they are often very masterful at gas-lighting, blaming and distorting. They must save face at all cost. Their moto is “My way or the highway.” When things go well in the family they take credit and when things go badly they blame someone else. Some NPD individuals can be so demanding that they become emotionally abusive or even physically abusive.
They often excel at work and pursue more than one college degree, they seek status or power in the community, purchase the best home and car money can buy, have an attractive partner and they are typically well dressed. Appearance is vital and their goal is to have others admire or envy them.
Young children typically idealize their parents until they begin to identify with their teachers and peers. Unfortunately the child with an NPD parent is not allowed to view that parent as anything but all knowing and all powerful. If the child makes a mistake or they do not idealize the NPD parent, the child will rejection. They live with conditional love. Furthermore, the child is viewed by the NPD parent as an extension of the parent and therefore the child must be “perfect.”
The NPD parent is focused primarily on themselves and are concerned with how the child will impact upon their status. Due to the overwhelming focus on self, the NPD parent typically lacks empathy for others including their child. As a result when the child excels the parent views this as a positive impact on how they, the parent are seen. Since all of us make mistakes as we learn, the child is taught that to fail or fall short on any task is a negative reflection on their parent. The young child does not understand that the parental expectations are unreasonable, or that their parent is behaving in an inappropriate and conditional manner. Instead the child will internalize the stress and feel responsible for upsetting their parent. The child of an NPD parent never feels good enough.
The NPD parent is often harsh, critical and even demeaning. If the child does not behave as they think they should there is an implied or sometimes stated rejection of the child. “No child of mine will get a “B” in his studies! You are just like your mother!” They blame the child and hold them to unreasonable expectations. The bottom line is this is extremely damaging to the child’s developing self-esteem. Typically parents are harder on their first born, which is made even more stressful when one of the parents is a NPD parent. Children do not realize that attempting to be perfect is a set up for failure. Unfortunately the child of the NPD will either succeed or fail. Failure results in an attack on their sense of self and/or rejection of their parent. Just as the Borderline Personality Parent will reject their child if the child is not totally loyal, the NPD parent will reject their child if they fail to make the parent look their best. If the child is perfect, and presents well, their parent will give them praise. If they are not, they may be replaced or rejected. Living with the potential for rejection and the harsh reality of a highly critical parent results in very anxious children.
How to help: Over time, the child raised by a NPD parent will figure out how impaired their parent is. By the time the child is old enough to recognize that their parent is not like other parents, the damage to their self-esteem has been done. As the child begins to separate in adolescence and will likely recognize the NPD parent’s limitations. During this process they may carry a significant degree or anger/hurt inflicted by the NPD parent.
If the NPD parent is a father with a daughter she will struggle to ever feel good enough. Her future relationships will put her at risk of emotionally abusive males. She may try to control her size/weight and develop an eating disorder. Overtime she will need to learn what unconditional love feels like from a male in order to develop trust. When on her own, she will need to learn when and how to set limits whenever she is treated poorly.
Male and female children are both negatively impacted by the NPD parent. They are both at risk of anxiety disorders, low self- esteem, depression, substance abuse and unhealthy relationships. However, with assistance from a professional the teen or adult can work through and begin the process of replacing the negative beliefs about themselves that were created in their childhood.
Family therapy is not effective as the NPD parent will not be able to take negative feedback, apologize, nor show sincere empathy. The only reason for a family therapy session would be if the child has grown and they request a session to speak their mind. The grown child would need a supportive therapist who would remind them not to expect anything to change. Expressing their pain would be a goal in and of itself. If the NPD parent is likely to emotionally abuse the adult child then the preferred intervention might be to write a letter to the parent to express these important emotions. Again, change should not be expected, expressing emotions and setting limits would be the only agenda. As an adult, assuming the NPD parent is still in their life, will require the adult child learn to take care of themselves, and arrange very brief visits and with clear expectations and tight limits.
Ultimately, the child, must come to understand that they were not the problem as they were told. The other parent should not try to “show” the child how impaired the NPD parent is as this will likely backfire or be seen as alienation. However, with the assistance of a therapist the child will come to understand that the NPD parent is extremely challenged. This is an important shift and a gift to a child that should only be explored by a trained therapist who will know when the child is ready for greater understanding. With time and healing the adult raised by a NPD parent may even be able to forgive the parent by recognizing that the NPD parent was unable to parent them. The adult raised by an NPD will have to ensure no further damage is done from exposure to the NPD parent.
Susan Boyan, LMFT