Children who grow up in the shadow of a narcissistic parent experience a kind of role reversal which stunts their development in numerous ways.
The Invisible Child
For a child to grow up into an empowered and emotionally-mature adult, they need their parent’s support, mirroring, respect and understanding. The child must be seen by the parent for who they are, not for who the parent wishes they were. Because a narcissistic parent is mostly identified with their grandiose, ego-based false self, they have no capacity to empathise and connect authentically with their child’s emotional needs.
The child’s needs remain, however. The child can’t shut them off. In a desperate attempt to secure their parent’s goodwill, the child stops expecting love, support and attention, and instead turns their attention toward the parent. They intuit what the parent reacts to, and adapt their behaviours and beliefs to suit the whims of their parent.
The Despair Of Fighting For Love
Ultimately, the narcissistic parent is an addict, whose drug of choice is narcissistic supply. To maintain their sense of grandiosity, they expect adulation, submission, unwavering loyalty and services from their children. Above all, they expect never to be challenged in their grandiosity.
This is destructive because the child’s sense of worth then becomes tied to a delusional ego-construct which is not based in reality. The child’s map of the world becomes completely distorted in a narcissistic family. This results in numerous developmental traumas such as:
- Pervasive anxiety: The child constantly walks on eggshells, unaware of when the narcissistic parent will lash out, scold them, ridicule them or judge them harshly.
- Toxic shame: Because the narcissistic parent’s grandiose false self is rigid and detached from reality, nothing the child does is ever good enough. This leads to a build-up of shame, which culminates in a bone-deep sense of inferiority and worthlessness.
- Insecure attachment style: Secure attachment requires presence, openness, consistency and grounding in reality. The dissociated, almost psychotic narcissistic parent has no hope of offering this. They are in another world, and only present when drawing in narcissistic supply from their children. Because their attention and attunement are haphazard and random, their child’s attachment to them has an immense amount of breaks. This leads to the child either becoming totally avoidant of intimacy, or anxiously and desperately chasing after it to their own detriment.
- Paranoia and broken trust: To allow intimacy, a person needs to feel the trust that only a secure attachment can provide. The less resistance and the more respect they receive during intimacy, the more confidence they can have in others. Their self-esteem grows, and they feel secure enough to express their emotions and desires. In the case of the narcissistic parent, nothing comes easily, and trust is broken at every step. Worst of all, the child senses that they are being instrumentalised for narcissistic supply. They might not be able to say it, but they feel it nonetheless, and grow up with a fickle sense of trust without knowing why.
Ultimately, the child of a narcissistic parent comes to believe that they have to earn love by playing a role, otherwise, they are nothing. As the child adapts to and works around their parent, they lose touch with their spontaneous, empowered self. Their growth is stunted, and they evolve into their role in the family.