The effects of childhood trauma, including emotional neglect or abuse in childhood, can have alarmingly potent effects on our psyche as we enter adulthood, even to the extent of rewiring the brain (van der Kolk, 2016). The children of narcissistic parents, those who meet the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, know this all too well, having been raised by someone with a limited capacity for empathy and an excessive sense of grandiosity, false superiority and entitlement (Ni, 2016). Children of narcissistic parents are programmed at an early age to seek validation where there is none, to believe their worthiness is tied to the reputation of their families, and to internalize the message that they can only sustain their value by how well they can ‘serve’ the needs of their parents. They have lived an existence where love was rarely ever unconditional, if given at all.
This is not to say that childhood survivors of narcissistic abuse cannot rise above their childhood conditioning; in fact, they can be stronger survivors and thrivers as a result of the resilience they are capable of developing and the ways in which they channel their traumas into transformation (Bussey and Wise, 2007). It takes real inner work and bravery to unravel the traumas that we’ve had to endure as children as well as address any retraumatization as adults. Being able to understand our relationship and behavioral patterns, as well as any negative self-talk that has arisen as a result of the abuse, can be revolutionary in challenging the myths and falsehoods we’ve been fed about our worth and capabilities.
As children of narcissistic parents, we often learn the following from a very young age:
1) Your worth is always dependent on conditional circumstances. As the child of a narcissistic parent or parents, you were taught that you were not inherently worthy, but rather that your worth depended on what you could do for the narcissistic parent and how compliant you were. The emphasis on appearance, status, reputation is at an all-time high in households with a narcissistic parent. Due to the narcissistic parent’s grandiosity, false mask and need to be the best, you were probably part of a family that was ‘presented’ in the best possible light, with abuse taking place behind closed doors.
Within the home was a different story than the one presented to the public: you may have witnessed the horrific dynamics of seeing one parent verbally or even physically abuse the other, been subjected to the abuse yourself, and/or experienced both parents working together to undercut you and your siblings. If you ever dared to threaten the perfect false image or did anything to speak out about the abuse, you were most likely punished. The emotional and psychological battery children of narcissistic parents endure when going against the expectations and beliefs of the family can be incredibly damaging and have life-long effects on their self-image, their agency and their faith in themselves. They are taught that they are not independent agents, but rather objects that are here to serve the narcissistic parent’s ego and selfish agendas.
2) You need to be perfect and successful, but you should never be rewarded for it or feel ‘enough.’ Narcissists are masters of moving the goal posts so that nothing their victims do is ever enough. As childhood abuse survivors, we are no exception to that rule. Our accomplishments are rarely acknowledged unless they meet an arbitrary criteria for “what looks best to society,” or confirms the narcissistic parent’s own grandiose fantasies. Our abusive parent is never genuinely proud of us unless he or she can claim credit for that particular success. Some narcissistic parents can even envy or look down upon the success of their children, especially if that success enables that child to become independent of their parents, outside of their realm of power and control.
It is not uncommon for these types of parents to attempt to sabotage the success and happiness of their children if that success interferes at all with their grandiose self-image, their own ideas of what ‘happiness’ should entail (usually whatever makes them look good rather than what makes their children feel good) or their compulsion to micromanage and control every facet of their children’s lives.
In the sick mind of the narcissistic parent, it would be better if their children did not exist, rather than unable to do their bidding and ‘perform’ the identity that the parent wishes their children to embody or achieves the exact goals they want their children to achieve. Even if they were the perfect daughters or sons, the goal posts would again shift and their level of perfection would still never be good enough in the eyes of the narcissistic parent.