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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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeanne June 12, 2018 at 12:38 pm

Hello, I would like to ask for advice. A person close to me is married to a psycopath and they have a children who is ill treated by her mother (the psycopath). The parents of the man are aware of that but they are frightened that she can totally ban them from seeing the child. This last one suffers deeply. I would really like to know if there is any institution or help they can get to face this situation.

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A. July 2, 2018 at 3:13 pm

While I can’t say that I agree with every position taken, I highly recommend that your friend check out a website called “Shrink 4 Men”.

It has a lot of advice on dealing with toxic female personalities and specifics about issues regarding child custody and coparenting with evil mothers.

Ugh. I feel for them.

Good luck.

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Mrs Emma Green July 11, 2018 at 11:12 pm

thanks so much for this article. Everything in it continues to make complete sense. I’m married to a mental health nurse and CBT Therapist so was aware of the narcisistic mother syndrome but it’s still really good to hear it from another source. Unfortunately, it’s not just my mother, it’s my younger brother, my aunt, my late maternal grandmother and one of my cousins and scarily the traits have already appeared in the second of my younger brother’s daughter and she’s only 4!! Mercifully I take after my wonderful but passive dad who was utterly unable to protect me from my mother and indeed as he got older I would protect him from her!

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biret July 14, 2018 at 4:50 pm

Thanks for the article. I have found this web site few days ego. I am 52 years old. I am married but I never have found the love and I am still looking for it. The reason is my narcisistic mother. I still dont know the normal family feelings. I hope I can sort my problem soon. I spent 20 years in terapists to solve the problem but it changed only little. I need help to recover. I read many things here. But I dont know it will help me just only reading.

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Sue July 15, 2018 at 6:30 am

How do I find a therapist that specializes in narcissistic abuse? I called my mom out on her abuse 2 years ago and she has been ignoring me ever since and smearing me to my 3 sibs and everyone who will listen. I find it very difficult to move on. When I go to family functions everyone puts on a fake happy face. I see my mom at these functions but we don’t talk. Being ignored and smeared by your own mother feels like my heart has been ripped out. I have been seeing therapists but feel I need a specialist. How do I heal and get this unsolvable mess out of my head?

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Violet July 29, 2018 at 7:50 pm

After separating from my ex almost three years ago, I learned my parents were narcissistic among other things. I then married into it at the advice of my father. When the abuse was so bad I ended up back to the abusive parents that raised me. With children in tow. It got so bad the last two years that we had to try to run. Now the state seized my children warantlessly and put them with the abusers. I’m so lost and sad and angry. All I wanted was to make my own way in life with my kids. I cry. Every minute of every god damned day. I have no resources or money and no support system. All I want is to hold my babies and kiss their faces. To say I’m sorry this happened. I need to know that they’re okay and wether they’re happy. Yet I have been denied visitation and phone calls from them for two weeks now.
I am in agony and have no knowledge of this type of situation. Any ideas, or suggestions would be so appreciated. Thank you.

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Biret August 4, 2018 at 5:27 pm

Violet,
Did you find any solution? Where are your children now? Is there any support system in your country for these problems?

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Martyn's Tilse July 31, 2018 at 5:35 am

Thanks for this article! It feels right for me. But just knowing this hasn’t made it any easier for me to change. I remain very compliant and anxious to please others despite trying so hard to change.

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Mary August 2, 2018 at 12:14 pm

Thank you so much for this article. I’m glad I stumbled upon this and so much rings true. I am the product of a narcissistic mother and a VERY passive father, to the point that I barely had any relationship with him until he and my mother separated briefly (by y mother’s wishes). Now that they are back together, we do not have the conversations (about life and goals, etc) that we could when they were apart. I grieve over this.
I am the youngest of 4 siblings and you could say the golden child along with my 2 brothers, while my older 2 sisters were scapegoats and excised from the family for years at a time based on my mothers whim. I am 42 and just recently took up for my sister, after years of me fearing that I would be kicked out of the family for voicing out against my mother. It was the last straw, and I lovingly told her that I loved her and my sister and that I can not talk about my sister in a negative way and asked if we could change the subject, after which she threw a fit and hung up the phone and I haven’t heard from her since.
As I have been recognizing all of these traits in my mother, I really fear that I have married a narcissist. I have never voiced this of course, but if we get in an argument over anything I fear that maybe I am the narcissist. I have read about gas lighting and I feel this goes on in a mild form. I love my husband but I am beginning to get very tense and protective of myself (inwardly) around him and over the past two years I have begun to experience panic attacks. I’ve been in therapy but I don’t let all my cats out the bag when I’m in the there so I’m not making good use of her or my time.
I am beginning to write and hoping that helps with the feelings that I keep bottled up and hopefully help with the anxiety that I have been feeling.

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Biret August 6, 2018 at 4:09 pm

I have a problem. I try to please people.all the time and behave according to their will. I dont know and think what I want. How can I change this?

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Kate August 10, 2018 at 4:24 am

To answer the question which child was I, it’s too confusing. When I was a teenager, I was the scapegoat. I am aware of my school accomplishments but I was the bad daughter. I have believed that my whole life which led me to sort off give up the good fight in my early adulthood. At that time (early adulthood) my parents divorced and forced me and my brother to choose a side. I chose my mom, my brother chose my dad. I was now the golden child. Until my own child was born, I never realized anything was wrong. If you ask anyone that has met my mom, not spent daily time with her but rather weekends and when she’s in a good mood, she’s the best person they have ever met. I have been informed my whole life that I have the best mom ever. From her, from peers, etc. This means I am so confused right now. I feel something is very very wrong, after doing multiple tests alone I realize that she’s probably a narcissist if not worse. I now question EVERYTHING she has ever told me. To make matters worse, I question things so much right now that I am not sure I’m not the one who is delusional. Maybe she’s not trying to break my marriage up because she’s single but rather because she’s actually seeing something I’m not. Every time I talk to her, I end up fighting with my husband. Then I spend a week trying to figure out did she manipulate me and if so, how. I truly feel for every single person that has come to this page. The mind fog is the worst. To me, it’s worse than my trust issues, my abandonment fears, even my own issues of self-worth. Because of the fog, I can’t figure out what the problem really is and I don’t know how to heal. I have to heal, I just have to. I want my son to have a great parent because kids deserve great parents. No one is perfect, but I can do better than going from feeling great to feeling awful all the time. Thank you so so so much for this site.

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Biret August 12, 2018 at 2:13 pm

HI Kate,
I feel the same. Because my mother is behaving nicely. But evertime I meet her I feel very bad. She says that I am not lucy person.I deserve better husband. My children are problematic. She is very sorry about me. In the end I feel very confused and worthless. But everyone see my mother thinks she is wonderful person. She compares me and herself all the time and mentions somehow I am not good enough. On the other hand she tells to my husband I am stupid how he liked me she dosent understand.
It is very diffucult. I am 52 years old still try to figure out. Thanks to this website.

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Marthe September 13, 2018 at 7:59 am

Hi there,
In my environment, one 77 years old female narcissist and a same age husband and 2 adult children in their 55ies.
Does the husband and the children know that their mother is a narcissist?

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