* I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don’t think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not a woman in that same role.
In my experience, here are the most common pairings of Narcissistic parents and the children their style of parenting produces. I will go from least damaging to most damaging.
High Functioning Achievement Oriented Narcissistic Parents
Family Motto: We are special.
These Narcissistic parents are focused on everyone in the family looking good and becoming high achievers. Although they have little empathy and insist that their children conform to their expectations, they will praise their children whenever they do well in school, win awards, or otherwise fulfill their assigned role in the family.
Many children from these families grow up to be high functioning Narcissists themselves and the family pattern gets perpetuated.
Exhibitionist Narcissist Parents
Family Motto: I am special, you are not.
In this scenario one or both parents are Exhibitionisis Narcissists who insist that their children (and everyone else) continually admire and respect them. They want to be the center of attention in every situation.
The children’s role is to uncritically admire and obey them and treat them as Gods. Their every whim is law and their opinions are sacred. When the children do not go along with this program, they are devalued. They get rewarded with gifts, privileges, and attention when they do exactly as the parents say. Any individual initiative on the part of the children that is perceived as threatening the parents’ leadership is likely to be ruthlessly squashed. In essence the children are expected to believe and do whatever the parents tell them to. Anything else is seen as a rebellion.
Children from these homes grow up to have lower self esteem than those from the “High Functioning Achievement Oriented Narcissists’” homes. They have been devalued more frequently and almost never allowed to be the center of admiring attention at home.
As adults, they become wounded Narcissists who either seek to prove their parents wrong by focusing on getting the status that they were denied access to at home or else they accept their role as perpetually second class. Even when they manage to achieve, their internal doubts about their own self worth will continually create problems for them unless they get a lot of psychotherapy.
Closet (Covert) Narcissist Parents
Family Motto: You are special, your siblings are not.
These Narcissistic parents are often too insecure about their own self-worth to openly seek the admiration that they crave. If they happen to have a talented child, they are likely to use the child to get Narcissistic supplies for themselves.
The Golden Child: This “Golden Child” will be groomed by the parents to be the type of Exhibitionist Narcissist the parents always admired, but never dared emulate themselves. This child is usually uncritically praised by the parents for any and all achievements.
In some cases these children do quite well in life as they are prepared to see themselves as special and they are not conflicted about being in the spotlight.
In other cases, they are disappointed when they realize that there are other equally talented people in the world and they are no longer automatically acknowledged as “best.”
The Siblings: If the “Golden Child” has less obviously talented siblings, they are likely to grow up without getting very much attention from their parents. This lack of Narcissistic supplies is likely to leave them feeling ignored, devalued, and second-rate.
The “Golden Child” may experience the parents as extremely intrusive and blame them for any later disillusionment (that he or she is not really so unique and special). As adults, they may be perpetually disatisfied by their level of achievement because they never again feel the degree of specialness that their patents convinced them was their birthright.
In some cases, these children when they reach adulthood move far away from their families because they want to try to live their own lives without the pressure to fulfill their parents’ dreams.
Exhibitionist Devaluing Narcissist Parents
Family Motto: You will not get any help from us until you are good enough, and you will never be good enough.
These parents insist on being admired and give their offspring conflicting signals. They hold out the possibility of approval and respect as a way to control their children. They make many promises that they never keep.
According to them, it is always the children’s own fault that they were disappointed in the end. If only the children were smarter or better behaved, of course they would have gotten (a, b, or c….fill in the blank).
Many of these children believe their parents’ version of the story and feel tortured by their inability to live up to their parents’ expectations. Self-esteem is always just out of reach.
When the constant devaluation and disappointment is combined with indifference, intrusiveness, and actual physical neglect, many of these children make a Schizoid adaptation.
The Schizoid Child: At an early age they realize that they are on their own and will have to take care of themselves. They cannot count on their parents for anything.
- Independent: Those who have the intelligence and resilience, become fiercely independent. They comfort themselves with the idea that once they are old enough to leave home, they will get the real life that they long for and dream about. In reality, once grown, they find out that their disturbing childhood left them mistrustful and fearful around other people and they may find it difficult to make meaningful connections.
- Mistreated Bodies: They also tend to treat their bodies the way their parents treated them: as things without feelings that are there simply to be useful. This generally translates into them becoming dissociated from their feelings and bodily sensations and often working till they are literally exhausted and ill.
Malignant or Toxic Narcissist Parents
Family Motto: You live to serve me.
These Narcissistic parents treat their children as slaves. The children have no rights and get no respect. Their parents treat them as inhuman tools without feelings who exist mainly to serve the parents’ needs. These parents often have a sadistic streak and may actively abuse their children. Sometimes the abuse takes physical form and the children are regularly beaten for disobedience of any kind.
The Rebel Son: One young man reported that his family had a particularly ritualized way of physically abusing him. When he displeased his Narcissistic mother during the day, she would tell his step father when he came home from work that the boy needed to be punished. After dinner, the boy would have to choose the item with which he would be beaten from a wall of implements: various sized sticks and short whips.
This boy’s spirit was never broken. He did not grow up to have a Narcissistic or a Schizoid adaptation. Instead he became extremely rebellious and resisted any and all forms of authority. His family was upper class and extremely status conscious and pretentious. One of his forms of rebellion and revenge consisted of him becoming a petty criminal and pretending to be working class. He saw this as the ultimate rejection of his family and as a perpetual source of embarrassment for them.
The Broken Son: Another young man never managed to fully leave his abusive family. Despite being quite good-looking, he saw himself as fat, unattractive, and unappealing to women. He had body-dysmorphic disorder and extremely low self-esteem from being continually told that he was ugly and useless.
He was what I think of as a “failed Narcissist.” He had internalized his family’s Narcissistic values, but was convinced that he was too inferior to ever achieve anything significant. Instead he focused his insecurities on his appearance. He comforted himself with the fantasy that he would date someday and get a better job when he was thinner and had worked out at the gym enough to get a better physique.
The Schizoid Child: Some children internalize being treated as a slave without feelings as a model of all relationships. They see most forms of contact with other people as potentially dangerous. In their experience, there are only two possible relationship roles: either you are the “Master” and call all the shots or you are the “Slave” and have to do whatever the Master wants in order to keep the relationship. No negotiation is possible. Relationships are a take it or leave it proposition. The only alternative is to isolate yourself completely.
Punchline: There are many different ways to be a Narcissistic family and some are much harder on children. Children tend to adapt to the family that they find themselves in and adopt that family’s value system. This makes it likely that the children will grow up with a Narcissistic disorder of some kind or, at the very least, many Narcissistic traits. In more abusive and neglectful Narcissistic families, many children make a Schizoid adaptation to survive.