In Describing A Narcissistic Parent’s Abuse we touched on some of the signs of narcissistic parenting. In this post, we’ll continue, but first, a caveat:
Most people occasionally exhibit some signs of narcissism and narcissistic behavior. This does not a diagnosis make.
Many Western cultures emphasizes the development and achievement of the individual. Here in the states, we have a sub-culture of celebrity based on visibility (with some talent mixed in.) We have political power, which attracts people with narcissistic traits, if not outright narcissism.
We’re also quick to judge. If we don’t like someone’s politics, for example, we may label behaviors narcissistic which we wouldn’t likely do to people whose politics we agree with.
Narcissism is not mere self-interested behavior. For example, someone recovering from a heart attack might refuse to join a barbeque pot-luck dinner not because they selfishly prefer grilled fish and salad but because they self-caringly choose grilled fish and salad.
There is a difference between selfish behavior and self-caring behavior. There is a difference between making choices that aren’t popular because you feel they’re the right choice and making choices that aren’t popular because you’re a narcissist.
But someone on the more extreme end of the NPD spectrum will find it difficult to tell the difference–to them, it is simply obvious that their choice is the right choice and vice versa. (Or that other people’s choices are the wrong choice because they conflict with their own.)
Part of this comes from boundary issues and this is where abuse occurs. A healthy individual recognizes that other people have needs and desires that do not reference their own, and they respect this, and even try to facilitate or meet these needs and desires in certain instances.
For example, a parent who wants to give their child an extracurricular activity might ascertain what they child is drawn to. A narcissistic parent will force an activity on the child even if the child doesn’t enjoy it or isn’t particularly talented in that area. Or the narcissistic parent might force the child who might enjoy the activity to engage in it (violin lessons, ballet, soccer, etc.) to the exclusion of other important activities because the child’s achievements reflect on the parent.
Although Chinese tiger mothers may be a limited cultural phenomenon, they are a good example of pressuring a child to perform (academically or otherwise) to the exclusion of other developmental activities with an inordinate amount of focus on success.
Now, not every parent who encourages, even pushes, their child to succeed is a narcissist. However, it can be narcissistic abuse if the child is taught to feel that without a specific type of success, they aren’t worthy. If they are driven beyond what’s appropriate for their age and personality.
Oddly enough, there are narcissistic parents who actually want their child to fail!
This often occurs in families with more than one child (but not exclusively.) One child becomes the “golden child“, the other child or children, are supposed to fail. That is their role. (These roles might switch over time.)
If the child who is supposed to fail ever does achieve success (and they usually try at a young age because almost every child wants to please their parent ) their success will be discredited. They might be accused of cheating, they might be accused of being attention-seeking, they might even be punished.
That’s because the narcissist’s “successful self” is validated by the golden child and the other child’s job is to hold all the failure that the narcissist projects onto them. But that’s not the only reason one child’s job is to fail. Jealousy can also be involved.
A narcissistic mother for example, might fly into a rage if her daughter is perceived as competing with her, whether in looks, marriage, talents and achievements and so on.
A narcissistic father might disdain a son who excels academically when he himself struggled with schoolwork and put all his energy into sports.
And so on (these are only examples, there are all kinds of jealousy scenarios.)
If you are the non-golden child of a narcissist, it might hit you with real shock the first time you figure out your parent is jealous of you. You might hesitate to think about or discuss this, since it goes against everything we’re supposed to believe about parents.
We’re taught that parents want their kids to not only do well in life, but do even better than they did. It is dispiriting and humiliating to feel that your parent does not want this for you. It can damage your self-esteem and if unexamined, even feed into a pattern of failure. (Karyl McBride’s now-classic Will I Ever Be Good Enough explains many permutations of NPD moms and their daughters.)
In some cases, one child will take all the NPD projection and be at times the golden child and at other times, the other child. This is, of course, crazy making for the child since they will only be assured of their parent’s love and approval if they meet their parent’s narcissistic needs. One week, the child’s success is lauded, the next, shot down and sabotaged due to jealousy and stepping outside the role of the failed child, which is what the narcissistic parent needs at that moment in time.
If you are the child of a parent with NPD, get help as soon as you are able, if you are suffering. Begin with help (therapy, coaching, religious counseling, self-help books, etc.) that validates you, and then learn the skills you need to rebuild the parts of you that seem shut-down or damaged.
If you are a parent who recognizes yourself in this post, you are already at a good starting point–you have some awareness of self. You’re to be commended for admitting that there may be a problem with your parenting and that you might have some narcissistic traits that are hurting your child. (This goes for grown-up children, too.)
Either way, help is available.
Here at PsychCentral, there are pages of information on NPD, and more than one terrific blogger that posts about the topic. For example, Christine Hammond’s (LMHC) The Exhausted Woman has posted about NPD, Parental Alienation (and Narcissistic Parents), and other related topics. There are others (just search the site.)
Therapy Soup also posts about NPD and families coping with this issue.