Adult Children of Narcissists

by Michelle Piper

Adult Children of Narcissists (ACON’s) sometime fear that narcissism breeds narcissism.

While this may hold true in a minority of cases, it is not always what happens, especially when a child grows to realize that the family he or she was brought up in is not the norm. You may realize and that your childhood experiences are not something you want to replicate in the new life you are making for yourself.

Narcissistic parents are incredibly jealous and envious of their children when they see them grow and develop into an independent self. As you may know, they will do anything in their power to keep you with them as long as possible, to keep stroking their thirsty but fragile egos.

What happens when you grow up, venture out onto your own (reluctantly allowed to do so by your narcissistic parent) and realize that life outside of that narcissistic bubble isn’t what real life is about? It is enough to make anybody’s head reel from the contradictions of what “love” was when you were growing up, to what “love” actually is.

When you, an adult child of narcissistic parents, grows up, you may feel something is wrong but cannot necessarily identify what that is. You may have always associated love and appreciation with conforming to the demands of your parents and therefore assume that is how it all works.

You were “parentified” as a kid, taking on the role of a parent to be emotionally and psychologically responsible for the well-being of your narcissistic parent, when it really should have been the other way around.

You may not have realized the stigmatizing effects that this has had on you until you grew up into your own person. It takes a toll on the self-esteem, self-concept, self-worth, and altogether life satisfaction. During childhood, siblings often mistake “parentification” as favoritism and resent or compete with you.  Quite the burden, I’d say.

There are typically two types of responses displayed by parentified children. Let me know if these sound familiar.

You have the compliant response and the siege response.

The compliant response is much what it sounds like, complacency reigns supreme in your adult life. You may spend a great deal of time caring for others (much like you had to do growing up), always trying to please those around you, and do whatever it takes to maintain a harmonious atmosphere, which usually means that your needs are put on the back burner. This may have caused you to be self-deprecating, feeling that you can give and give, but it will never be good enough.

Then there is the siege response, the complete opposite of the compliant adult child of a narcissist. If this is/was you, then you were probably defiant and rebellious, protecting yourself by becoming less sensitive or walled off and extremely independent.

You would do whatever you had to do to manipulate others and treat them as if they are the parents who wanted you to meet their every expectation. This is more or less a passive-aggressive attack on your parents through other people, doing to others what you wish you could’ve done to your narcissistic parent.

The fear of abandonment is a common theme among children with a narcissistic parent, as you may know. Always having to earn love from them and knowing that it can be taken away if the needs of your parent are not met is a heavy load for any child to carry, especially when you are the one that needs to be nurtured, shown empathy, and be taken care of.

This can carry on into adulthood, feeling that you need to perform to the standards set by your spouse or significant other. You might feel that you are only there to serve your counterpart, always feeling less skilled and deserving than the other, and doing whatever is needed to prove yourself in the relationship.

In many families with a narcissistic parent, children are used as pawns and played off one another for the amusement of the parent. If you have brothers and/or sisters this may be familiar to you. There is typically a golden child and one or more scapegoats. Usually, the daughters of narcissistic mothers are chosen as the scapegoats, while the son(s) are chosen as the golden child(ren).

Your narcissistic mother may have cast you in all of these roles, abruptly changing your purpose when it suited her needs. This sudden demotion or promotion can be enraging or devastating to a child. Which role or roles did you play?

The golden child is the extension of the narcissistic parent, the perfect child that can do no wrong and is mirrored as a replication of the parent’s wonderfulness. Proper boundaries are not made between the golden child and the narcissistic parent, giving a sense of oneness between the two that leaves little or no room for the child to develop his or her own identity. As this adult child of a narcissist grows, he or she feels entitled to this same treatment, expecting others to act in the same way the parent did. Sound familiar?

Then there is the scapegoat, the outcast, the family member or members that take the blame for anything and everything that goes wrong. This child can never measure up to the golden child, even if he or she has greater accomplishments or does better in their life than the puppet of the parent.

Scapegoats are always seeking approval only to be turned down and made to feel inadequate for even attempting to outshine the golden child. This can cause a major rift between siblings, always competing with one another in a lose-lose situation where the referee is not fairly judging the players. Does that hit close to home?

As the scapegoat grows and ventures out into the world of freedom, they have a firmer grasp on their independence than the golden child does, as that child has never been allowed to be independent in their life.

I guess you can say that, retrospectively, the scapegoat is the lucky one. You may or may not agree. Typically, scapegoats can break free from the twisted and distorted dynamics of their dysfunctional family, and break the ties binding them to the abusive life that they were forced to lead. They have more of an opportunity to create a healthy life outside of their family.

However, the burdens they carried from childhood can still play a role in their adult lives. In the workplace, the scapegoat has a tendency to be overworked and underpaid even if their work is superior to others. They can be marginalized and never have the sense that they fit in comfortably with those around them, much like how they felt during childhood.

Scapegoats often do realize that this is a problem and are more apt to seek out professional help and psychotherapy than their other family members. If you happened to be the scapegoat in your family and have taken the steps to recover, you may have sought support from many different sources including meditation, spirituality, and truly loving relationships. What things have helped you to heal and have a better life? I would greatly appreciate your feedback.

With your narcissistic parent, you were most likely devalued and extremely under-appreciated. In the larger world away from the old narcissistic family system, you have the opportunity to be valued for your opinions, values and needs.

You find you can find others who allow you to express yourself and give a nurturing response to your own beliefs and needs. It can help you to recognize that you are an adequate human with positive attributes and skills to share with the world.

You learn that it is not your fault that your parent did not love you or show any empathy towards you, which is something that you really need—to be rid of the guilt and weight you have borne for so long.

I think The Beatles had it right: all you need is love.  And, for those who had narcissistic parents, sometimes it takes awhile to figure out what love is.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

karen July 6, 2016 at 5:19 am

I’m 34 years old and just realised my father has NPD. I never knew, although I knew that he was abusive both emotionally and physically. I thought all of that was in the past, but thinking about it, we live in different continents and I never see him longer than a few days every few years, so perhaps I couldn’t spend enough time that really he hadn’t changed all that much after all. From what I know he has only been physically abusive to me, not to my brother, my mother or his new wife (my mum died when I was 15)

Anyway, this month is the first time that I have spent more than a few days with him. After day two he already started his usual anger patterns, but after being in therapy for 2 years and learning how to set boundaries I tried to communicate with him that I cannot be spoken to like that any more and we need to find new ways of communicating. He was actually very understanding and I thought that’d be the end of it. A few days ago though he had an anger outburst that I haven’t experienced for nearly 20 years, since I was 15 years old and he abused me physically which resulted in me trying to run away from home. He had the same crazy glaring eyes like he is looking at the devil. His rage towards me is so terrifying. And it made me realise he still hasn’t changed one bit. I find it terrifying that he thinks he has the right over my body like that, and that he blames me for it because he says I am the only one that can make him this angry. So he demanded to apologise to him for making him angry. It is so insane to me, thank god I realise now that it is seriously wrong. And thank god I found this site, I realise now that he is a narcissist and always has been. That I did nothing wrong, that it’s ok for me to set boundaries.

I am wondering what to do now. I feel like there is no way I can explain to him what he has done to me. But his new wife (who really believes in ‘the family’ ) urges me to speak to him before I leave. She wants us all to be one big happy family, but I cannot imagine how that can be possible. I will keep educating myself through different blogs and sites, and see what I will do. For the last four days I have been terrified just to hear his voice in the next room, I got rushes of anxiety so I know I cannot speak to him face to face. I imagine the only thing forward now is distance. He uses the things he does for me as amunition and makes me feel guilty for not doing what he wants, like I am selfish for having boundaries. And I must be selfish because look at all the amazing things he does for me (driving me to places, giving me money. all material things, but he never asks about my life, my pain, or anything that feels real to me)

Anyway thank you for this site and I hope I can keep finding answers from reading people’s stories.

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Lydia August 3, 2016 at 1:49 pm

Hi Karen,
I am new here too but have a few years of experience “knowing” that I grew up with at least one NP (my mom) and most likely both (ie, my dad). I am definitely the SG and my brothers are both The GC’s to my parents. I am responding to you b/c I’m about 18 years ahead of where it sounds like you are.

At 24 I married an N.(Can you guess why I could not tell he was an N?) We have two wonderful, smart kids. But as the marriage went on, his controlling behavior, his complaints and abusiveness (and gaslighting) took such a toll on all of us —unbelievable. Got divorced in 2011. And it was pure hell, getting away from his control with my kids intact. But on top of my EX having a problem, my NP’s were mad at me because my divorce “made them look bad.” (In their words). Yes, a dutiful daughter should put up with an N crazy-making marriage just to keep her parents “looking good.*

If I could tell my 34 year old self anything, it would be this : Go back home (to the other continent) and read as much as you can about NPD and stay away from your NP. Ms. Piper had great resources. Find support. Please do not go back (or email or call) your NP to “explain” what you’ve learned about him. He has his own issues. Part of the problem with NPD’s is that you can talk til you are blue…. for years. But to them, the problem always has and will remain with You. It barely matters that you are talking to them. They aren’t listening.

My parents live 3 states away (ahem, they are also 22 years divorced, btw). At 34 I tried talking to my mother about my feelings. Heart to heart. I got nowhere. Now 18 years later I’m post divorce, they are mad at me and — I feel wonderfully free. Like I don’t have to babysit the horrible neighborhood kids anymore!

Finding this website has helped me reconfirm my commitment to recover from my NP’s…..After the latest crazy-call from my mom June 30, I decided to go NC for 365. I’m not going to drop out completely (ie, stay on social media, not interact much, and send cards,) but have *as little* in person contact as possible. I didn’t tell her, I just started. And guess what? My life has peace now.

Can I regain 50+ years of life back? No I cannot. So what I’m saying to you is to go now, be free; go home; do the thing your NP probably said was a ridiculous idea. Take time for your life now. In our childhoods, the Big Bad Wolf of fairy tales was ALSO living WITH us — and in charge of our lives. Most people don’t get this– at all. So let it go trying to convince others. Just keep your life moving in a positive direction.

Yes it stings not to have “normal” (ie, loving) parents like the rest of the world seems to have at holiday time. But you are worthy and thoughtful. And have done all you can do. Leave the ball in you NP’s court. If he wants to play, simple rules must be followed. Be ready if he doesn’t want to play too. Wishing you many happy years ahead!

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Lydia August 6, 2016 at 11:29 am

Learning the Lingo…
I guess I am not going NC above but LC.
Thanks for your patience!

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Nina July 19, 2016 at 8:33 am

I am a 58 years old and realized my mother has NPD 16 years ago. I was her parent nearly all my life, a reversal of our roles. It all started when I was 15, my brother, the golden child was sent away to college and my dad escaped her by going to his garden outside the city. I was left in charge. She decided for me all my life, from boyfriend to work and to husband. I fell in love and got engaged with I was 18, my NPD mother started an affair with my fiance’s brother, he was 20 and she was in her late forties. She made such a mess that I ended up in bed for one year with nervous break down. She sent me to another country when I turned 24 with 200 usd in my pocket. I still cannot figure out why she did that? To tell her friends and relatives that she has a daughter studying in America?
I cried my eyes out when I was forced to marry a guy I did not love and moved to Europe. Again I agreed and decided to make the best out of my married life. She came on a visit, stayed for 3 months and I allowed her to ruin my 12 years of marriage.
After my divorce, I moved to a third country in Europe and started a new life this time all on my own. I bought my own furniture, my own taste, my own house and fell in love again with a lovely man. All this time I was responsible for her well being, finances and emotions. Her phone calls at midnight terrorized me. She came for another long visit, huge fights, tantrums, anger, the crazy look…she even cut her long hair short herself with kitchen scissors. I begged her to stop and had another nervous break down. She was so cold I never forget the way she looked at me when the paramedics took me to the hospital. Again to please her I allowed her to ruin my life.
One day I came across an article about NPD and realized that my mother is sick. I kept my life in Europe and visited her as much as I could, the golden child was not speaking to her anymore, she was getting old and lonely. I felt responsible and had compassion.
She had a bad fall a few months ago, for two months, I stayed up at nights and took care of her during the day doing all the possible care and work. One day she told me that I should leave, then she sent my brother to ask me to leave several time. I was food poisoned and could not do as much work for her, again she sent my brother to my room to ask me to leave. She said that I should not forget that she was the sick person. The last episode happened when I was helping her in the bathroom, she looked at me with rage and crazy eyes and said I wished her dead. I said why do you dislike me so much? and she replied I dont dislike you, I hate you. I stayed on for two more weeks to help her getting back on her feet. Once again she told me in a very normal tone and look that I wished her dead. I booked my ticket and returned to my life.
I am going through a rough period, blaming myself for being so naiive, wanting her love all my life, hating her, feeling sorry for her because she has NPD….she does not call me as often, her golden child is back to her and they are very happy together. I am almost completely excluded from the family. I am reading a lot and seeking professional help. I am firm with her and do not allow her to talk about herself much. My contact with her is very limited, I miss her calls because I am used to it all my life, I am a NPD escape goat.

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Rai August 2, 2016 at 7:01 pm

I don’t ever reply to stories or posts Nina, but I just had to with yours! The way Scapegoat children of narcissists do the ‘right thing ‘by their parents, are honorable and loyal and kind, is amazing. They are good people. I understand how shattering it is. I get the abuse. The longing. The confusion. The compassion. I understand every emotion. But it is time for you now. It is time to live your life. I just feel the need to say to you, go do your journey. Be kind, loyal, honorable to yourself. You have a lot to give the world, learn how to give to people who will honor you for it. It’s a long road, but the right one. I wish you every happiness.

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Jessika Rankins August 7, 2016 at 3:34 am

My mother and father and both grandmothers are narcissistic my mother threw me on the streets like a dog twice out of anger and insecuritys she let my step dad mistreat me and my sisters constantly and blamed us for making him mad and saying he did more for us than our real dad i tell you my mom slept with 3 diffrent men to have us so me and my sisters have 3 diffrent fathers plus she had abortons and even aborted my step dads child she put my dad on child support for my sister knowing his best friend fathered my sister and he’s mad at her about her evilness and punishes and mistrests. Me and she tries to control my life who I’m dating my friends my jobs my car where i stay she picks all of that if i stand up for myself she gives me the silent treatment or aabandon me and try to make herself out as the victim and turn my sisters against me because they are afraid of her i am not I’m just ready to snapp im mentally exhaused i got stuck in a flood snd my car interior was flooded but the car was fine when i asked her to pick me up from a gas station i remind you the water was up to my knees she was worried about the car not me i was tired wet i had to walk thru water filled with snakes sewage etc i could have drowned the first thing sje did was fuss at me about the car not caring about me i hate her so much and then recently. Myy window on my car fell in we thought someone broke into my car this happened at the apartments she picked for me to move in crime ridden and dangerous apartments she gone blame me for the window by saying it was my fault the theft (we thought a theft) took the window because i quit my job so i if i wouldnt quit my job i could have moved hmmm see what i mean

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CC August 7, 2016 at 8:17 pm

I see myself in so much of this. My mother was hugely narcissistic and I, as her youngest daughter was placed in both the role of Golden child and then Scapegoat, bounced back and forth between the two extremes. To make this 1000x worse and make me feel completely crazy and hopeless, my mother also sexually abused me and I was placed in the role of caretaker, spouse, confidante, sex therapist, perfect extension of her. I was Golden as long as I never, ever showed any iota of independence or desire to connect with any other family member, friend, outside support. When she became depressed she told me she was saving up her pills and would kill me then herself, to “save us from the pain of this world”. I am 45 and still caught in her clutches though I hate her, yet pity her, and still wonder if I am simply crazy and have made everything up. But I haven’t. Often I think the only way to free myself from this mess is through suicide. It is so hard to deal with the fact that my own mother would do the things she has done to me. Everyone else sees me as the drama queen, bad guy, one who is making her life difficult. No one supports me and the truth of what really went on as a child or what continues to go on to this day. I really see no way out.

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Jan September 20, 2016 at 1:20 pm

You must believe this: You are not a drama queen. You are not a bad person. This is ALL your mother’s doing. You were trained from birth by this twisted woman to always believe there is something wrong with YOU. There isn’t. The trauma and confusion you feel is NORMAL when dealing with these sick monsters. Like you, I ping-ponged between Golden and Scapegoat. Like you, I was abused by a family member with knowledge of other family members. You are not the bad guy. (1) Please see a therapist who is trained in healing from abuse. (2) Research Narcissistic Mothers on the internet — there are hundreds of thousands of us damaged daughters out there. Join blogs that resonate with you. You are NOT alone. (3) Consider stopping or severely limiting your contact with your toxic mother. (4) Hang in there! I am 54 and I can tell you it does get better….

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Andrew M September 7, 2016 at 4:13 am

My mother is the most horrific sadistic narcissist. Her abuses; physical and psychological are so disgusting it’s just not worth writing them here. What has constantly amazed (and depressed me at times) is that it took so many years for me to see the reality of the situation and begin to understand that my childhood and adolescence was in no way “normal”(ie, a loving, caring family) . I was about 43. Since then I’ve been in therapy for over three years and cut my parents out of my life about two years ago and no longer see them at all. I can honestly say that I had no healthy self esteem or self regard whatsoever, for the vast majority of my life…..I find it mind-boggling. which in turn, leads to me asking myself “am I making this all up?” “did it really happen?”, as looking at reality and accepting and admitting what happened to me has seemed virtually impossible at times.

However, I do feel that therapy is the answer (for me at least). It’s taken way longer than I thought it would take, has been way harder than I ever imagined possible, and has been a lonelier journey than anyone would wish to experience…but….it’s worth it and I do have Hope, i do have a sense of self. I have learnt to “love” myself and my crushed inner child. It’s not easy and there are many times when i’ve thought “I can’t do this” or “I’m never going to recover from the past” but I’ve kept going, and intend to carry on with the therapeutic journey. Any time I really feel like I want to give up I just think about the past and about how I was and i realize that there isn’t really a choice; I have to keep going as there is no way that I’m ever going back to living as the abused child.

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Ken G September 11, 2016 at 9:11 am

Andrew,

I, too, am a survivor of a NM’s abuse and manipulations. I cut off all contact with my parents 10 and 1/2 years ago. I had just turned 40 years old at the time of the cut off.

I went through therapy for 13 years, on and off….equal amounts given to both on and off, and had been told by my therapist that I simply had normal reactions to highly abnormal situations, and that the only thing wrong with me was continuing to remain in abusive situations…even attracting such situations through the other avenues in my life such as friends, coworkers, etc. She told me that I had a virtual tape recorder in my mind that was continuously playing on a loop and that I needed to learn how to shut off that virtual tape recording, as it was continuing to unravel my life….even though I’d been moved out on my own for some years. She told me that my self-esteem was very low and that any parental approval that I was seeking would never come and to learn how to be more self-approving.

Yes, I had countless moments where I thought of throwing in the proverbial towel, thinking that I would never get better. This was due to the fact that I was still in contact with my NM and my enabling father and taking their abuse all along. There were many moments when I thought to myself, “Did I really concoct this whole abuse/manipulation thing in my head, just like she always said I did? Is my reality really so altered that maybe I misunderstood everything and really did make myself crazy?” I truly thought that maybe I was beyond any help and many times wondered if I should stop seeking therapy. At one time, I thought that maybe my counselor was giving me the wrong advice and had been seeking to dismantle my life. But I kept going anyway and finally, in 2000, I realized that I needed to make changes in my life and get rid of the source of my pain. Thing is, it didn’t truly happen until March of 2006. That was when I finally let go of my parents and decided I wasn’t going to feel better if I kept them in my life. I’d just turned 40 years old a month before, and I finally realized that my life was going nowhere fast unless I got rid of the very heavy baggage that I’d been carrying around my entire life up to that point.

I did feel guilt after exiting the scene….even beating myself up because I thought, “How could I do this to them, they are my parents!” It was the better part of 3 years before that guilt finally faded and my reality began to change. My life took a better turn and the depression, guilt and panic attacks had finally calmed down. I also began to realize that I was capable of some pretty amazing things, despite having been told all my life what a loser I was and how I always messed things up.

No, my life isn’t filled with riches and wealth, materially speaking. However, the wealth of knowledge I’ve gained through the hurt and pain I went through has now become and invaluable tool and I do try to help others around me who are in pain. It has caused me to become more sympathetic and compassionate toward others and my own experiences with the pain have helped me gain so much insight into the inner-workings of the human heart, mind and spirit. I live my life for the experiences, as I know I can’t take material wealth with my to the grave. I share nothing but love and concern for others who are in pain and who need a hand to reach out to them. But I am also careful not to fall for everyone who tells me their sob stories either….as I am aware that there are many who wish to take advantage of me and let me enable them, rather than helping them get themselves back on their feet again. But the knowledge and the wisdom I’ve gained from my own pain and the journey to wellness and being able to help others has been overwhelmingly rewarding and even my success in my own job….it has all shown me that I was right about myself when I was a child, just before the abuse and manipulation began (around age 8)….that I was a good person.

So keep up the therapy and keep your eyes facing forward. If guilt or self-doubt arises, just tell yourself out loud, “It’s a lie and I’m not listening to you!” There truly IS life, love and new horizons awaiting you and it really IS possible to come out from underneath all that toxicity that has been a huge part of your life for all these years!! I’m living proof and speak from 50 years of experience that healing is truly possible and that guilt and manipulation have no more place in my life anymore!

Good luck and best wishes!

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Jan September 20, 2016 at 1:07 pm

Great article. I think when I was young I sort of the Golden Child #2 with my brother being GC #1. I can as an adult relate to Scapegoat completely. I was stunned at the description of the Scapegoat in the workplace — yes yes yes! I sought out years of therapy which none of my 4 siblings did, or did half-heartedly. From what I have read, I agree that the Scapegoat is usually the only one to gain freedom from the Narcissistic Parent(s) by going No Contact. The others are too invested in being lesser Narcissists or Enablers. So, in a strange way, it can be a blessing. Another blessing is that, after a lifetime of dysfunctional relationships, at 54 I am in a 15 year marriage with a man who completely loves and accepts me right down to my toes. This, along with Cognitive therapy, has given me the vision and the strength to go No Contact and to work to undo some of the damage.

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