Narcissistic parents are incredibly toxic, possibly one of the most toxic kind of parents. They create many problems for their children. They emotionally abuse them and often leave them with lifelong scars that can dramatically affect their relationships and other endeavors. But do those children become narcissists?
The answer is sometimes. Yes, narcissistic parents can turn their children into narcissists, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Their children can become codependent or they can develop any one of several other mental conditions. There are also other parenting styles that create narcissists.
Narcissism is a complicated mental disorder that may have numerous contributing factors. To really understand exactly what produces this personality disorder, it’s vital to look at not only parenting styles, but genetic predispositions, and the variety of environmental combinations that can produce a narcissist. Let’s take a deeper dive into how narcissism develops.
Do Narcissistic Parents Turn Their Children into Narcissists?
Sometimes they do, but not always. Narcissistic parents can take one of two tacks when raising their children. They will be incredibly neglectful and emotionally abusive from the start. Some narcissistic parents see their children as nothing more than incompetent nuisances who serve little purpose.
For the narcissist, the purpose anyone is supposed to serve is propping up their grandiose self-image. Children not only don’t do that, at least until their older, but they also demand significant amounts of attention from their narcissistic parent.
Narcissism is a Cluster B personality disorder that is multifaceted. It typically develops in a young child when their normal psychological developmental trajectory is disrupted though environmental factors interact with a genetic predisposition to produce the problem. When a narcissistic parent was young, they were subjected to some form of trauma that caused them to reject their developing sense of identity.
They basically come to believe their true self is hopelessly flawed, and as a result, they become filled with a deep sense of shame and self-loathing. They bury that true self and construct a false self-image to help them interact with the world around them. But that false self-image isn’t a real sense of identity and can’t do the work of supporting the narcissist’s ego.
They need other people to do that for them. The narcissist needs a steady supply of adoration, but of course, young children are more takers than givers in that regard. As a result, narcissistic parents may find young children to be useless for fulfilling their needs. They may then neglect them, which can cause that child to suffer the same fate as the narcissistic parent.
It can also cause them to develop another mental condition known as codependency. Additionally, neglect and rejection isn’t the only parenting style that causes narcissism.
What Other Disorders Can Narcissistic Parents Cause?
The child of a narcissist can become narcissistic because of their parent’s emotional abuse and neglect, but they might also become codependent. Codependency develops when a child is neglected, which teaches them that their needs are not important.
They also suffer when their neglectful parents constantly remind them that their needs are not a priority. To keep the peace, the young child learns to put their own needs aside and try their best to please their dysfunctional parent or parents.
Codependency is basically a survival strategy that the abused child employs to keep their parents happy. Of course, whatever they do is never enough for a narcissistic parent, and so they never feel satisfied.
This pattern of people pleasing continues into adulthood and into their adult relationships. Codependent adults often attract abusive partners. Moreover, because they have been taught that this type of abusive behavior is normal, they don’t see a problem with it and are even attracted to abusive people.
Unfortunately, this usually results in the child of the narcissist continuing the cycle of abuse with their own children. They give them a model of abuse and codependency that affects their own interactions and assumptions about normal behavior.
What Other Parenting Styles Cause Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
In addition to rejection, there are other parenting styles that cause narcissism. These styles may be employed by narcissistic parents or by parents who are not narcissists. Let’s look at the narcissistic parents first.
As discussed, narcissistic parents might be neglectful of their children from the beginning, but they might also embrace their children as members of a special family. Instead of rejecting them, they may teach their children that they are special and deserving of special treatment.
They can teach their children that they are entitled and that other people should do everything for them. They are basically teaching them to be a narcissist. It disrupts the normal development of their sense of self because they are never allowed to learn to do things for themselves.
They are also never allowed to fail and recover from failure. They don’t learn how to deal with the challenges of life. That is part of why they become filled with the shame and self-loathing that leads to the development of a fragile false self-image.
While narcissistic parents can create narcissistic children, parents who are not narcissists can also produce narcissistic children. Parents who spoil their children or are overly protective of their children can also create narcissists.
It’s the same mechanism. Their children are not allowed to do things for themselves or experience failure. They don’t know, therefore, how to deal with life’s challenges. Knowing how to fail is imperative for their development, but they never get that lesson.
Like the narcissistic parents who tell their children they’re special, overly protective parents never let their children do anything for themselves. Their children come to believe, therefore, that they are not capable of doing for themselves. That fills them with shame and self-loathing and leads to the construction of a grandiose false self-image.
Is it Nature or Nurture?
Scientists the world over have hotly debated the question of nature or nurture for many subjects, including personality disorders like narcissism. Many would argue that you develop a personality disorder because of the way you are treated when you’re growing up.
Others would say that you develop something like that as a result of your genes. There is evidence that supports both ideas. Certainly, psychologists have seen that abusive behaviors are more likely to produce a personality disorder, but there are also people exposed to that same abusive treatment who don’t become narcissists.
The truth is that both nature and nurture contribute to the development of many behaviors, including personality disorders like narcissism. Recent research conducted by psychologists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Oklahoma has shown that narcissism is moderately heritable (anywhere from 23% to 35%.
That means that between 23% and 35% of the variation seen with narcissistic personality disorder can be explained by genetic factors. But there are also environmental factors that come into play.
To better understand how heritability and environment work together to produce a certain outcome, consider the following example. You might have the genes to grow to be 6 feet tall, but if you don’t get enough food during critical periods of growth in childhood, you might only grow to be 5 feet tall.
You might have the genes to become a narcissist, but if you are raised in a home where your parents loved you and allowed you to try things for yourself, you don’t become narcissistic. It is when those genes are combined with certain environmental factors that narcissistic personality disorder develops. Thus, it is both nature and nurture.
Do Narcissists Know They’re Being Abusive?
This is another hotly debated question among professionals. On the one hand, the narcissist learns at an early age that they must manipulate people to get their needs met. They know they need people to give them that valuable narcissistic supply, and they learn how to manipulate them into doing so.
Many of their manipulations require planning, so they are cognizant of what they’re doing, but do they really see it as abusive? The answer to this question is more difficult to ascertain. The difficulty lies in the fact that narcissists lack empathy.
They are not able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and understand how their behavior might affect them. They can’t say, “If someone did that to me, I would be angry too.” They simply can’t envision or imagine what it would be like.
Moreover, because they need other people to act as support for their carefully constructed identity, they come to view those other people as extensions of themselves. As such, they are not abusing them, they are simply using what is a part of their own psyche.
While narcissists are aware of the actions and manipulations they are using to get what they need, they don’t have the empathy or compassion to understand how those can be hurtful. They are aware of their behavior, but they don’t define it as abuse.
Finally, they have an unlimited capacity to justify their actions. Anything they do to you, they can justify it because of something you did. Perhaps you didn’t alert them to something you should have or maybe you snapped at them or judged them in some way. No matter what you did or didn’t do, a narcissist will find a way to tell you that it was wrong.
What are the Symptoms of Narcissism in a Young Child?
When children are young, they are narcissistic by nature. They are helpless and can’t communicate, which makes them focused solely on their own needs. Additionally, their parents are usually focused on supplying them with everything they need.
For the first few years of a child’s life, they feel as though they are the center of their parent’s world, and to some extent, they are. As they get a little older, they start to learn they are not, in fact, the center of the world.
They begin to become socialized and learn that other people have needs too. They also start to be able to supply what they need for themselves. This is a normal trajectory. The child starts out narcissistic, but then eventually outgrows those tendencies.
A healthy child develops a balanced view of their own needs versus the needs of other people. But a narcissistic child continues to exhibit behaviors that indicate they still believe themselves to be the center of everyone’s world.
They believe themselves to be entitled to whatever they want, they are often cruel to other people, notably other children, and they can easily fly into a rage when they don’t get what they want. They also lack empathy. They can’t see how their behavior affects other people.
These children will often have problems in school. They may get into fights frequently or exhibit selfish behavior. Parents might be alerted to this problem by the child’s teachers. It’s also likely the parents will be experiencing that kind of misbehavior at home.
The child may fight with their siblings, demand that they get what they want when they want it, and throw a temper tantrum if they don’t. Healthy parents will notice this, and there are things they can do to prevent the child from developing narcissism.
What Can Parents Do to Reduce Narcissistic Tendencies?
The key to reducing narcissistic tendencies in a young child is to help them develop more empathy for the people around them. You can help them imagine how they would feel if someone treated them like they have treated other people.
You can also ask them to imagine how they would feel if something happened to them, as they might see in a movie. For example, after watching Bambi, you might say, “How would you feel if you didn’t have your mother?” Or, if you’re watching Scooby Doo with them, you might say, “Wouldn’t you be scared if that happened to you?”
By encouraging them to imagine that what is happening to someone else is happening to them, they start to learn how to put themselves in other people’s shoes. They start to develop empathy. This can reduce their narcissistic tendencies, but there’s more you can do.
You can also teach your children how to express their frustration and process their feelings. This will help them learn what is an appropriate expression of difficult emotions. Be sure to let them know that they have every right to feel their feelings, but they have to learn how to express them in ways that don’t hurt other people.
You can also help them learn object constancy, which is something that narcissists struggle with. Object constancy refers to the ability to still love someone even when you’re angry with them. By reassuring them that you still love them even when they misbehave, you can help them learn that anger doesn’t mean you don’t love someone anymore or that they’re not a good person.
That helps them control their rage and understand that there is more to people than a single event or emotion. Teaching them these lessons will help reduce their narcissistic behaviors.
How Can You Treat Narcissistic Abuse?
If you have a narcissistic spouse who has abused your child or you know someone who has been through narcissistic abuse, there are some ways it can be treated. The most important way to treat narcissistic abuse is by working with a psychotherapist.
This is very helpful for people of all ages, but it is especially critical if you’re dealing with a child who is being abused by a narcissistic parent. A therapist can help them learn to process their feelings, recognize abuse, and develop a strong sense of identity and self-worth.
Those are important factors for staving off the long-term effects of narcissistic abuse. For those adults who suffered from narcissistic abuse, therapy is still the best solution. Therapists can help them heal their inner child, learn to develop and maintain appropriate boundaries, and develop healthy relationships.
Therapists can help with all of this, and they are the best way to treat narcissistic abuse. If that’s not an option, however, there are things you can do yourself. You can help a child or an adult learn to recognize and defuse their emotional triggers. You can also help them identify their personal boundaries and develop better coping mechanisms for abusive situations.
Of course, the most important thing you can do for a child or an adult affected by narcissistic abuse is to treat them with compassion and empathy. Model the behaviors they should have gotten from their narcissistic parent. That will be something for which they will be grateful for the rest of their life.
How Can Narcissism be Treated?
It is possible to treat narcissism, but it requires that the narcissist recognize they have a problem. That’s why successful treatment is difficult. Narcissists have difficulty admitting they have a problem because it means they are not perfect.
If you can get a narcissist to seek treatment, there are several therapy options that can help them. They will, however, need to commit to long-term therapy, and they will have to follow through on the treatment recommendations.
In general cognitive behavioral therapy is the most successful type of therapy for someone with narcissistic personality disorder. This type of therapy helps the narcissist recognize and challenge their negative patterns of thoughts that result in their abusive behavior.
It helps them develop more empathy as well. Another form of therapy that works well for narcissism is called transference-focused psychotherapy or TFP. This therapeutic approach treats splitting, which refers to the narcissist’s lack of object constancy; that is, their tendency to see people and situations as either all good or all bad rather than a mix of the two.
TFP helps them develop a more realistic, integrated concept of both themselves and other people. Mentalization-based therapy helps the narcissist form more secure attachments, and dialectical behavior therapy helps them to better regulate their emotions.
Metacognitive interpersonal therapy helps a narcissist explore the underlying causes of their personality disorder, and supportive psychotherapy helps them better deal with negative emotions. There are also some medication options for narcissists to help with depression and anxiety.
Most narcissists require a mix of these treatment options to successfully reduce their narcissistic behaviors. If they stick with their therapy, they can reduce their symptoms of narcissism.
How Can You Convince a Narcissist to Seek Treatment?
While there are treatments that can help a narcissist, the difficulty is often convincing them to actually seek treatment. They are reticent to admit the problem is with them because their fragile self-image can’t support the idea they do anything wrong.
The first thing you need to do is validate their feelings and let them know that you support them. Narcissists do have a fear of abandonment, and by letting them know that you will stick by them through their treatment, you will help ease this fear.
You should also let them know that seeking psychotherapy to improve interpersonal skills is something everyone can benefit from, and it doesn’t indicate that someone is crazy or even flawed. Quite the contrary, seeking therapy takes courage and a strong will because it is a difficult and often painful process.
It can be helpful as well if you agree to go through family counseling with them so that they can learn how to better interact with their loved ones. It can also help you to recognize apologizing behaviors in the narcissist, which frequently look different than those behaviors in a healthy person.
Narcissists often won’t apologize directly for something they’ve done wrong, but they will make a gesture of apology. They might, for example, take you out to a nice dinner or bring you flowers. While you might not get an admission that they made a mistake, this is their way of doing the same thing.
Another thing you can do when they do agree to seek help is to recognize their progress. It will be important as they engage in treatment to praise them and their progress frequently so they will keep doing it.
Should You Cut the Narcissist Off?
It is possible that the level of narcissistic abuse will be too much for you. You might consider cutting off all contact with a narcissist in your life. This is a difficult decision to make, however, and it often depends on your relationship with the narcissist.
If you’re the parent of a narcissistic child, you might not be willing to cut off all contact. The same is true if the narcissist is a parent or other close family member. If you do elect to cut off all contact, you’ll want to be firm about it.
Don’t contact them for any reason, and block them from contacting you in any way. If you don’t elect to go no contact, you’ll want to set up some firm boundaries about what you will and will not permit regarding how they treat you.
You’ll want to determine consequences for bad behavior and make sure you enforce those every time the narcissist acts out. You can also elect to go low contact with the narcissist. You can limit the amount of time you spend with them, the topics you will talk about with them, and the frequency of your visits.
You should not have to put up with narcissistic abuse as it can create numerous lifelong problems. Regardless of what you decide to do about the amount of contact you have with a narcissist, it will help you to get therapy for the abuse. A therapist can help you set strong boundaries, develop good self-care habits, and process negative emotions.
How Can You Protect Your Children from Your Narcissistic Spouse?
If you share children with a narcissistic spouse or ex-spouse, it can be challenging to protect them from emotional abuse. When they’re young, they don’t understand what’s happening, and by the time they do, it can be too late. The damage is already done.
But there are some things you can do even when they’re young to help protect them. First, you can work with them so they understand that their other parent sometimes has difficulty expressing their love for their child. This begins the process of letting them know that there is nothing wrong with them, but rather, it’s their parent.
It’s tricky, but working with a child psychologist can help this process. Since it may be difficult to prevent them from seeing their child legally, you have to help the child develop healthy coping mechanisms. Your child will need to learn how to appropriately express and process negative emotions.
They will also need help in developing a secure sense of identity so that they don’t suffer the same fate as their narcissistic parent. A therapist is really the best way to do those things, but even if you can’t seek professional help, you can be a source of encouragement and unconditional love for your child.
Let them know that you love them no matter what kind of feelings they have, and allow them to express their frustrations to you. That gives them a secure outlet for their uncomfortable emotions. You can also help them to develop healthy coping skills like practicing meditation to calm themselves and process their feelings.
Additionally, you can teach them good self-care habits like walking in nature and exercising. You can model this behavior for them to emphasize the importance of taking care of yourself. This can help them more than you know.
While narcissists do not always have narcissistic parents, they often do. If their parents are not narcissistic, they are frequently abusive in other ways. In some way, the narcissist has learned that they are not a valuable person, and that is what results in their abusive, manipulative behaviors. They learn early on to recognize and use a person’s fears and emotional wounds against them. What’s more, they can continue the cycle of abuse with their own children.
One of the best things you can do to protect yourself and your children from a narcissist is to learn to recognize and defuse your emotional triggers. You can help children do this too. I have created a 5 Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers that can help with that. It’s a free guide that can help you learn to recognize, defuse, and heal your emotional wounds and the triggers that result from that old trauma. If you click on this link, I’ll send it directly to your inbox. It can help you and your children deal with narcissistic abuse.
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