Life with a narcissistic parent – it’s time to step away

Growing up has its own unique set of challenges. Starting school, making friends, trying out for the football team, dating …. the list goes on and on. You are trying to learn who you are and where you belong in the world. But when your world is captured under the control of narcissistic parents, it becomes smaller, and your choices often are limited or eliminated. Narcissistic parents try to force their children to live in their shadows or live the life they expect and demand for them.

Let’s look at the story of Bernie (“Bernie” is not a real client but a composite of clients over the years). A 45-year-old elementary school teacher, he sought my help because his depression was affecting his relationship with his partner. Bernie increasingly was becoming overly sensitive, he got easily agitated – even by small frustrations that wouldn’t have bothered him in the past – and he continually expressed guilt, particularly over his mother’s welfare. He felt he was a bad son and was beginning to hate himself. His self-esteem was low, he didn’t feel good about himself, and his feelings were worsening.

Recently, Bernie’s mother moved out of the family home where Bernie had grown up and into a small apartment for senior citizens. She was treating Bernie coldly, and so were his siblings. At first, he thought it was because he was gay – something he had not previously admitted to his mother. 

In discussing Bernie’s past with him, I learned he lived with his parents until he was 25, when he decided to become a priest, but one year later, he changed his mind and moved back with his parents, who welcomed him home. Two years later, he moved into his own apartment. 

“How could you do this to me?” his mother asked. “I need you here. If you leave, you are a bad son and you won’t get any help from us financially or otherwise.” 

His father said nothing. Bernie left, sobbing and guilt-ridden. Two years later, his father died, and Bernie moved back home to care for his mother. Her life became his priority. No other siblings offered to help. They distanced themselves from Bernie and his mother.

A few years later, he met Dave, they fell in love, and they moved in with Dave’s mother. 

Bernie was struck by how loving, supportive and kind Dave’s mother was, traits he had never seen in his mother who repeatedly told the story to anyone who would listen about Bernie as an accidental pregnancy, and how hard the pregnancy was on her while raising nine children. 

Bernie remembers many stories of his mother’s coldness and lack of love and empathy. One Christmas, the kids found some of their Christmas gifts and unwrapped a few to peek inside. The next day they found all of their gifts unwrapped under the tree. When they asked why, their mother responded, “since you decided to look at your gifts beforehand, it didn’t look like wrapping them was necessary.” The kids were so full of guilt that it ruined Christmas.

Bernie also remembered when he and his siblings often would play outside with their father, but as soon as their mother returned home, playtime stopped immediately. The house became quiet. Mom was back and she was in control.

She never tucked the kids in bed or read them bedtime stories or kissed them goodnight. When Bernie told his mother that boys were bullying and abusing him in school, she looked at him with disgust and walked away in silence. He felt he had done something wrong. The bullying at school continued as did the disinterest at home. He tried so hard to be a good son but never could meet his mother’s expectations. He felt responsible for her unhappiness and tried his best to cheer her up with no luck. 

After he moved in with Dave, the feelings of abandoning his mother started eating away at him. When he and Dave visited, Bernie’s mother expressed more interest in Dave than her own son, and Bernie’s sense of self-worth continued to decline even more. He continued to believe he was a bad son for leaving her.

When she sold her home, Bernie’s mother gave one his sisters money to buy a home of her own. The class ring of his father’s, which was promised to Bernie, was given to another son. Bernie’s anger turned to self-hate and depression, which brought him to therapy with me.

For a while, he continued to blame himself, not his mother. He spent years of his life trying to understand why he was the “bad son,” never pointing a finger at his mother. Through therapy, Bernie learned his mother had narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which ultimately resulted in his depression. 

Eventually, through intensive therapy, Bernie began to see the truth and realize he had to begin distancing himself from his mother in order to heal. As his phone calls and visits decreased, his self-esteem increased.

This is when I urged him to try talking openly with his mother.

I strongly believe that we need to reach out to our parents so we can begin to heal – even if they are not willing to change or even participate in a conversation. 

After one year of distancing himself from his mother, Bernie decided to begin surprise visits to catch her off guard. He needed to re-establish power in their relationship to make him a stronger person. Slowly, he began to talk with her about her behavior and her broken promises. She acted confused and denied there was a problem. After many visits and conversations, she never conceded the truth – that she never wanted Bernie and was punishing him for not being the son she wanted him to be.

When I asked Bernie why he continued to subject himself to these visits when it was clear nothing was going to change, he said to me, “Joe, you taught me that I need to do this while I am alive and leave her with her own baggage so I don’t have to carry it any longer.”

Narcissistic parents load our backpacks at an early age with very heavy objects that we don’t need, but we carry this load well into adulthood. It was time for Bernie to say to his mother, “I’ve carried this baggage long enough and I no longer want it. I am giving it back to you.” She either could take it back and accept accountability or Bernie could let it go on his own. He was carrying a burden that was not his to begin with.

How does a child know if a parent is narcissistic? Bernie’s story revealed many signs.

Here are a few:

  • It’s always about them. NPD parents want their child to succeed, however, they set expectations that do not benefit the child but fulfill their own selfish needs and dreams. They will do anything to attract attention and take over the spotlight. Instead of raising a child to have his/her own independent thoughts and goals, they want their child to be an extension of them and their personal aspirations and desires. They think the world revolves around them, and they perceive their child’s independence as a threat. 
  • They marginalize their child. They are threatened by their child’s potential, and they try to demoralize their own child, so they can remain superior. They invalidate their child, reject his or her success and accomplishments, and judge and criticize them. They try to reduce their child’s confidence so they can boost their own insecurities and self-worth.
  • They claim an “I am better than you” mentality. Narcissistic parents tend to have a false inflated self-image and a sense of entitlement and expect their children to believe it, too. They go out of their way to seek ego-boosting attention. 
  • They are manipulators and controllers. They blame their kids, place guilt on them and shame them. They reward their children through the threat of punishment, and they use emotional coercion to get their way. Love is a conditional reward. 
  • They have no empathy. This is a common trait in narcissistic parents. They only care about their own feelings and thoughts and often don’t even try to understand how their child is thinking and feeling. 
  • They are jealous and possessive. If they see their child growing some sense of independence, they may try to squelch it. They see independence as threatening. They want their child to continue to live under their influence. Any perceived act of individualization or separation is unacceptable. They feel their child is doing it deliberately to hurt them. 
  • They have dependency issues. They will expect you to take care of them – emotionally, physically or financially – no matter what age you are or how needy they are. They don’t take your needs into consideration and always expect you to be available for them. They will do everything they can to keep you dependent on them, holding you back from building a life of your own.

Narcissistic parents do not have the ability to change, so don’t try. It is their world, and you just live in it. 

What is the impact on children of narcissistic parents when they grow into adulthood? You read the story of Bernie and how he struggled for years with his own self-worth issues. Other signs to look for include codependency in other relationships, poor personal boundaries, the inability to say “no,” chronic guilt and shame, emptiness, trust issues, anxiety, depression, apologizing for everything, self-blame, struggling to develop their own identity, repressing feelings and being a people-pleaser.

How can we, as therapists, help victims of narcissistic parents?

Healing from the effects of a narcissistic parent takes time, but it can happen. I work with clients to help them understand and make peace with their childhood experiences. It can be healing and empowering if clients are willing to explore what they went through as a child. This process of exploring the actions of their narcissistic parents will help them understand the cause of their own pain, how to release it and how to move on with their life. 

I remind these victims to allow themselves to grieve for the parent they never had. I also work with them to recognize their role in their family. Were they the scapegoat or the golden child? Were they alienated from their siblings or did they feel their siblings betrayed them? All of this is part of the manipulation tactics of the narcissistic parent. 

It also is important for the survivor to establish healthy boundaries. This will take time and practice. As children, they were trained to ignore their feelings because they are in direct conflict with the needs of the narcissistic parent. 

Navigating these feelings may resurrect anger and hurt but they will get past this. I advise my clients not to judge themselves or blame themselves. It never was their responsibility or their fault to begin with. If clients are engaging in patterns of self-abuse and destructive behaviors, I also work with them to help break these unhealthy patterns. By continuing these behaviors, they are giving the narcissist power over them. 

I also remind these clients that there are many people in their life who love them and support them. Surround yourself with these people. Take time to do things that make you happy. Don’t let the past consume you. Allow it to make you stronger.