Adult children of narcissistic parents grow up without support or empathy from their primary caregivers. This leads to a variety of debilitating struggles in adulthood. The effects of trauma alone can lead children of toxic parents to have a diminished sense of self-esteem, insecure attachment styles, persistent anxiety and self-doubt, self-harm, and even suicidal ideation. I have surveyed over 700 adult children of narcissists for my new book, and below, I share a few of the most common struggles those who have been raised by narcissistic parents tackle in adulthood:
1. They have people-pleasing tendencies.
In the stories of adult children of narcissists, it’s very common to find accounts of rage attacks and of unpredictable, emotionally volatile behavior by their abusive parents. If you fail to obey a narcissistic parent’s unjust demands, question their entitlement or sense of superiority in any way, you are subjected to rage attacks meant to control you and keep you in line. It’s no wonder that many adult children of narcissists develop fawning and people-pleasing tendencies. They’ve been trained by the very real threat of physical or psychological violence to obey.
Being on the receiving end of such unpredictable attacks leads adult children of narcissists to minimize or rationalize horrific acts of psychological violence in adulthood. Since rage as a reaction to boundaries is normalized in childhood, children of narcissists have a difficult time maintaining boundaries or handling conflict in adulthood. They may actively try to avoid conflict by attempting to please those they suspect to be toxic. They might avoid standing up for themselves because they are so accustomed to being punished for doing so.
Other forms of emotional abuse such as showing contempt for the child and ignoring the child creates an overwhelming sense of toxic shame. Children of narcissists who are habitually ignored learn to ignore their own needs as adults as they cater to others and walk on eggshells.
These people-pleasing tendencies tend to carry on in adulthood. For example, the adult daughter of a narcissistic father may learn to placate angry men as a result of her father’s abusive outbursts. The adult son of a narcissistic mother may find himself in relationships with emotionally volatile women. As an adult, learning to be mindful of when we are reacting from a place of fear, rather than from a sense of security and self-worth, is vital to setting healthy boundaries with others.
2. They suffer from a persistent sense of self-doubt.
Many of the adult children of narcissists surveyed reported second-guessing themselves, their experiences, and their choices. Chronic gaslighting in childhood leads to perpetual self-doubt in adulthood. Children of narcissists are not given the emotional tools to validate their perceptions or experiences; instead, they are taught to silence their inner voice. This can make them highly vulnerable to being gaslighted and invalidated by predators in relationships, friendships, and the workplace as adults. When we do not trust our own instincts, we are far more likely to subscribe to an abuser’s falsehoods.
Yet as adult children of narcissists, one of our “superpowers” is our highly tuned intuition about the motives of people; research has confirmed that those who endure childhood adversity often develop a radar for danger. People who have been abused in childhood can develop what Dr. Ungar (2016) calls “an uncanny ability to detect threats in their environment, an enhanced capacity to learn new things, and even improved memories when it comes to paying attention to parts of their environment that are the most relevant.”
Remember that children who grow up in unpredictable or violent homes learn how to detect threats or changes in their environment early on in order to protect themselves. They were detectives, cops, psychologists and FBI agents well before the age of eight. They can read nonverbal body language, notice microexpressions and catch changes in tone before someone’s even said “Hello.” They can learn to use this superpower for discerning toxic people and detaching from them before they get involved.
3. They feel guilt, shame, and fear about succeeding or being in the spotlight.
It’s very common for adult children of narcissists to self-sabotage or become overachieving perfectionists in an attempt to avoid the hypercriticism they were subjected to in childhood. Chronic emotional and psychological abuse conditions them to feel an overwhelming sense of fear, guilt, shame and not feeling “good enough” when it comes to their success, achievements, goals, and dreams.
As an adult child of a narcissist, you may find yourself feeling guilty when you accomplish something or feel the need to “hide” in case there is retaliation for your success. This is because children of narcissists were trained at a young age to expect the other shoe to drop whenever they dared to shine brightly. They were punished by pathologically envious bullies or their toxic parents whenever they did achieve or dared to express joy – which causes them to recoil from the spotlight in adulthood. A similar effect can also be seen among victims who have been in long-term relationships with narcissistic partners. As adults, we learn that our shame belongs to our perpetrators and that we are allowed to feel healthy pride at what we’ve accomplished.
4. They have insecure or anxious attachment styles and often end up in abusive relationships as adults.
Adult children of narcissists carry a pervasive sense of worthlessness and toxic shame, as well as subconscious programming, which causes them to become more easily attached to emotional predators in adulthood. Psychologists have concluded that there are four main styles of attachment which adults can fall into that correspond with the attachment styles we observe in childhood (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).
It’s very likely that if you were the child of a narcissist, you fit into one or two of the styles that were insecure due to the abuse you endured from your parents. As you grew up, you may have also had relationships with narcissists in adulthood, which could’ve influenced you to become anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant or fearful-avoidant rather than securely attached as an adult. Adults who are securely attached are able to “explore” on their own. They remain autonomous in a healthy way and know that their partner will be there for them when they return. They do not fear intimacy with their partners nor do they fear being abandoned. They can create a healthy, mutual dependency on their partners without becoming excessively preoccupied with the relationship.
Adults who are anxious-preoccupied in their attachment styles long for intimacy and closeness, but they are very insecure and overly preoccupied with their intimate relationships. They search for someone to rescue and complete them – a savior. They have an intense fear of abandonment and may become too dependent on their partners and the relationship. This can actually drive their partners away and leads to a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. When the fear of abandonment is confirmed, the anxious-preoccupied individual unfortunately becomes more adamant in their anxiety.
Dismissive-avoidant adults are emotionally distant in relationships. They prioritize independence and associate intimacy with the loss of independence. As a result, they exhibit emotionally unavailable behaviors. They avoid conflict, and they avoid talking about emotions. Fearful-avoidant individuals are ambivalent towards intimacy in that they know they must be with others to get some of their needs met, but they also associate relationships with pain. They can become dependent on their partners when they feel rejected but also feel trapped when they get too close to their partners.
In their repeated search for a rescuer, adult children of narcissists instead find those who chronically diminish them just like their earliest abusers. They then suffer not just from early childhood trauma, but from multiple re-victimizations in adulthood until, with the right support, they address their core wounds and begin to break the cycle step by step.
5. They feel defective and worthless.
Survivors carry a sense of toxic shame, helplessness and a feeling of “separateness” from others, of being different and defective due to the trauma. They also bear the burden of guilt and negative self-talk that does not belong to them. Trauma therapist and expert Pete Walker (2013) calls this the “inner critic,” an ongoing inner dialogue of self-blame, self-hatred and a need for perfectionism that evolved from the survivor being punished and conditioned to believe that his or her needs did not matter.
As he writes, “In extremely rejecting families, the child eventually comes to believe that even her normal needs, preferences, feelings and boundaries are dangerous imperfections – justifiable reasons for punishment and/or abandonment.” Children who experience abuse in early childhood have a difficult time distinguishing between the abuser’s actions and words and reality. A child who is told that the abuse is their fault repeatedly will come to believe in and internalize their lack of worth without question. It takes a great deal of re-parenting, working with the inner child, exploring diverse mind-body healing modalities and boundary work to begin the road to recovery and a secure sense of self-worth.
If you were the child of a narcissistic parent, remember: you are worthy and deserving of good things. No matter what happened to you in the past, you do not have to let your pain or adversity or your Inner Critic or Imposter Syndrome dictate your worthiness to receive better. Your toxic shame is lying to you. Just because you did not experience the joy you truly deserved in the past does not mean you did not deserve it or that you have to deprive yourself of happiness now. You deserve all that is good – and if good things are already happening, you are worthy of them.
This article has been adapted from chapters in my new book, Healing the Adult Children of Narcissists: Essays on the Invisible War Zone and Exercises for Recovery. Please refer to the book for tips on how to heal from childhood emotional abuse.
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,52(3), 511-524. doi:10.1037//0022-3518.104.22.1681
Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In T. B. Brazelton & M. W. Yogman (Eds.), Affective development in infancy(pp. 95-124). Westport, CT, US: Ablex Publishing.
Teicher, Martin H., et al. “The Neurobiological Consequences of Early Stress and Childhood Maltreatment.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, vol. 27, no. 1-2, 2003, pp. 33–44., doi:10.1016/s0149-7634(03)00007-1.
Walker, P. (2013). Shrinking the Inner Critic in Complex PTSD. Retrieved May 29, 2019, from http://www.pete-walker.com/shrinkingInnerCritic.htm
Ungar, M. (2016, March 20). Horrible but True: Early Abuse Can Create Strength. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-resilience/201603/horrible-true-early-abuse-can-create-strength