a young couple on a bench - the woman comforts the man

How Children of Narcissistic Parents Fare In Love

How to break free of patterns formed by your past

​​It’s no surprise that our own love relationships are likely to be deeply affected by how our parents modeled healthy love.

But not all of us were lucky enough to be raised by two loving parents.

If you were raised by an emotionally-distant parent, as an adult, you may now fear intimacy.

Or you may have been raised by a parent who only acknowledged external achievements rather than your inner hopes and dreams. If so, you could experience low self-esteem in your relationships today.

Parents who are emotionally distant or regard their children as possessions display narcissistic personality traits.

Narcissism is a spectrum. In fact, only 5% of the population meets the medical criteria for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Still, even without a diagnosis, a person far along on the spectrum is likely to have trouble modeling healthy love for their children.

But there’s good news! Adult children of parents with narcissistic traits can break free of the patterns formed by their past. They can thrive in love.

Once you understand the behaviors that result from your upbringing, you can decide to learn many of the relationship skills that a narcissistic parent never modeled.

Awareness is the first step toward healing.

 

Recognizing Narcissism as an Adult

 

A young man argues with his narcissistic father

Many of the couples I see don’t realize that there is a parent with narcissistic traits in their lives. Instead, they tell me that they’re really struggling with a parent or in-law. And then they’ll tell me things like this:

“My mom made my child’s birthday party all about her. She became moody and withdrawn when her grandchild didn’t appropriately thank/admire her for the gift my mother gave.”

“My father makes really negative comments about my children. He even makes fun of my daughter’s weight.”

“When we gather, my mother has to be the center of attention. We all have to dote on her or she becomes unhappy.”

“My father treats my husband very poorly. It’s like my dad is jealous of him.”

“My mom talks about her grandkids to everyone. She posts pictures of her grandkids on social media, but when she’s around the kids, she barely pays any attention to them at all.”

If any of these types of experiences are interfering with your relationship as a couple, it’s time to consider whether you, too, could be dealing with a narcissistic parent—even if you never realized it before.

A parent who makes these types of comments may meet the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)—or they may simply display narcissistic traits. In fact, most people display some narcissistic traits from time to time.

But even without meeting all the criteria for a diagnosis, a person can still display traits of narcissism that are harmful to their relationships.

 

A Shocking Possibility

At first, it can be a shocking possibility to consider that your parent has strong narcissistic traits. And as you learn more about the characteristics of children of narcissists, you may grow more aware of how these traits manifest in your own personality and love relationships.

This awareness is a good thing; it can help you build a healthier relationship with your significant other.

So let’s take a closer look at how having a narcissistic parent may have impacted you as a child, and how it may continue to impact you now, as an adult. Then we’ll look at the healthiest ways to deal with your narcissistic parent so that your own love relationship can thrive.

 

How Does Narcissistic Parenting Affect Children?

 

a young girl hugs her stuffed bunny

It may take the child of a narcissist a long time to unpack the damage done to them. Their entire childhood may have been focused on pleasing their parent and keeping the peace, so there is often very little time to understand their own feelings and needs. 

 

Narcissistic Parents Are Controlling

A child’s view of the world is greatly shaped by what is modeled in their home.  To the outside world, a narcissistic parent usually appears to have the perfect family. 

This parent engages in a game of make-believe so that no one will suspect that behind their overachieving children and active charity work, lies a web of emotional blackmail, stonewalling, withdrawal of affection, and fear of abandonment. 

At home with the children, however, narcissistic parents feel comfortable enough to drop the masks of perfection that they wear in public. The child’s best achievement or success is rewarded with a short period of approval. But soon after, the parent resets the goalpost and again, the child tries desperately to reach it. 

Children of narcissists often try desperately to excel, as they long to enjoy a brief moment of approval or validation from their parents. 

 

Children of Narcissists May Fear the Parent’s Rage

It’s not uncommon for the adult child of a narcissist to be overly anxious and eager to please in love relationships. Or, this person might struggle to attach to their partner

Children of narcissists are often subconsciously ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop.’ They commonly fear they will be emotionally abandoned all over again. 

Of course, narcissistic parents aren’t likely to physically leave their children. It would be frowned upon by the community that they want to impress! But their parenting style of ‘Do what I demand or suffer my rage!’ can create emotional distance between them and their children.

Children in these households often spend much of their time and energy trying to preempt, delay and diffuse the next inevitable irrational parental meltdown.  

A narcissistic parent might steal the spotlight and joy at celebrations, events, and activities. This individual tends to take center stage whenever possible. 

Because of this, the life of a child with narcissistic parents can feel like a perpetual rollercoaster ride. The children are always walking on eggshells, as they brace for the next dramatic meltdown. 

 

Some of the Main Traits of Narcissistic Parents 

 

Most traits of narcissistic parents are not gender-specific. Usually, both fathers and mothers will resort to a variety of tactics to get their way and control the actions of their children

Here are some of the characteristics that narcissistic parents may display and the traits that their children often develop as mechanisms to cope:

TRAIST OF NARCISSISTIC PARENTSTRAITS OF CHILDREN OF NARCISSISTS
Children are regarded as their possessionsLow self-esteem
Use guilt as a tactic to control their childrenStruggle with feelings of guilt
Lack empathy for their childrenDistrust others
Blame their children for all problemsFear of emotional/intimate attachment
Boast about children's achievements to others but are not supportive of the childMay be clingy or overbearing in relationships
Emotionally distant from childrenTend to suppress their emotions
Critical of their childrenLive 'cautiously' to try to conform to their parent's ideals
May weep or cry uncontrollably as a method of controlMay not seek help even when in significant emotional distress. To please them, they were required to collaborate with their parents to maintain the family's perfect outward appearance. This carries through into adult life.
Pit siblings in the family against each other by constantly comparing the children's attributes or achievementsFrequently high academic, extracurricular or sporting achievers. These are measurable ways in which they are able to gain a few scraps of parental approval.
Immature and selfishTend to be more mature than their chronological ages. This is from frequently stepping into the emotional role of parent to try to restore calm at home.
Fly into rage over insignificant issuesCan become people who rage

Do Narcissists Love their Children?

 

 

Your narcissistic parent loves you to the degree and capacity they are able to love. Surely how they love you doesn’t reflect your own worth or ability to be loved.

Understanding and accepting this can start the journey toward healing. During the healing process, give yourself time to grieve that you may not have the type of parental love you want and deserve.  

And remember, it’s not too late to break the cycle of constantly trying to please your narcissistic parent.  

 

 

What is Anxious-Avoidant Attachment?

In their own love relationships, the two predominant traits of adult children of narcissistic parents are anxiety and avoidance

As young people, submitting to a narcissistic parent’s wishes is the best way to receive attention. However, this pattern of desperately-trying-to-please behavior can lead children of narcissists to develop an anxious-avoidant attachment style in love

Anxious-avoidant attachment is characterized by, on the one hand, suffering anxiety regarding not feeling fully connected to their partner but at the same time not wanting to get too deeply attached

Adult children of narcissists can become anxious when they feel that their partner isn’t as completely dependent on them as they would like. 

In turn, the partner may feel overwhelmed by this neediness. The partner might attempt to create more space for themselves which adds to the intense feeling of anxiety.  

There is also the element of avoidanceWhile the adult children of the narcissistic parents may have tender souls that beg to be nourished by their partners, they are also constantly trying to avoid situations that could potentially hurt them

Therefore, they may lash out at the same person they desperately hope will love them. It is a situation of the worst of two worlds.

 

How to Improve Your Love Relationship

 

Have you recently realized that you are an adult child of a narcissist? If so, and you’re struggling with your own love relationship, that’s to be expected.

But what can you do? Quite a lot!

Here are some suggestions:

 

Learn About Narcissistic Personality Disorder

When the child of a narcissist reaches a place of understanding of the disorder and accepts that they will never be able to change their parent, the game changes. The realization can be simultaneously sad and validating.

The children of a narcissist may swing in and out of accepting the situation. However, once they firmly accept the situation for what it is, they can take concrete steps to protect themselves and will begin to grow in confidence and self-validation.  

Becoming a whole, healthy person after growing up with a narcissistic parent is certainly possible. That said, it requires acceptance of the situation. It also demands a real determination to learn the skills that were in short supply during childhood.

 

Go to Individual Therapy

Find a counselor who can work with you one-on-one. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) is a type of therapy that can be especially helpful for the adult child of a narcissist. This therapy helps the client surface traumatic memories and work toward resolving them.

 

Consider Couples Therapy

You can work through your issues together. In particular, I’m a fan of the Gottman Method of couples counseling, as well as the Relational Life Therapy (RLT) Method of couples counseling.

Couples therapy is a great place to work on the boundaries you will set with the narcissist in your life. It’s possible that this will require some negotiation, as one person in the couple may feel more strongly about the necessity to set a particular boundary.

In couples therapy, you can also learn healthy relationship skills, like how to set emotional boundaries with your partner, or how to repair an emotionally distant relationship.

In the meantime, even if you’re not in couples therapy (yet), read my post about how to negotiate with your partner for some practical tips that can help you two forge ahead. (This post focuses on negotiating differences around COVID, but the strategies will work equally well for negotiating which boundaries to set.)

 

Set Healthy Emotional Boundaries

Narcissistic parents usually do not ‘switch off’ their mannerisms when their children reach a certain age or leave the parental home. 

Instead, they usually continue to try to control their possessions—which is how they may view their children or grandchildren, no matter their age. It is how the narcissist has structured their world; they are the center, and everyone else must gravitate around them.

5 Steps to Set Boundaries with a Narcissistic Parent

 

 

As a child, you weren’t able to set solid boundaries with your narcissistic parent. But the good news is that as an adult you can and you must. Define clear boundaries in order to preserve your own mental health and your love relationship. 

Some of my clients have decided that not having the narcissistic parent in their lives at all is the healthiest boundary for them. Others set boundaries around the way they’ll allow a grandparent to talk to their children, or how much time they are willing to spend with the parent. There is no wrong answer. 

Follow these 5 steps to a healthier relationship with your narcissistic parent. This, in turn, will help strengthen your relationship with your significant other.

 

1. Prepare ahead of time

Discuss all the things you know the narcissistic parent may say or do to try to upstage events or demand attention.  

By this age, you’ve had plenty of experience knowing that your mother might unexpectedly develop a migraine just before Christmas dinner, or your father might complain endlessly about how the Thanksgiving turkey was prepared. Everyone will get upset and need to start running around to appease or nurse them. You’ve been there and done this throughout your childhood. Be prepared! 

Situations like these no longer have to be your drama. 

If you have your plan, you can remind yourself that this is entirely expected, and you can consciously reject their behavior. This may mean ignoring your mother’s sudden imagined condition or, if the situation about the turkey is too bad, giving yourself permission to leave the Thanksgiving dinner.

You no longer need to be a participant in their desperate game for the most attention.

 

2.  Know how you will exit

Never underestimate your narcissistic parent’s ability to think of new ways to control and manipulate you. 

There is no way that you will ever be able to guess the specifics of what will happen at your next encounter with your parents, but give yourself permission, in advance, to put yourself first and make the best of possible unpleasant situations

So, if your father comes to your house and starts criticizing your lifestyle or husband, know your plan B. Will you say you have an appointment, and then drive to a friend’s house? 

If you cannot remove yourself from the situation immediately, mentally prepare yourself to completely switch off when the inevitable backlash over this behavior comes later. Always have an exit strategy.

 

3. Live your life on your terms

In your heart, you probably already know that your narcissistic parents may never fully approve of your choice of career, partner, parenting, or lifestyle. 

Unless you do exactly what they prescribe, you will always hear about their disappointment in you. They will try to steamroll you back onto the path that they have in mind. 

Console yourself in the knowledge that even if you took the course they advised, it’s highly likely this would still not be good enough. 

So, start putting yourself first! Think carefully about what interests YOU, what makes YOU happy, how YOU feel a sense of fulfillment. What is YOUR dream for yourself? Make up your mind and go for it! 

You don’t need your parent’s permission anymore!

 

4. Take back the remote control

If you are not within a short driving distance, it’s easier to limit the amount of time you spend with your parent. You can even choose to limit your contact to weekly phone calls or to just exchanging WhatsApp messages and providing photo updates. 

Take back the remote control in the relationship. That may sound cruel, especially when you have your own children, as grandparents usually relish every moment with their grandchildren. However, keep in mind that a grandparent with narcissistic traits is likely to have trouble modeling healthy relationships for your children.

The good news is that setting boundaries with a higher-functioning person with NPD often does work. Access to grandchildren and children can motivate them to be on their best behavior.

 

5. Know when to cut ties

Sometimes the boundaries and limits you’ve tried to set are consistently bulldozed or ignored by a narcissistic parent. In this case, you may need to eliminate all contact for your own mental health, as well as that of your significant other and/or children. 

Cutting all ties can be an incredibly hard step to take because most people for a happy relationship with their parent. But that may be something you aren’t likely to have, no matter how much you hope your parent will change. 

As an adult, cutting off contact is sometimes the only possible way to cope with a narcissistic parent. You may be surprised to find that doing so may strengthen your relationship with your significant other. 

 

How Your Narcissistic Parent Impacted You in Love

 

As a child, when someone said something unkind, we would chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  This is certainly not true.  There’s a good chance that growing up with a narcissistic parent likely left you feeling anxious about your love relationships. 

Fortunately, as an adult, you are now in a position to repair the damage.  You can still learn healthy relationship skills that will enable you to thrive in love.

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