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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