The narcissistic family hides profound pain.
Such families tend to operate according to an unspoken set of rules. Children learn to live with those rules, but never stop being confused and pained by them, for these rules block their emotional access to their parents. They basically become invisible—neither heard, seen, or nurtured. Conversely, and tragically, this set of rules allows the parents to have no boundaries with the children and to use (or abuse) them as they see fit.
The following are some common dynamics of this profoundly dysfunctional intergenerational system. (Keep in mind there are always degrees of dysfunction on a spectrum depending on the level of narcissism in the parents.)
The family secret is that the parents are not meeting the children's emotional needs, or that they are abusive in some way. This is the norm in the narcissistic family. The message to the children: "Don't tell the outside world—pretend everything is fine."
The narcissistic family is all about image. The message is: "We are bigger, better, have no problems, and must put on the face of perfection." Children get the messages: "What would the neighbours think?" "What would the relatives think?" What would our friends think?"
These are common fears in the family: "Always put a smile on that pretty little face."
Children are given spoken and unspoken messages that get internalized, typically: "You're not good enough"; "You don't measure up"; "You are valued for what you do rather than for who you are."
Lack of Parental Hierarchy.
In healthy families, there is a strong parental hierarchy in which the parents are in charge and shining love, light, guidance, and direction down to the children. In narcissistic families, this hierarchy is non-existent; the children are there to serve parental needs.
Lack of Emotional Tune-In.
Narcissistic parents lack the ability to emotionally tune in to their kids. They cannot feel and show empathy or unconditional love. They are typically critical and judgmental.
Lack of Effective Communication.
The most common means of communication in narcissistic families is triangulation. Information is not direct. It is told through one party about another in hopes it will get back to the other party. Family members talk about each other to other members of the family, but don't confront each other directly. This creates passive-aggressive behaviour, tension, and mistrust. When communication is direct, it is often in the form of anger or rage.
There are few boundaries in the narcissistic family. Children's feelings are not considered important. Private diaries are read, physical boundaries are not kept, and emotional boundaries are not respected. The right to privacy is not typically a part of the family history.
One Parent Narcissistic, the Other Orbiting.
If one parent is narcissistic, it is common for the other parent to have to revolve around the narcissist to keep the marriage intact. Often, this other parent has redeeming qualities to offer the children, but is tied up meeting the needs of the narcissistic spouse, leaving the children's needs unmet. Who is there for them?
Siblings Not Encouraged to Be Close.
In healthy families, we encourage our children to be loving and close to each other. In narcissistic families, children are pitted against each other and taught competition. There is a constant comparison of who is doing better and who is not. Some are favoured or seen as "the golden child," and others become the scapegoat for a parent's projected negative feelings. Siblings in narcissistic families rarely grow up feeling emotionally connected to each other.
Feelings are denied and not discussed. Children are not taught to embrace their emotions and process them in realistic ways. They are taught to stuff and repress them, and are told their feelings don't matter. Narcissistic parents are typically not in touch with their own feelings and therefore project them onto others. This causes a lack of accountability and honesty, not to mention other psychological disorders. If we don't process feelings, they do leak out in other unhealthy ways."Not Good Enough" Messages. These messages come across loud and clear in the narcissistic family. Some parents actually speak this message in various ways; others just model it to the children. Even if they display arrogant and boastful behaviour, under the veneer of a narcissist is a self-loathing psyche—that gets passed to the child.
Dysfunction—Obvious or Covert.
In narcissist families, the dynamics can be seen or disguised. The dysfunction displayed in violent and abusive homes is usually obvious, but emotional and psychological abuse, as well as neglectful parenting, are often hidden. While the drama is not displayed as openly to the outside world, it is just as, if not, more damaging to the children.
Parentifying: The Upside-Down Parent-Child Relationship
Consistent, appropriate care-taking and unconditional love are beyond the narcissist’s scope. Rather than seeing those things as his responsibilities (and privileges) as a parent, the narcissist expects such treatment from his kids, often turning the adult-child relationship upside down. In the narcissistic family it is common for adults to parentify their children, expecting them to meet their emotional and even physical needs and fulfill roles beyond their maturity level or rightful responsibility.
The parentified child may be placed in the role of therapist, confidante, or even surrogate spouse. That child also may be burdened with excessive chores, caretaking siblings, managing finances, or earning money for the household. Parentified children may feel flattered to be given adult responsibilities and honoured to play the role of “special helper.” It may feel as though they are getting attention from their parent that they can’t get any other way. But parentification is an extreme violation of boundaries.
The parentified child is being used at her own expense to meet the needs of the person whose job it is to meet hers. As they mature, parentified children are likely to struggle with healthy boundaries, fall into caretaking roles, and believe they can only “earn” love and approval by “working” for it.
Roles of children in narcissistic families
The three roles given in narcissistic families are: “golden child,” “scapegoat” and “lost/invisible child.”
The Golden Child
Initially one child is given the role of golden child. They are the parent’s “chosen one.” The golden child is seen as an extension of the narcissistic parent.This child represents the parent’s perfect image of himself. They either are physically beautiful or have a talent that the parent finds impressive; something that gives him bragging rights. This child is chosen specifically for exploitation.The golden child can do no wrong. If the parent finds fault with the child, a perfect reflection of his own self-image, that would have to mean that something is wrong with him.
This child is idolised as if they were god-like. But unlike an omnipotent god or goddess who reigns free and unencumbered, this child is his possession.The narcissistic parent tries to engulf and enmesh with the golden child as if the two of them were one.
No boundaries between parent and child are established. This makes it very difficult for the child to separate or form her own identity.
The expectations placed on the golden child are lofty. Whether through physical appearance, social graces or performance, one of her primary jobs is to always make the parent look good. Her other primary responsibility is to keep the parent happy.
When the golden child does not live up to their responsibilities, the parent turns on them. Fearing that if she does not play her role perfectly she could easily become the scapegoat child (which, after watching the implications of this role, is not something she wants to be) she quickly snaps back into her assigned role.The golden child learns from a very early age that her superficial qualities of pleasing and looking good, not her inner qualities, are what make her likeable and lovable. This handicap follows her wherever she goes, permeating every facet of her childhood, adolescence and adult life.
The Scapegoat Child
Life is very different for the scapegoat child. Where the golden child can do no wrong, the scapegoat can do no right. And though only one child at a time can be the golden child, some families have more than one scapegoat child. As I said, these roles can shift.The scapegoat child is considered a “bad seed.” She is seen as an inferior person.
Their primary job is to carry the shame and anger of the narcissistic parent on their shoulders.They are blamed for everything that goes wrong in the family.The narcissistic parent is unrelentingly critical, cruel, and abusive to this child. Not only are they unappreciated, they are humiliated in front of other family members, often called crazy, and made to feel unaccepted.
Since the scapegoat child is the most truthful, well-meaning, personally sacrificing member of the family they are the ones that are constantly getting hurt. They remain authentic no matter how many times they are used and abused by her parent.The narcissistic parent sees the scapegoat child as having no needs of her own, though she is expected to do all the caring. Their entire childhood is spent trying to live up to the expectations of the parent.
That proves futile every time. No matter what they do they are never good enough. Many of their ideas and achievements are worthy of praise but the parent never gives her the accolades they deserves.
The scapegoat child is the most honest member of the family. Unable to repress the injustices placed upon them, they are the one most likely to argue, act out or rebel. The scapegoat child is forever deemed an underachiever or loser. The scapegoat child actualises these self-destructive labels and the defining mindset follows her throughout life.
The scapegoat child ultimately has more freedom than the golden child does, so in that aspect she fares a little better in life. Because of her lack of enmeshment with the parent, she has a better chance of physically getting away from him and developing a sense of self. The problem is the sense of self that they manage to develop will not be a positive one. Deep within, they will always feel like an unlovable loser.
The invisible or lost child does not receive praise or blame from her parent. This child is treated as if they do not exist. They are the forgotten one, the neglected one, the unrecognised one. The narcissistic parent is not the least bit interested or aware of this child’s needs. The basic needs of the invisible child are ignored to varying degrees. They may be sent to school with old, dirty, outdated or mismatched clothes.
The parent may fail to teach the child’s proper hygiene. She may not receive adequate medical or dental care. Narcissistic parents who want to conceal the abuse may provide just enough care to keep others from noticing the neglect. Because the invisible child is treated as if they are a “nobody,” they expect nothing nor asks for anything. They are the quietest sibling in the family because no one is listening anyway. The golden child gets what they want without trying, the scapegoat child is busy saying “look at me,” but the invisible child’s voice is lost to the parent’s other focuses.
For self-preservation this child withdraws into themselves and isolates. They tend shuts down as if she is hiding from the world, escaping into her own mind. The withdrawal causes them to miss out on healthy social interactions. Friendships are few if any. She never feels as if she fits in with any groups.Invisible children find it difficult to let others into their private world. They do not develop a healthy connectedness to other people or society.
Never having anyone to rely on except themselves, these children become very independent—lonely and isolated, but usually self-sufficient. Never feeling valuable as a child, they will live life feeling invisible, unlovable and unworthy. Prone to severe depression, the invisible child may easily fall prey to substance abuse, eating disorders and other addictive behaviours.
The three roles—golden child, scapegoat child, and invisible child are given by narcissistic parents for self-serving needs. They are not meant to benefit the children in any way. But these roles are not the only roles children in narcissistic families play. As a way to bring some semblance of order to their chaotic world and ease their pain, children in these families adopt roles of their own.
The four additional roles adopted by children in narcissistic homes are:
Children may adopt one or more of these roles. “Only children” usually take on a variety of roles for emotional adaptation.
Children raised in families with narcissistic parents suffer tremendous emotional abuse. Healthy coping mechanisms are never taught, therefore never learned. In order to adapt and survive in this painful, hostile, confusing environment these children must find ways to cope. Unless addressed and altered, their childhood coping methods, always maladaptive, are the ones they will use for the rest of their lives.
3. What you can do for yourself - healing
1. Educate Yourself About Narcissism
If you’re new to the realisation that one or more of your parents is a narcissist, you need to keep learning about what you’re dealing with.
The more you educate yourself and find support, the more you will understand what you’ve been through and what you need to do to move beyond the toxic influence of your family.
2. Accept That Your Narcissist Parent Won’t Change
One of the most difficult challenges you face is accepting that your narcissist parent in all likelihood will never change.
If the narcissist in your life finds a way to make personal progress toward a healthier state of being, great, but you should assume he won’t. Narcissists rarely change, and if they are acting nicer it is most likely a manipulative maneuver.
Holding out hope that your parent will finally give you the unconditional love you have craved your whole life is natural, but it is a false dream that makes you vulnerable to further abuse and keeps you from moving on.
3. Recognise Your Enabling Parent
If you have a narcissist parent, chances are you also have an enabling one.
What does that really mean? By going along with and/or excusing the narcissist’s abusive behaviour, enablers essentially “normalise” and sustain it.
Sometimes enablers also act as “flying monkeys” by assisting the narcissist in her dirty work, condoning and perpetuating her abuse. By not naming the abuse and not protecting their kids from it, enablers become complicit, even if they are also victimised by it.
Sometimes forgiving the enabling parent can be as hard or harder than forgiving the narcissist parent.
You may wonder why that parent excused the narcissist and didn’t protect you from abuse, and you may feel terribly betrayed by his/her complicity.
4. Recognise the Roles in Your Family
Were you a scapegoat or the golden child? Have you acted at times as a flying monkey?
Roles are often fluid in the narcissistic family, depending on the narcissist’s agenda. Perhaps you have been the golden child and also scapegoated. Because the narcissist maintains control by creating divisions (divide and conquer) among family members, you may feel alienated from your other parent and siblings. Perhaps you feel betrayed by them.
It is important to remember that all of you have been part of a warped system orchestrated by the dominant narcissist in the family singularly to serve his needs at the expense of others.
On some level you have all been fighting to survive with the roles you have been cast in. The most powerful defence against the narcissist is a unified front against her.
If you can find mutual understanding and unity with your other family members, that can be an empowering way to shut down the narcissist’s abuse, as well as a profound source of validation for what you have been through.
5. Assert Boundaries
Narcissists constantly violate boundaries. They see others, particularly their children, as extensions of themselves to control and manipulate.
6. Attune with Your Feelings
As the child of a narcissist parent, you have been systematically trained to ignore your feelings, even to fear and hate them.
Your feelings are a direct threat to the narcissist parent because they are likely to conflict with what she needs, believes, and demands. In the narcissistic family, only the narcissist’s feelings matter, and everyone else’s must be sublimated or outright crushed through ridicule, shame, rage, and other forms of attack.
Perhaps the most important thing to do for yourself toward healing is to reconnect with your feelings. They are there, and they always have been. Let them in, listen to them, carry them with respect.
7. Don’t Blame Yourself
Especially if you’ve been scapegoated in your family, you are likely to automatically blame yourself and feel guilt for things beyond your control or responsibility.
Narcissists are experts at deflecting and projecting blame onto others. If they raged at you and you stood up for yourself, you attacked them. If they punched you, you drove them to it. One of the best ways to break your unhealthy family dynamics is to stop blaming yourself for what was never your responsibility or fault to begin with.
8. Stop Hurting Yourself
Along with not blaming yourself, chances are you need to stop patterns of self-abuse. As someone raised in a narcissistic family, you are prone to risky, self-punishing, and self-soothing but destructive behaviours, such as substance abuse and addictions, self-harm, and thrill-seeking.
Your self-destructive behaviour is an internalisation of the narcissistic abuse you grew up with, which is the opposite of the narcissist’s externalisation of her pain. By engaging in such behaviour you continue to give the narcissist power over you. You also exacerbate the emotional and physiological trauma you have already endured.
Patterns of addiction and self-harm can be extremely hard to break, so seek help and support from people who understand the dynamics of narcissism.
9. Honour Your Feelings About Your Narcissist Parent
Most of us love our parents, no matter what, and we cling to our need for love and validation from them.
Your narcissistic parent cannot love you unconditionally the way we all deserve to be loved within our families, and for that matter is capable of no more than fleeting empathy. Yet you may still love that parent. Mixed with grief and anger, you may also sympathise with your parent’s NPD. It is also possible that you are numb to your parent or too used up to feel love anymore.Whatever you feel, try not to judge yourself for it. Honour your feelings and let them be your guide in how you choose to interact with your family.
10. Treat Yourself for Narcissistic “Fleas”
Children raised by a narcissist are likely to pick up at least some narcissistic traits or tics, also known as “narcissist fleas.”
Some become full-blown narcissists themselves, but many merely perpetuate a few behaviours that can be overcome with mindfulness and practice.
Take a look at yourself. What triggers you? What do you do that reminds you of your narcissist mother or father? Are you quick to anger?
Do you seek attention or control through guilt or manipulation? Could you be more sensitive to other’s feelings and perspectives?
The best revenge is a life well-lived. Work on mindfulness and peace in your own life. You can’t help how you were raised, but you can work to control how you act now and how you raise your own children.
Reviewing these dynamics, one can see how this kind of family can look pretty but be decaying at the same time. If you recognise your family in this description, know that there is hope and recovery. We can't change the past, but we can take control of the now.
We can create new life that will flow through us to the future and stop the legacy of distorted love learned in the narcissistic family. If we choose recovery, we can defy intergenerational statistics.