Adult children of narcissists go through a lifetime’s worth of abuse. Narcissistic parents lack empathy, exploit their children for their own agendas, and are unlikely to seek treatment or change their destructive behaviors long-term (Kacel, Ennis, & Pereira, 2017). Their children often endure severe psychological maltreatment, as their parents employ behaviors like bullying, terrorizing, coercive control, insults, demands, and threats to keep them compliant (Spinazzola et al., 2014). This form of trauma places children of narcissists at risk for suicidality, low self-esteem, depression, self-harm, substance abuse, attachment disorders, and complex PTSD, leading to symptoms similar to children who were physically or sexually abused (Gibson, 2016; Schwartz, 2016; Spinazzola et al., 2014, Walker, 2013).
If children of narcissists choose to remain in contact with their abusive parents, they will continue to encounter manipulation even as adults. The same tactics which were employed to control them as children can still be powerful even when they are adults – perhaps even moreso because these methods cause them to regress back into childhood states of fear, shame, and terror.
The difference is that as an adult, you have the ability to use alternative coping methods, self-care and to limit contact with your parents as you heal. Here are five manipulation tactics narcissistic parents use to control their children, even as adults, and some self-care tips for coping:
1) Emotional Blackmail
The narcissistic parent appears to make a request, but it is really a demand. If you say no, set boundaries, or let them know you’ll get back to them later, they will apply increased pressure and threaten consequences to try to get you to acquiesce to them. If you still refuse, they may then punish you with sulking, passive-aggressive statements, a rage attack, withholding of something important, or even the threat of violence or sabotage. This is emotional blackmail.
Example: Your narcissistic mother may tell you that she would like you and your family to come over on the weekend for dinner. All the relatives will be there and they want to see you. Knowing her abusive ways, you tell her you can’t make it this weekend because you have a prior engagement. Rather than respecting your wishes, she proceeds to talk about how ungrateful you’re being and how all your family members are looking forward to seeing you and your children. You say no, and she hangs up on you and subjects you to the silent treatment for weeks.
Self-Care Tip: Know your rights and boundaries. You have the right to say “no” to any invitation or request, especially from someone known to be abusive. You have the right to protect yourself and any other family members who would be affected by your toxic parent’s behavior. You don’t have to give into any silent treatments or tolerate rage attacks. You can allow your narcissistic parent to have whatever reaction they have from a distance. During this time, do not answer phone calls, text messages or voicemails abusive in nature. Do not meet with them in person to “discuss.” Your “no” is not a negotiation.
2) Guilt-tripping with Fear, Obligation, and Guilt (FOG)
It is common for narcissistic parents to use FOG (Fear, Obligation, and Guilt) on us to evoke the kind of guilt that would cause us to give into their desires, even at the expense of our own basic needs and rights.
Example: Your narcissistic father disapproves of the fact that you’re single and have no children. He tells you that time is running out to give him grandchildren. When you tell him you’re happy being single, he lashes out in rage and despair, telling you, “So I am going to die without grandchildren? I am getting older and sicker every day – don’t you think I want to see my daughter start a family? Is this how you’re repaying me for all I’ve done for you? What will our community think, to see an unmarried woman at your age? It’s shameful and disgraceful! You’re a disgrace to the family!”
Self-Care Tip: Notice any guilt or shame that arises and realize it does not belong to you when you find yourself being guilt-tripped by a narcissistic parent. Ask yourself if you have anything to truly feel guilty about. Have you intentionally inflicted any harm upon your narcissistic parent, or are you simply doing what every human being has a right to do – live their lives through their own free will? You have a right to your choices, preferences, and autonomy, even if your toxic parent disagrees with those choices. You do not owe them an explanation for choices that have to do with your career, love life, or any children you may or may not have.
Narcissistic, toxic parents shame their children to further belittle and demean them. This is actually quite effective, as research has shown that when someone feels flawed and defective, they tend to be more compliant to the requests of others (Walster, 1965; Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson, 2003).
Example: Your narcissistic parent begins remarking upon your career choices during Thanksgiving dinner, calling them reckless and irresponsible. Even though you are successful, financially stable and own your own home, they continue to nitpick in ways you fall short since you didn’t choose the career they had demanded of you. They criticize your ability to provide for your family and to be a role model for your children.
Self-Care Tip: Acknowledge if you’re having any form of emotional flashback when your parent begins to nitpick and shame you. It’s important to notice if you feel you’re regressing back to childhood states of powerlessness so you can learn to take your power back in the present moment rather than reacting in a way that gives into their shaming tactics. Let them know you won’t be shamed, and that if they continue this behavior, they’ll just have to see less of you. Recognize that this shame does not belong to you and remind yourself of how far you’ve come. You deserve to be proud of yourself, not ashamed.
4) Triangulation and Comparison
Narcissistic parents love to compare their children to other siblings or peers in an effort to further diminish them. They want their scapegoated children to fight for their approval and attention. They also want to provoke them into feeling less than.
Example: You get a call from your parents who tell you the news of your cousin getting engaged. Your toxic mother makes a snide comment like, “You know, your cousin Ashley just completed medical school and got engaged. What are you doing with your life?”
Self-Care Tip: Don’t give into petty comparisons – label them as triangulation and realize it is just another way to undermine you. Switch the subject or find an excuse to cut the conversation short if your narcissistic parent engages in needless comparisons and disparaging comments. Notice if you have an urge to justify or explain yourself – and resist the urge to do so.
Know that you do not have to waste your energy proving your accomplishments to people who are unwilling to acknowledge them. Spend time with people who do celebrate you and keep a list of what you’re proud of to remind yourself that you do not have to compare yourself to anyone in order to feel successful in your own right.
Gaslighting is an insidious weapon in the toolbox of a narcissistic parent. It allows the toxic parent to distort reality, deny the reality of the abuse, and make you feel like the toxic one for calling them out.
Example: Your narcissistic father leaves you an abusive voicemail late at night and ten missed calls when you refuse to go out of your way to do something for him. Even though you’ve explained to him that it’s inconvenient for you to do, he persists in punishing you for not complying to his requests and continues to badger you through the phone. The next day, you call him to confront him about his harassing behavior and he responds by saying, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. I barely called you last night. You’re imagining things.”
Self-Care Tip: Those who are gaslighted in childhood often suffer from a persistent sense of self-doubt in adulthood. Rather than giving into your conditioned sense of self-doubt, begin to notice whenever your narcissist parent’s falsehoods do not match up with reality. When you experience an abusive incident, document it and work with a therapist to remain grounded in what you’ve experienced in both childhood and adulthood rather than subscribing to the toxic parent’s version of events.
Track if there’s been a pattern of gaslighting in your relationship with your narcissistic parent and act accordingly with what you’ve lived through, rather than what the abusive parent claims. Remember, the more you resist abuse amnesia, the more likely you’ll be able to protect yourself and avoid being exploited or taken advantage of by the toxic parent.
Remember: you don’t have to tolerate the harmful behavior of dangerous people, even if they share your DNA.
This article has been shortened and adapted from a chapter in my new book Healing the Adult Children of Narcissists: Essays On The Invisible War Zone. Read the full version with more in-depth suggestions in the book.
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Gibson, Lindsay C. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents. New Harbinger Publications, 2016.
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Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Azure Coyote.
Walster, E. (1965). The effect of self-esteem on romantic liking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,1(2), 184-197. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(65)90045-4