Talking to Kids About a Narcissistic Parent

Narcissistic personality disorder is a psychological condition hallmarked by an enhanced sense of self-worth and self-importance, according to 12. The children of narcissists are often disregarded, emotionally abandoned or seem to exist only to please the parent. The effects can be devastating and long-lived, but being honest with the child about his parent’s condition often helps minimize the damage.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

People with this disorder show little regard for the feelings or needs of others, 1. Yet these traits mask a deeper feeling of worthlessness in which any criticism threatens the ego. The inability to accept criticism, the self-centered behavior and the tendency to treat others as inferior often push people away, creating a vicious cycle in which the narcissistic person exaggerates her behavior in an attempt to hold on. Tell the child that her parent has an illness that sometimes causes him to behave badly. Reassure her that she has done nothing wrong and that her parent does not mean the things he says.


Released in May 2013, the DSM-V did not fundamentally change the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder 12. Symptoms vary among individuals, but for a diagnosis to occur, the person must display five or more of nine designated behavior patterns. These include a sense of entitlement; the need for ongoing adoration; lack of empathy; exploitation of others; preoccupation with fantasies of beauty, wealth or power; exaggerated descriptions of personal talents or abilities; belief that one is “special”; arrogant attitude; envy or belief that others are envious. Use simple terms and examples to explain these symptoms to the child, and encourage him to let you know when his parent displays signs of the condition.


According to family therapist and narcissism researcher Karyl McBride, parental narcissists fall into six basic types. Flamboyant-extroverts are the life of the party. Flashy, outgoing and often eccentric, they delight crowds wherever they go. But their children only matter for the role they play in the show. Accomplishment-oriented narcissists expect only the best from themselves and their family. When children make normal mistakes, these parents are furious. Consequently, the child learns that he is only lovable for what he does and not for who he is. Psychosomatic narcissists are obsessed with their physical condition. Their children are expected to wait on them and indulge their myriad aches and pains without showing weaknesses of their own. Addicted parents do not necessarily suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, but the dependency makes them behave similarly 12. The child’s role is to help the parent procure the substance of choice and then stay out of the way. Secretly mean parents have a public persona of kindness and love, but are harsh and abusive behind closed doors. Emotionally needy parents require constant nurturing from their children but refuse to reciprocate.

Minimizing Effects

In an article at, psychiatrist Mark Banschick provides numerous coping techniques for adult children of narcissists. With your help, even a young child can learn to use some techniques to minimize the effects that the narcissist has on him. If possible, begin regular mental health therapy sessions as early as possible. The therapist will help the child understand the condition and the behaviors, and undo some of the negative messages that the child receives from the parent. Teach him to comply with requests when they are not personally harmful, but to be guarded about revealing too much personal information. Help the child establish boundaries and teach him to walk away from escalating arguments. Provide unwavering support and let the child know that you are there for him no matter what.