Is There an Upside to Narcissistic Parenting?
Some of the most popular stories on goop are the ones we’ve done with psychiatrist Robin Berman, who discussed being—and dealing with—a narcissistic parent or partner. (Read them here, here, and here, or listen to our new podcast episode with Dr. Berman here.) Even now, a few years later, we still get notes from people with opinions on the topic. Which is how we first connected with Dr. Suzanne Garfinkle, a New York City–based psychiatrist and the director of the Academy for Medicine and the Humanities at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
“While it may cause pathology in extreme cases, ‘narcissism’ is not a dirty word,” Garfinkle told us. “In fact, one of the main tasks in human development is to cultivate and use narcissism effectively. Often, successful individuals would not be who they are without a healthy dose of self-involvement and vanity.”
The issue, as Garfinkle sees it, is that kids are very sensitive to narcissistic traits in their parents. And when parents leave these traits unexamined, there are unintended consequences that ultimately burden their children and strain their relationship.
Garfinkle’s parenting guide aims to take away some of the stigma of narcissism. In its place, she suggests strategies for molding what narcissistic traits you may have during every stage of your child’s life into a force for smarter parenting.
A Guide for Narcissistic Parents
For his seventh birthday, I threw my son, who is obsessed with Star Wars, a Star Wars costume party. The whole family came dressed as different characters. The birthday boy had been given the godlike position of designating everyone’s role, and when he told me I would be Leia, I was thrilled to play the glam lead and began to fantasize about the shopping that was now, of course, my obligation. What harried working mother of two does not yearn for a guiltless excuse to acquire new fashion items? Especially when Diane von Furstenberg, Cynthia Rowley, and Rag & Bone had already set their minds to converting the bizarre Star Wars staples into elegant prêt-à-porter? But my reverie ended abruptly when I learned what my son had in mind was Princess Leia from Endor (Episode VI), dressed in boxy fatigues—a cool look, but better on Carrie Fisher than on me.
Just as I was about to argue the merits of the more standard Princess Leia ensemble, the alarm bells went off: narcissistic parenting! This was, um, a seven-year-old’s birthday party. There I was again, being vain and self-absorbed. So I accepted the assignment and began to search for stiff, oversize camo gear. In the end, my son didn’t like any of what we found, so he switched my role to “fighting Padmé” (Episode 2—the white bodysuit with the belt and the blaster) and I got some edgy workout attire out of the deal.
At the party itself, my young Jedi enjoyed light-sabering the whole clan, but there was another moment where I caught myself being the n-thing again. Inclined toward oration, my son typically takes a moment at his birthday parties to stand on a chair and make a gracious speech to the guests. After he blew out the candles, I gave him a hug and asked if he would like to say anything to the group of (very odd-appearing) adults filling our living room. But this time, he grew visibly uncomfortable and wiggled out of my grasp. The alarm went off again: narcissism! This time for being showy with my kid and putting pressure on him to perform, rather than letting that come from him organically as it had in the past. Kids wilt when the delightful gifts they offer turn into parental expectations.
In my work with families over the years, I have seen many parents who benefitted from gentle reminders about their narcissistic tendencies. We all stand to benefit from these kinds of alarms going off: those moments when you realize that it’s become about you, and not about them. When the alarm sounds, you can catch yourself. Developing alarms is really the point of being in any kind of therapy—no matter what your particular neurosis—and all too often, these narcissistic processes go on unchecked, to the detriment of children.
Back to Basics: What Is Narcissism?
The “selfie generation” is now becoming parents, and the question of narcissistic parenting and its impact on kids is more pressing than ever.
Narcissism is a disorder affecting one’s self and relationships, involving low or inflated self-image, self-centeredness, admiration-seeking, and difficulties with empathy. Narcissists tend to want to be great without putting in the work required, and they use others primarily for the purpose of making themselves feel better.
While narcissistic personality disorder is quite rare (and usually undetectable to the person who has it), many parents possess narcissistic traits, which come in several flavors:
The fragile narcissist: You fear criticism and rejection about your parenting or from your children.
The grandiose narcissist: You are addicted to power and glory and tend to be boastful both toward and about your children.
The elitist narcissist: Entitled and social-climbing, you will settle for only the very best of everything both for and from your children.
The masochistic narcissist: A martyr, you never allow your children to forget how much you sacrifice for them.
While problematic, all of these personality configurations can be modified through education and psychotherapy.
The Many Benefits of Narcissistic Parenting
But guess what: There are actually potential benefits to some narcissism in parenting. Narcissists invest in themselves, and because they see their children as an extension of themselves, they can share that investment with them. A narcissistic parent (NP) might celebrate good grades or a chess trophy with particular alacrity, allowing their ten-year-old to feel seen and appreciated. As a natural manipulator, an NP can be a fierce advocate for their child to get the best teacher in the third grade. Narcissists are great at getting what they want, and a twelve-year-old might be inspired by hearing her mother describe how she “killed it” at work or learn important negotiating skills by watching Mom score the best table in the restaurant. A narcissist whose ego depends on being “father of the year” might spend lots of time throwing a ball around in the yard or take his kids on enriching vacations (better than yours!). On a different note, there are advantages to the benign neglect that the child of a narcissistic parent inevitably faces: It’s good to learn you can’t always have your parents’ attention (even if it’s because they are mapping out their next Botox injections in the mirror).
So if you have a not-too-toxic narcissist on your side, you are likely to gain certain advantages because of it. That is, until you disappoint them, detract attention from them, or, worse, try to beat them.
Navigating the Hazards of Narcissistic Parenting
Children of narcissistic parents tend to have a predictable set of issues. They quickly learn that their parent’s feelings are more important than their own and adapt to this by ignoring or denying their own emotions. This causes problems because they never get to know their true selves. As NPs place a great deal of importance on appearances, their children often feel judged and criticized and can develop low self-esteem and depression. Their parent’s tendency toward anger makes them feel love is conditional, and anxiety and trust issues often emerge. Finally, they learn narcissistic behavior from their parents and can go on to develop similar—often more extreme—narcissism themselves.
But there’s a way for you to break the cycle of narcissistic parenting, at every stage of your child’s life. Each stage of child development will present specific challenges for the narcissistic parent. The solutions are the same at each stage:
It’s not about you.
Use your narcissism.
As an NP, you may be thrilled to find that your body is now the center of the universe. On the other hand, you may not be thrilled with the toll pregnancy is taking on your physique. Many narcissistic mothers begin to resent (or at least feel strongly ambivalent toward) their child when this cascade of sacrifices begins.
Relationships in pregnancy can be complicated, and if you’ve got narcissistic traits, there is a big chance you’ll have issues with other women, perhaps your own mother. If she shares your narcissism, your pregnancy will challenge her. She may feel competitive or possessive of you and jealous of the whole experience. She may be smothering or oddly neglectful. Also, you will be especially sensitive to people’s reactions to you during this time. Are they being thoughtful enough about your needs? Are you getting enough likes for your ultrasound pictures?
It’s not about you—or rather, not for much longer. One important challenge for narcissists is to look beyond appearances. It’s hard not to focus on the weight gain, the stretch marks, and the dried vomit on your sweater. As a culture, we place way too much emphasis on how someone looks during pregnancy as a measure of how the pregnancy is going. When you find yourself negatively preoccupied with appearances, try to refocus on what’s going on inside—both on how you are feeling emotionally and on the miracle taking place below the surface.
Stay curious. One of the challenges of narcissistic parenting is to develop a stable awareness of your child as a separate entity from yourself. Ask yourself: What is he capable of seeing, hearing, and feeling at this stage? What does he feel when I drink a cold glass of juice? Talk to him out loud and ask him questions. Taking a few moments every day to connect with your baby will help you develop a curiosity about his mind.
Use your narcissism. Try to capture the glory of pregnancy. It’s a time for you to be special, and your feel-good hormones can positively influence your baby’s brain development.
For many narcissistic parents, infancy is an easy time. It may be incredibly fulfilling for you to be the off-switch for someone’s tears, their everything. Your perfectionism may make you focused on providing excellent care, and an attentive mother can enjoy a warm reception from society.
On the other hand, for narcissistic parents, the introduction of a baby may challenge your selfhood to the core. Many people experience alienation around the introduction of a baby—a feeling of strangeness, foreignness, or even an absence of love. For the controlling among us, the first few months bring an endless supply of challenges: Your baby may not eat, sleep, coo, cuddle, or meet all the appropriate milestones on your schedule. If your baby has a difficult temperament, you may feel self-conscious and envious of other parents. Sleep deprivation and other physical discomforts are unpleasant for everyone, but NPs get extra cranky putting their own needs aside.
It’s not about you. British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott said the most important thing a parent can do is provide a good “holding environment” for a baby: “The foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby.” In other words, you don’t need to do or be anything special in order for your child to thrive.
Stay curious. First, take some comfort in the notion of temperament. Try to identify and know the qualities your baby brings into the world and take some pressure off yourself for being imperfect as a parent, as there is little you can do to change those innate qualities. Second, your baby cannot talk yet, so it’s easy to dismiss him throughout the day. Ask him questions and teach him the rhythm of a conversation; look at him to show you’re already listening.
Use your narcissism. There is no time in life when you are more the center of the universe for your child than now. Own it. Use this superpower to be the most loving, attentive, engaging, and caring mother you know. You can’t spoil a baby. Also, consider going back to work when you are ready or trying to reengage with meaningful hobbies. Narcissistic parents do better when they have other ventures to reinforce their value. You might enjoy your kids more if you don’t give up everything else for them, which can lead to complicated feelings of resentment.
It’s hard to beat the affirmation of receiving a young child’s trust and affection. This is the age when your children will want to be like you. They will try on your shoes and pick up your purse to play “going to work.” They will wrap their toys in newspaper and give them to you as presents. They will cry when you walk out of the house and jump for joy when you pick them up at school. This is a heady, addictive stage for NPs—total adoration. They often peg their kids for life at this stage and are confused when things change.
But let’s face it: Toddlers and preschoolers are horrible people at times, too. They are fiercely discovering themselves and the challenge for you is to meet them where they are.
It’s not about you. While standing in line at Starbucks or just as your mother-in-law arrives, your child will throw the biggest tantrum of her life, completely unresponsive to your thoughtful interventions. Take a deep breath and remember that people who are giving you dirty looks have amnesia for their own early parenting days. Similarly, try not to freak about messes. Little kids are supposed to spill applesauce on the rug and paint on their party shoes. In the preschool lobby, there will be a lot of talk about speed of achievements: potty training, talking, pre-academic skills. Don’t get caught up in this. Most people forget that early readers do not necessarily turn into better readers. Celebrate your child’s healthy progress.
Stay curious. You might rather watch an hour of C-SPAN than have to play astronauts one more time. But try this: For five minutes a day, sit down on the floor and devote yourself to whatever they want to play or talk about. Initiate games if you don’t like being too passive, but make them games that put your child center stage. Pretend you’re a TV journalist interviewing them about what the hell they’re up to. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Mom reporting for NYC news. I’m here with young Jonah, who appears to be putting rocks from the playground in a kitchen Tupperware container. Jonah, would you kindly explain to our viewers what on earth you are doing…?”
Use your narcissism. Be the entertainment. If you’re a funny, charismatic narcissist, put on puppet shows. Make their stuffed animals talk. Play school and be the teacher or the recalcitrant student. Parent-driven play like this is exciting and fun for them.
Your kids are becoming individuals with distinct tastes, talents, and interests. This is the era of self-esteem development, but we are talking about their self-esteem, not yours. What helps them may be different from what helps you. Something good for both of you is that kids of this age need to identify with good things in you—your talents and strengths. As an NP, you will love it when your kids are naturally similar to you, and if you’re lucky, you’ve got a boy with your taste for mystery novels or a girl who is into chess like you. If your children are different from you, this can cause you narcissistic injury, and its cousin, narcissistic rage. For example, when she quits soccer, you may find yourself picking on your daughter more than usual or full-on furious that she is throwing away her ticket to fitness, friendships, and college admissions. Second, when they fall far from the tree, you may grow less interested in them. As a narcissist, you struggle to maintain focus outside yourself, even on a good day. On a bad day, your disinterest is palpable, and your kids will feel it. You won’t ask enough follow-up questions, won’t draw them out, or will always seem too busy to sit down and play their game or ask about what’s on their mind. They will feel like you don’t care because they’re not good enough. These dynamics can be heightened if one of your children is similar to you and the other is different.
But if your children are too similar to you, there is another problem. They might be charged with the great responsibility and pressure of being your special child. Differences will eventually emerge as they grow up, and you may be thrown when they start to like that horrible music or feel attracted to that repulsive classmate. They may try to stop liking the music or the classmate and end up feeling empty and unsure of who they are. This is what Winnicott called the “false self,” where a child’s job is to please his parents rather than to recognize and act on his own feelings. At some point they will resent the pressure and rebel, possibly acting out and further damaging their already fragile self-esteem. This may be a test of your love, which feels unreliable to them. And of course, having a problem child will not do wonders for your self-image as a parent, feeding a vicious cycle of mutual rage.
It’s not about you. As your child becomes his own person, he might begin to challenge your values. Try not to feel too hurt and angry when he becomes a vegan while your family is famous for great BBQs. Don’t try too hard to win his affection, perhaps by overindulging requests for ice cream or Legos. Narcissistic parents sometimes spoil their kids, making them feel too powerful. On some level they will feel unsettled by your neediness.
Stay curious. This is the age where academic and extracurricular achievement, homework, and grades take hold as important and serious things. Focus on your child’s interests and make a big deal out of their accomplishments. Try to avoid comparing them to other kids—children develop at different rates and these kinds of comments can induce shame and hopelessness. Even more important than acknowledging his skills, try to figure out what makes him happy.
Use your narcissism. You may be inclined to impress your kids by telling funny stories (in the way only you can) or showing off your (legendary) basketball skills. Within limits, this can benefit children during the grade school years, when they look to you for signs of talents and strengths and are easily convinced by preening and bravado. Note that it may backfire at other ages: Your three-year-old will stare at you blankly when you talk about yourself, and your fifteen-year-old will smell the insecurity you are masking.
Remember how you need a lot of affirmation from your kids? Well, if they’re normal, during adolescence, they will embark on a CIA-level mission to uncover all your flaws. Whether you’re “stupid,” “annoying,” or simply “un-woke,” you’ll be sure to hear about it. On top of this, they are developing a personality you may or may not like, and you have a lot less control over this than you used to. They will choose their clothes, activities, and friends, and the approval of other groups outweighs yours. Hormones are raging, and sex is on their minds constantly. If you’re an NP, you have particular issues around sexuality, as you see your child as an extension or reflection of yourself. You may start to feel competitive with them or forget how confusing sex can be at this age. Narcissistic parents tend to overestimate their teen’s comfort with sexuality or, alternatively, continue to treat them like a child for too long.
It’s not about you. A certain amount of rebellion and difference is normal. But in anger or sadness, you might lose sight of their ongoing great need for you. You could end up being neglectful because you are feeling neglected.
Stay curious. Your adolescent has lots of new ideas forming, which feel deep and important to him or her. This is fertile ground for stimulating discussion and exchange about politics, religion, school, relationships, the world. Try to have dinner together and talk. Talk about sex, and listen with curiosity to their ideas, feelings, and questions. Be present for who they actually are right now, rather than clinging to your idealized version of who they were.
Use your narcissism. This is a time in child-rearing when you will be challenged, and you need to stay strong. Your narcissistic traits, although likely covering for insecurity, have helped you do this in the past, and you should rely on them. Dig in at work. Surround yourself with friends who admire and appreciate you.
Your children are finally the people they have become, and chances are, patterns in your relationship with them have also become entrenched. Your own brittle self-esteem often causes you to think in binaries. As an NP, your opinion of yourself is secretly low, and you can overfocus on the negatives, which include any deficiencies you see in your adult children. If your children perceive this negativity, they might, say, move across the country from you. If your kids are too successful, you might envy them: “She is younger and has her whole life ahead.” And as a narcissist, you are prone to envy because you feel perpetually shortchanged. Perhaps you’ve had a tough life and your kids seem spoiled to you. (You may even have spoiled them to serve other narcissistic needs of yours and then grown to resent them for it.) Perhaps they are just better-looking or happier or richer than you were at their age or are now. This can be a problem for aging narcissistic parents who see their children take center stage in life during their prime years as they face the many narcissistic injuries of aging.
Worst of all, your adult children still secretly want cheerleading and don’t welcome your critiques of their new couch/internship/roommate/diet/gender/sexual orientation/significant other. You may overestimate the helpfulness of your opinion. Persist and you are likely to hear all the terrible things their therapist said about how you make everything about yourself.
Your children are who they are, and now the question is: Are they good enough? You, who never feel quite adequate, struggle to provide unconditional love and emotional safety for them. They know how wobbly your esteem is. So try to steady yourself and give them the deep security that you never had. Be the parent you never got. Strive to celebrate the entire package your child has become.
It’s not about you. If you find yourself disapproving of their partner, is that because the person is not polished, successful, or special enough for your offspring? Do your friends’ kids make more money? Are you pissed that you’re not getting grandchildren fast enough? These critiques will only alienate your kids. What they want from you is pretty much unconditional support in the decisions they have made, in the people they have become. Not subtle critiques. Not constructive criticism. Not protection from the mistakes they might be making. In other words, your best strategy for a good relationship with your adult kids can be summarized in two words: radical acceptance.
Stay curious. Perhaps your narcissism has interfered with knowing and understanding your children fully. As a parent, there is always a second chance. Are they angry at you? If so, it’s likely that they have felt overly criticized, used as showpieces, or neglected. Don’t wallow in regret or shame for things that went wrong in the past. Invite them to be open about their experience being your kid. Don’t be afraid to apologize for your own limitations. Invite them to them to tell you about what is meaningful in their adult life, and take time to listen.
Use your narcissism. If part of your ego is about being a good parent or having a good relationship with your kids, join the rest of the world: This is normal and healthy. In a narcissistic parent, this desire can be extra strong and can also provide the motivation you need to finally build a relationship with your children that you can feel proud of.
Everyone has a personality. Parents who go to therapy for personality difficulties like narcissism often change in subtle ways that make all the difference—a touch more insight, the power of self-observation, and a greater sensitivity to your children. However, at the end of the day, you are who you are, and at the root of your narcissism is a sinking feeling that you are a bad or unworthy person. Please memorize Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough mother,” the idea that every parent makes mistakes and that children do not need perfection.
Clicking on this article demonstrates that you care about the kind of parent you are and that you care about your kids. And if you’ve wondered whether you are a narcissistic parent, know that severe narcissists would never self-identify as you have, let alone work on it. And that is something that should make you feel truly good about yourself.
Suzanne Garfinkle, M.D., M.Sc., is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan and the founding director of the Academy for Medicine and the Humanities at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. A lifelong New Yorker, she received a B.A. in English from Amherst College, an M.Sc. in theoretical psychoanalysis from University College London, and an M.D. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She has taught in the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia and has had fellowships with the Folger Shakespeare Library, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the American Association for Directors of Psychiatric Residency Training. Dr. Garfinkle enjoys lecturing and has addressed many academic, professional, and general audiences on topics in parenting and in the humanities, including feeding children, food and literature, and sibling rivalry.