How Parental Narcissism Affects Children

Narcissism is not a good quality to possess; according to legend, it caused the death of the Greek god Narcissus, who on seeing his own image in a pond fell in love with himself and drowned by trying to touch the image. Narcissists love no one more than they love themselves, and narcissistic parents can cause “significant emotional damage to children,” says Karyl McBride, author of “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers,” on the Psychology Today website 1. What makes the situation all the more tragic is that narcissists are usually too self-absorbed to notice their children might have problems.

Qualities of a Narcissist

Before you consider how narcissism affects children, it helps to recognize the condition. Narcissists are usually unresponsive to the needs of others, are self-absorbed, indifferent, lack empathy, are shallow, cannot relate to other people in a meaningful way, need much attention, consider themselves to be special, and are often arrogant and contemptuous -- not exactly the qualities of a nurturing and loving parent. Children cannot develop emotionally when a narcissist raises them, says Gudrun Zomerland, a licensed California marriage and family therapist. They wind up with an undeveloped sense of who they really are.

Not Good Enough

Children raised by narcissists grow up believing they’re not worthy of being loved. If their own parents don’t love them, many children logically wonder who will. Children of narcissists figure that their parents might love them if only they were better looking, smarter or better athletes. It doesn’t occur to a child that the issue might lie with the parent. By the time the child matures enough to understand the parent’s dysfunction, the damage has already been done.

Child Becomes the Parent

When a parent cannot take on the role of helping her child grow and develop because she is narcissistic, the child needs to develop and grow on his own. This child has become a “parentified” child, says Nina W. Brown, professor and eminent scholar in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Old Dominion University, in “Paradigm” magazine. The child takes on the parent’s role and often feels responsible for the parent’s well-being. That child tries, usually unsuccessfully, to please the parent.

Compliant or Siege

Children of narcissistic parents usually develop a compliant or a siege response, says Brown. Compliancy takes the form of wanting to please others and often leads to children becoming conformists and self-deprecators -- people who belittle themselves. When children carry compliancy into adulthood, they have difficulty forming relationships where their needs are met. The siege response occurs when children become angry, fight back and don’t want to meet their parents’ constant demands. They become defiant, rebellious and insensitive. When children carry those traits into adulthood, their relationships with others suffer.