The Legacy of a Narcissistic Parent
Written by: the Editors of goop
Updated: October 13, 2021
When Dr. Robin Berman was first establishing her own practice, she intended to work solely with kids—until she realized that she couldn’t do much for little ones without re-parenting the grown-ups. Per Dr. Berman, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA, the vicious cycle can be intense. But there’s hope, which she details in a compelling read, Permission to Parent: How to Raise your Child With Love and Limits, which combines her own insights with feedback from kids and adults who turned out well. The themes of the book are straightforward and profound: In short, this generation’s take on parenting—overbearing, enabling, overindulgent—is a pendulum swing in the opposite direction from the way they were parented (ignored, abandoned, unseen).
One of the more vicious cycles that Berman has addressed in her practice is the legacy of the narcissist parent—because it often begets narcissistic children. Here, her thoughts on how it manifests, plus ways to break the cycle.
I was in the grocery store when a three-year-old girl burst into tears in line after her mom said that she could not have candy. Looking agitated, her mom barked, “I have no time for this nonsense right now!” Then came the clincher: “Why do you always do this to me when I am in a hurry? You sure know how to ruin my day.”
Ugh. My heart sank. I felt badly for this little girl, not because her mom said no to her candy request, but because her mom was so blinded by her own feelings that she could not have empathy for her daughter. A less narcissistic mother would have taken her daughter’s hand, looked her in the eye and calmly said: “I get how much you want this candy, but we don’t have candy before lunch.” If the mom had shown she understood her daughter’s feelings, instead of dumping her own, the girl would have felt heard and the tantrum could have subsided.
Children need to feel seen, heard, known and cherished. To be adored for who you really are is the highest form of love. Giving unconditional love is our greatest legacy as parents. Long after we die, our children will be able to tap into the feeling of being celebrated for their true selves.
By spewing out her issues, the mom skipped over her daughter’s emotions and made it about her. But as parents, we often have to set aside our own feelings to be in service to our children. Children learn when parents mirror their feelings and help them understand their experiences. When narcissism interferes, the mirror is reversed. Narcissistic parents need their kids to mirror them.
MODELING KIDS IN YOUR OWN IMAGE
Narcissism doesn’t have to be absolute. It can show up in little ways and often under the guise of doing “what’s best” for your children or giving them opportunities you were deprived of when you were little. For example, it’s understandable that you’d want to enroll your kids in soccer because you didn’t get the chance to play, but you also have to notice if they even like soccer. You might bring home clothes in monochromatic colors because that’s your style, but you have to notice what colors your child gravitates to. While you want your child to attend your alma mater because it worked for you, think about whether you’ve asked if it will work for him. To get narcissism out of the picture, make sure your motivation stacks up with what your kid wants.
HOW NARCISSISM INTERFERES WITH PARENTING
Narcissists have a way of making everything about them—they take up all of the air in the room. Their profound need for attention and praise subverts everyone else’s needs. Unchecked, a parent’s narcissism eclipses a child’s feelings. Narcissistic parents take their children’s every feeling or action personally. These parents are easily angered when a child does not agree with them or mirror them. Parents with narcissistic tendencies are so sensitive to praise and admiration as fuel that it makes them overly sensitive to criticism. So children learn to tiptoe around these emotional minefields, trying not to trigger that anger, or worse, have their parents withdraw love.
Perceptive children will also pick up on the emotional vulnerability of their parents. They will compliment their parent or try to be a perfect reflection of them. They hope that taking care of mom or dad will shore the parent up enough so he or she can eventually get back to taking care of them. With all of that care directed at parents, these children will likely lose touch with their own emotions and needs.
STEALING YOUR KIDS’ EXPERIENCES
Audrey was trying on prom dresses in a department store dressing room. The store was getting ready to close, and Audrey was acutely aware of her mom’s desire to buy a dress and leave. Her mom’s need to be done dampened Audrey’s excitement about finding a dress she felt good in for this special rite of passage. Her mother said, ”I found the perfect dress for you!” and held up an ugly dress with red and white stripes. Audrey took one look and immediately hated it. Masking her disappointment, she put it on anyway.
“It’s perfect, I love it!” Mom said, not even seeing how unhappy Audrey was. Now the girl was in a bind. Which mirror should she attend to: The literal one, which clearly showed a dress she would be embarrassed to wear, or the mirror she was used to reflecting and pleasing?
The daughter tentatively expressed her discomfort. Her mom’s agitation flared. Audrey reflexively changed her tune: ”I guess you’re right, it does fit well,” she said flatly. Her mom smiled, feeling much better. And for just the moment, Audrey felt better, too. But not really.
On prom night, Audrey walked self–consciously down the stairs to greet her date. His disappointed first words—“Red Stripes?”—were crushing.
THE EMOTIONAL TOLL OF A NARCISSISTIC PARENT
Long after the prom dress was discarded, Audrey’s memory of catering to her mom’s needs on her special night—and many other occasions—lingered. Children like Audrey often end up in therapy. They are trying to discover who they really are. They often don’t trust their instincts, and they have trouble expressing their feelings. The boundaries between mother and child become so blurred that surviving childhood means catering to their parent and subverting themselves. Children like this worry that if they assert themselves in their adult relationships, they will risk losing love. This is what happens when a parents’ narcissism engulfs their children.
But narcissism can show itself in the opposite way: Neglect. These parents are so self-obsessed that their children feel invisible. Without being seen, these cannot develop a stable sense of self and may grow up to be narcissists themselves.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
If you grew up with narcissistic parents, never fear, the legacy can end with you! Your parents’ mistakes can be rocket fuel for your own development.
- First, you have to grieve the loss of the parent you never had. Really grieve the fact that you didn’t get the parent you needed, the one who put you and your needs first. Part of that requires releasing the fantasy that your narcissistic parent can change and eventually give you what you need. They can evolve and grow, but they may never evolve enough to meet your deepest needs. Therefore, managing expectations is key, particularly when you see glimpses of the healthy parent you wish you had had, but in fact those glimpses are often not sustainable. Accept that your parent was limited—and could not give you unconditional love or even deep empathy because she could not get past herself to truly see you. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, the anger and the sadness. Emotion has the word motion in it; allow your emotions to move through you. You might not have lost your parent to death, but you lost what could have been—you lost an opportunity to be truly mothered—and that is really a profound loss. Accepting this, rather than denying it, is the first step in opening your heart to healing.
- You are going to need to discover boundaries—where you begin and your parents end—to free your authentic self. When you choose who you want to be, rather than who your parents wanted you to be, you break free from their narcissistic grip. Tolerate their discomfort, even if they make a lot of noise. You are not misbehaving, rebelling, or rejecting them. You are being you, the real you—maybe for the first time. This is the first part of breaking the cycle. Next, you don’t want to repeat/generalize the relationship that you had with your narcissistic parent to your coworkers, partner, or friends. Realize where you are meeting the needs of other narcissists in your life, real or imagined. Sometimes children of narcissists assume that every person they’re close to will need the same kind of hyper-attention and appeasement that their parent did—and unconsciously begin doing mental backbends to please others. At times you may be tapping into the expectations of a narcissistic boss or partner, and reflexively playing that familiar role. At other times you may be making erroneous assumptions about what someone important to you really needs—perhaps they don’t want you to mirror their opinions or they don’t need you to sugarcoat your real feelings or soften constructive criticism. Breathe, pause, give yourself some psychic space and then test it. Try just being frank, try not to rush in and take care of their feelings. If being different from your loved one feels uncomfortable—or if you feel you’re risking love with that stance—just notice it. Watch how much stronger your bond is than what you secretly imagined it to be. This is the gift of evolving past the scene of the original crime—your own childhood. Surviving childhood meant taking care of the narcissist and swallowing your feelings. But now as an adult you can begin to surround yourself with people that you feel safe and at home with—like soul mate girlfriends—who know and love the real you, and this can be deeply transformative.
- Children of narcissistic parents often wonder if they are really loveable. You are! Start loving and caring for yourself in ways that you wished your mom or dad had loved and cared for you. Start paying attention to what really matters to you; what makes you feel alive and moments when you feel authentically you. Maybe you will need help mothering yourself. Maybe that means getting re-parented by a therapist, or maybe the healing comes from an emotionally reparative romantic partnership. Maybe you have a friend’s mother who is nurturing to you, or a mentor who celebrates the real you. All of these people can become part of your collective parent. No one person is ever capable of meeting all of your needs so start building your collective parenting community. And once you have learned to mother yourself, you will be able to mother your child.
Your journey is to love your children for their true, glorious, separate, authentic selves—and to give them what you may have not gotten enough of. It will not only be beneficial to them, it can be quite healing for you. You will grow and evolve enough to ask yourself, in difficult situations: “Is my reaction more about my child’s feelings or my own? What does he or she need right now?” This will prevent you from reacting with anger or withdrawing love, as your parent may have done to you. You are now a cycle breaker.
Conscious, mindful parenting is the ultimate in damage control. When you get your ego out of the game, you can step back enough to see the soul of your children. Just nurture that, and watch them soar.