Our mothers are the foundation of our first attachment to the world. As infants, we learn by her example how to bond with others. We derive our initial sense of our self-worth from how she cares for us, nurtures us, protects and shields us from harm.
A mother’s capacity to provide us with a healthy attachment, to tune into our emotions, validate our pain, and meet our basic needs has a fundamental impact on our development, attachment styles, and emotional regulation (Brumariu & Kerns, 2010). When this initial attachment is instead tarnished by psychological violence, it can leave scars that can take a lifetime to heal. Emotional and verbal abuse by a parent can hinder our learning, memory, decision-making and impulse control in adulthood; it can also heighten our risk for anxiety, suicidal ideation, addiction, and depression (Bremner, 2006; Teicher, 2006; Brumariu & Kerns, 2008).
An abusive, narcissistic mother sets up her daughters and sons for inevitable danger due to the nature of her disorder. Her insatiable need for control, excessive sense of entitlement, stunning lack of empathy, tendency towards interpersonal exploitation and constant need for attention overrides the welfare of her children (McBride, 2013).
Not only does the narcissistic mother fail to protect us early on from the terrors of the outside world, she becomes the source of our terror. Rather than affection, we are exposed to unhealthy enmeshment, chronic rage, and egregious boundary-breaking. Narcissistic parenting distorts our self-perception; instead of being given the building blocks of a healthy self-esteem, we internalize a nagging inner critic and a perpetual sense of self-doubt (Walker, 2013).
The narcissistic mother’s erratic shift in emotions, her ever-conditional “love,” her constant shaming tactics and her ruthless comparisons terrorize us, creating a persistent sense of anxiety where safety and security should be.
What toxic parents all have in common is their inability to provide their children with a safe, nurturing, and loving environment. If they are narcissistically abusive, they are without empathy and sometimes even conscience. This type of ruthless behavior has a damaging impact on our early development as well as the way we navigate the world as adults.
The narcissistic mother engages in the following toxic behaviors:
1. She chronically shames her children.
Shaming is a tactic the narcissistic mother uses to ensure that her children never develop a stable sense of identity or self-esteem – to ensure that they never grow independent enough outside of seeking her validation or approval. She shames her children for not accomplishing enough academically, socially, professionally and personally. She shames them for their choice of career, partner, friends, lifestyle, their manner of dress, their personality, their preferences – all of these and more come under the scrutiny of the narcissistic mother. She shames her children for acting with any sense of agency because it threatens her sense of control and power. By doing so, she instills in them a sense of never being good enough, no matter what they achieve.
2. She sets up damaging comparisons among her children as well as their peers.
Like any narcissist, the narcissistic mother engages in “triangulation” – manufacturing triangles among her children and even their peers. She destructively compares her children to their peers, teaching them that they fall short in terms of looks, personality, obedient behavior, and accomplishments. She unfairly pits two or more siblings against one another, always asking, “Why can’t you be more like your sister or your brother?” She stirs up competition, drama, and chaos. She might make one child a golden child (doting upon them excessively) while making the other a scapegoat. This form of devaluation can leave a painful imprint; it causes her children to compare themselves to others as a way to evaluate their self-worth.
3. She treats her children as extensions of her.
The narcissistic mother micromanages and exerts an excessive level of control over the way her children act and look to the public. Her children are objects and must be pristine and polished in every way, lest their reputation or appearance “taint” her own. Though she criticizes them and treats them with contempt behind closed doors, in public she shows her children off as if they were prized possessions. She brags about how little Timmy always gets straight A’s and how her darling Stacy is the prettiest little girl in town. Yet behind closed doors, she is pouncing on Timmy with reprimands about what he has yet to accomplish and picking on Stacy’s weight.
4. She competes with her children, disrupts their transition to adulthood and crosses sexual boundaries.
It is common for narcissistic mothers to compete with their children, especially their own daughters. The narcissistic mother is likely to overvalue her own looks and sexual prowess. Female narcissists exhibit internalized misogyny and often view other females as competition. The daughter is thus looked upon with fury, jealousy, and envy – her own offspring is viewed as a threat.
As a result, she may devalue her daughter’s appearance, criticize her body and shame her. On the other hand, some narcissistic mothers will objectify their daughters and demand physical perfection. She may expose her daughters to inappropriate discussions about sex or flaunt her body, placing an emphasis on the value of appearances. She might teach her daughters and sons that a woman derives value from her body and her ability to please men sexually. If the narcissistic mother has histrionic tendencies, she may even seduce the friends of her children to demonstrate her superiority over her younger competition.
In other cultures where sexuality is far more restricted, the narcissistic mother may instead attempt to stifle her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and punish her for being anything less than abstinent. She may fail to provide her daughters with the proper education concerning sex and their growing bodies.
5. An obsession with the external, at the expense of her child’s needs.
To the narcissistic mother, appearances are everything. She may construct the false image of being a sweet, loving and charitable person to others all while gossiping about others, engaging in petty one-upping and abusing her children emotionally, physically or even sexually. She enjoys the social status of being a mother without doing the actual maternal work.
She shows off her children without properly tending to their basic emotional and psychological needs. To her, how things look is far more important than how they actually are. Depending on her social class, the narcissistic mother may enlist the help of others to care for her children while neglecting to give her children affection or attention when they are around, treating them as nuisances rather than as human beings. She may even be callous and cold to the point where she refuses to touch her children altogether.
6. Engages in horrific boundary-breaking.
At the other end of the spectrum, the narcissistic mother may become so enmeshed with her children and overbearing that she engages in covert emotional incest. She makes her children the center of the world and responsible for fulfilling her emotional needs.
Rather than taking on the responsibilities of being an authority figure and parent, she “parentifies” her own children, making them feel obligated to cater to her arbitrary desires and expectations. She violates her children’s basic needs for privacy and autonomy, demanding to know every facet of their lives. She might enter their rooms without knocking, read their diaries, and interrogate them constantly about their friends or romantic partners. She keeps her children in a state of perpetual childhood by punishing them for growing up – whether that means moving out of the house, getting married, going on a date or becoming aware of their sexuality.
7. Becomes enraged at any perceived threat to her superiority.
The narcissistic mother is not unlike any other narcissist in that she feels entitled to have her way and endures narcissistic injury when this sense of superiority is questioned or threatened in any way. As a result, her emotions tend to be a psychological rollercoaster from start to finish. From the sudden outbursts of rage when you “fail” to obey her demands to the abrupt love-bombing which occurs when she needs something from her children, there is little consistency in a household with a narcissistic mother. Her children walk on eggshells every day, fearful of encountering their mother’s rage and punishment.
8. Emotionally invalidates, guilt-trips and gaslights her children.
A child’s reactions to her narcissistic mother’s abuse are frequently met with invalidation, shaming and further gaslighting. The narcissistic mother lacks empathy for the feelings of her children and fails to consider their basic needs. A narcissistic mother is prone to telling her children that the abuse never occurred. It is common for the narcissistic mother to claim that her child is being “oversensitive” or overreacting to horrendous acts of psychological violence.
The narcissistic mother has no qualms about using her emotional outbursts to control and manipulate her children, yet when her children express their emotions, she invalidates them completely. She redirects the focus to her needs and guilt-trips her children at every sign of perceived disobedience. She provokes her children and is sadistically pleased when her put-downs and insults have staying power.
Empathic mothers are attuned to the emotional welfare of their children; narcissistic mothers represent a perversion of the maternal instinct.
This article is an excerpt from my new book for children of narcissistic parents, Healing the Children of Narcissists: Essays on The Invisible War Zone, now available for pre-order.
Bremner, J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(4), 445–461.
Brumariu, L. E., & Kerns, K. A. (2010). Parent–child attachment and internalizing symptoms in childhood and adolescence: A review of empirical findings and future directions. Development and Psychopathology, 22(01), 177. doi:10.1017/s0954579409990344
Brumariu, L. E., & Kerns, K. A. (2008). Mother–child attachment and social anxiety symptoms in middle childhood. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(5), 393-402. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2008.06.002
McBride, K. (2013). Will I ever be good enough? Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers. New York: Atria Paperback.
Miller, A. (2008). The drama of the gifted child: The search for the true self. New York: BasicBooks.
Teicher, M. (2006). Sticks, Stones, and Hurtful Words: Relative Effects of Various Forms of Childhood Maltreatment. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(6), 993. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.163.6.993
Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Lafayette, CA: Azure Coyote.
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