The characteristics and behaviors listed below are not only observed in toxic families but can be seen outside of it, as general narcissistic and otherwise dark personality traits.
A dysfunctional parent tends to be very immature. They may throw temper tantrums, act overly hurt, demand attention at all times and at any cost, or expect for everybody to treat them like a king or queen.
2. Parental selfishness
In a healthy family, the parent is there in order to meet their child’s needs. It’s the opposite in a dysfunctional family: the child exists to meet the parents’ and other people’s needs.
Whether it’s physical, verbal, emotional, psychological, active, passive, or vicarious aggression, abuse is prevalent in any highly dysfunctional or narcissistic relationship.
4. Fake apologies
Highly narcissistic people don’t usually apologize for anything. But if they do, then it’s as fake as they are. “Sorry that you feel upset,” “Sorry, but…” and so on.
And if you don’t accept their artificial apology or challenge them on it, they become enraged: “I already apologized, what else do you want from me!?” Or play the victim: “Why are you trying to hurt me like this?”
5. Playing the victim
A highly narcissistic parent is known for playing the victim and twisting the story to meet their narrative. (You can read a separate article of mine exactly on that, titled How Narcissists Play the Victim and Twist the Story.)
In psychology, the term triangulation refers to a manipulation tactic where one person doesn’t communicate directly with another and instead uses a third person. A narcissistic parent likes to control communication between people because it makes them feel important and in control.
Narcissistic people operate on lies. This, by itself, makes them fundamentally untrustworthy. On top of that, they fail to meet their responsibilities and always blame someone or something else for it.
However, since they project all the time, they get incredibly upset if somebody else doesn’t do what they were supposed to do. Yet they never examine this in their own behavior, nor do they care how it affects their family and others.
Having an incompetent and untrustworthy parent can result in, among other things, the child growing up to have trust issues.
8. Empty promises
A part of the narcissistic web of lies is making promises that they don’t usually intend on keeping. Highly narcissistic individuals tend to tell others what they want to hear in order to get what they want. Exaggerating what they will do for you in exchange and simply lying is what they do here.
Narcissistic and other kinds of dysfunctional parents often use guilt-tripping to manipulate the child into obedience. If something happens or the child does something that they don’t like, the dysfunctional parent attributes false responsibility or amplifies what’s not actually very important, and in doing so, makes the child feel overly guilty.
This leads to chronic guilt in the person’s adulthood.
10. Using children as trophies
Narcissistic parents lack a strong and healthy sense of self, and they would rather live vicariously through their children. They use the child or stories about them to win social points and narcissistic supply.
They project themselves onto the child and push the child towards something because they were unable to do it. Or they want the child to choose a career or interest precisely because they did it themselves. They brag about the child’s accomplishments and even take credit for them as if they did it.
Narcissists are incredibly insecure and fragile. They manage their shaky sense of self-esteem by trying to get others to tell them how great they are, or by putting others down to feel better about themselves. In a family, since the child has the least amount of power, they are the easiest to manipulate with these kinds of games.
A close companion to guilt-tripping is toxic shaming. Whlie experiencing this, the child internalizes the message that they are fundamentally flawed, defective, and a morally bad person. This is extremely harmful and will remain a source of numerous shame-related personal and social problems later in life.
13. Authoritarian structure
This is basically a pyramid of tyranny where those on top dominate those below them, all the way down to the most suppressed. The tyrannical bullies order other family members around and operate by inflicting fear.
The child is at the bottom of this pyramid. An authoritarian parent tells the child what to do, how to feel, and what to think. In this environment, the child doesn’t feel equal to others in the family, or even outside of it.
People who grow up in such an environment often end up developing sociopathic and otherwise antisocial tendencies. Or they develop social anxiety and codependency. As adults, they may feel completely lost and confused about who they are because of a severe lack of sense of self, which had been consequently overwhelmed during their time in the toxic family environment.
Initially, I planned for this list to be shorter and fit into one article. However, when I started writing it, the list kept growing, so I decided to split it into two articles. Part two will be posted in the following weeks.
Photo by Alachua County