Posted Feb 19, 2018
Why does it matter if a parent is a narcissist? How does that hurt a child? You may be asking these questions if you are a person co-parenting with a narcissistic ex; someone raised by a narcissistic parent; one who is in a relationship with a narcissist; or maybe a divorce professional working on a case that involves a narcissistic parent. Given my research and clinical experience, I want to provide some education and awareness about how this disorder hurts children.
First, let me explain that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is misunderstood when applied to someone who is just boastful, arrogant, and all about themselves. While these traits are annoying and not fun to be around, narcissism is a deeper, more destructive disorder that has devastating effects on the people in relationships with the individual. It’s a difficult disorder to treat; many believe it is untreatable. The cornerstones of the disorder are a lack of empathy and the inability to tune into the emotional world of others.
So how does narcissistic parenting affect children?
Being raised by a narcissistic parent is emotionally and psychologically abusive and causes debilitating, long-lasting effects to children. It is often missed by professionals, because narcissists can be charming in their presentation, displaying an image of how they wish to be seen. Behind closed doors, the children feel the suffocation of self and struggle with loneliness and pain. The narcissist is not accountable for their own mistakes or behavior, so the child believes they are to blame and that they flunked childhood. Having worked as a mental health provider with thousands of children, as well as the adult children of narcissistic parents, I see the above symptoms again and again. The lifestyles differ, and the stories differ, but they all wave the same emotional banners. It’s quite a list. It takes serious recovery work to get better and feel better.
If you are the other parent, or part of the extended family, and are trying to ward off the effects of a narcissistic parent, you will have double duty as the responsible one. The best approach is to parent with empathy — the antithesis of narcissism. If you are a divorce professional working with a case that involves a narcissist, help the kids by first really understanding the dynamics of this disorder. Don’t minimize it. Make sure the children are in therapy and are learning assertiveness skills to use with a parent who does not emotionally tune into them. Put the kids first.
Note: Narcissism is a spectrum disorder, so think of it as a continuum ranging from low-level traits that we all have to some degree to a full-blown personality disorder. The higher the level of traits, the more damage gets done to children.
Karyl McBride, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers