Over the years I have often been asked what is the most harmful thing a parent can do to a child. There are many harmful things a parent can do, too many to point out. It is easier to focus on the kind of parent that does most harm.
The most harmful parents are the parents who have a narcissistic need to think of themselves as great parents. Because of this need, they are unable to look at their parenting in an objective way. And they are unable to hear their children’s complaints about their parenting.
Such parents indoctrinate their children from an early age to think of their parents in only the most positive ways. Any other kind of thinking is considered family treason. If any of their children develop behavioral problems, they see such problems as an accusation of their parenting. Their response is, “Why did am I so unlucky as to have this bad seed?” Not for a moment do they ever consider that anything they did might have had an effect on their children.
One family with which I became acquainted had two daughters. The oldest daughter could do nothing wrong. The youngest daughter could do nothing right. Both parents lamented the troublesome nature of their youngest daughter. To both of them, she was a thorn in their sides and an embarrassment to the family. As Mary (the name I’ll give to the youngest daughter) grew up, she was always being compared unfavorably to her older sister. “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” She was constantly being looked at in a negative way. If she told a joke, they laughed at her, not with her, and treated her as if she were stupid to say such a thing.
When she was a preteen, her father, who was a wealthy real estate tycoon, took her on a business trip with him. She was flattered to be brought along, because he had always favored her older sister. He insisted they share the same hotel room, telling her they were family. When she was taking a shower, he walked in and said she shouldn’t be shy around him because he was her father. That night he insisted she sleep in the queen-sized bed with him, and in the middle of the night he began touching her and telling her it was all right because they were family.
When she mentioned this event to her mother, the mother treated the daughter as if she were just being a trouble-maker as usual. “Why would your father do something like that? He’s a powerful man. He could have any woman he wanted, but he has always been totally loyal to me. I want you to apologize for what you just said.” Mary had to repress this incident and she grew up to be a child who doubted her perceptions of things. She remained attached to her father and continued to idealize him as the rest of the family did. But her idealization of her father, her mother and her older sister kept her in a one-down position. Her relationships with men were a disaster as were her relationships with women friends. She distrusted everybody and would sooner or later find a reason to reject them (symbolically rejecting her family).
The mother in this family was a writer who once wrote an article for a parenting magazine. The article was called, “How I learned to Adapt to My ADHD Daughter,” and she stated that she was motivated to write the article to help other mothers with similar children. The father was almost revered in the extended family and among friends for his business acumen and his happy-go-lucky personality. Neither parent gave a thought to the emotional or sexual abuse they had shown their youngest. Both continued to firmly believe that they had been great parents, and that their youngest daughter was simply genetically damaged and it was their unfortunate lot in life to adapt to her (be sympathetic to her “wiles”). But their sympathy (a pretense of caring) only made her worse.
Incidentally, the oldest daughter in this family ended up becoming a narcissistic parent like her parents, She had been raised to feel that she could do no wrong and hence she did not think she could do anything wrong as a parent. Sometimes this kind of parenting is passed on from generation to generation.
Narcissistic personalities can only see things one way–their way. And they are very good at finding extremely viable reasons for their way. You are either with them or against them. If you are with them, you can share their glory, if you’re against them and tell them what they don’t want to hear, you will get their wrath. The queen in the children’s story, “Snow White,” is an example of a narcissistic personality. The mirror had to tell her she was the fairest in the land, and when it told her Snow White was the fairest, she punished Snow White by having her taken to the forest to die.
Beneath their narcissism is a bubble of unconscious inferiority and rage, which they protect against through the development of the rigid covering of the superior personality that cannot be contradicted.
Narcissistic parents will go to doctor after doctor until they find one who tells them what they want to hear. The problem is never with them or their parenting. It is always traced to some external cause, some genetic source, a hostile teacher, or a faulty vaccination. This is not to say that genetics or other factors do not play a part in development. But they don’t play the entire part. Parenting must always be considered. With narcissists it almost never is.
I call this kind of parent the most harmful because they do the most harm while seeming to have all the right intentions. The emotional abuse that such parents do to their children is hard for the children to detect. Therefore, it is all the more disastrous.