Only recently have we begun to understand the impact of having grown up with a narcissistic parent. Parents who are narcissistic carry damage from their own upbringing and as a result, have a difficult time seeing outside themselves and being able to empathize and tune in to their own children’s feelings. Typically, the narcissistic parent’s emotional needs were not well met growing up. As a result, rather than being able to see their children as the unique people they are, parents with such tendencies see their children as extensions of themselves and so unconsciously, superimpose their own needs and wishes onto their children. They unthinkingly assume that it is the child’s job to think, feel and behave as they desire. They believe that it is only correct that the child carry out their dreams and wishes and achieve their version of success. If this does not occur, the parent may well feel insulted or offended and may interpret their child’s behavior as betrayal, resulting in feelings of disapproval, anger and even rage. Typically, this is not a conscious process. In fact, narcissistic parents often view themselves as very generous and well meaning. They do not see themselves as self absorbed and fulfilling their own needs at the expense of their children. This does not mean, however, that there are not serious consequences for the child of a narcissistic parent as regards her own personal growth and development.
From the moment a child is born, the way she learns about herself is through what is called “mirroring” on the part of parents and other primary caregivers. Mirroring occurs when the parent reflects back to the child in an accurate way what they are feeling and experiencing. For example, the parent sees signs of fatigue in the child and says: “Honey, you seem tired. Maybe you should lie down for awhile.” Through this feedback, the child learns: “Oh, so this is what it feels like to be tired.” The child comes to understand what she feels and thinks through this process of ongoing feedback from parents. A narcissistic parent, however, is limited in their capacity to mirror accurately and pick up on the cues that the child is sending. They are so consumed with their own unmet needs that these consistently over-ride and are superimposed onto the child. Not only are narcissistic parents unable to see their child clearly for who she is but they make the mistake of projecting their own needs onto their child. For example, the narcissistic parent may so badly need the child to become a successful dancer in order to fulfill their own unfulfilled dreams and desires that they lead the child to believe that this is her true calling and if she does not take this route, that somehow she is a failure or disappointment.
Such parenting makes it exceedingly difficult for the child of a narcissist to come to know who she is and what she really thinks and feels. She must continually push aside her own personality in an effort to please the parent and provide the mirror image that the parent needs. The message the child receives is: “You will only be loved if you are compliant with my wishes”. If she fails to obey the parent’s wishes or tries to set her own goals for her life, she may be overtly punished, frozen out or even ostracized for a period of time. Not only is the child’s growth stunted but the child of narcissistic parents internalizes a sense of defectiveness or “not feeling good enough.” This is inevitable in light of the fact that as much as she may try to please the narcissistic parent, the child cannot possibly be and fulfill the parent’s needs and wants and so she will fail again and again. The child of a narcissistic parent is incapable of understanding at such a young age that when she is being criticized and disapproved of, that it is the parent’s expectations that are impossible and off the mark. Typically, all she is able to understand is that she has somehow failed and has been unable to do it good enough or “right enough”. She inevitably ends up believing that she is deficient in some way for not being able to gain her parent’s approval. Often, she internalizes a deep sense of shame about this failure, turning the anger and frustration against herself. It can take years into adulthood before she realizes that the type of parenting she received was wrong and that it was the parent who was imperfect, not her. Having grown up without a sense of goodness, later on in life, she is likely to gravitate toward a partner who is unavailable, critical or withholding, just like the narcissistic parent was. She is at risk of ending up catering to her partner and trying to keep him happy even when it means squashing her own needs.
One of my earliest mentors used to talk about children of narcissistic parents as “moon children”. I came to believe that this was a wonderful metaphor to powerfully convey the parent-child dynamic when a parent is narcissistic. Picture one of those diagrams of the solar system where the sun is at the center of the solar system surrounded by the moon and all the planets. The narcissistic parent is like the sun. They are the center; the source of light for all that surrounds them. The child of the narcissistic parent, on the other hand, is best symbolized by the moon. The moon has no light of her own. She is totally dependent on the light from the sun. Her only means of being visible is by reflecting the light of the sun. And so it is that the child of the narcissist is only acknowledged and seen when she reflects the parent’s desires and wishes. Otherwise, she remains invisible and in darkness. Therapeutic work can not only shed light on this darkness and help repair the damage by providing corrective, accurate mirroring and empathy but it can also be a powerful vehicle in helping adult children of narcissistic parents to discover their own truth and identity.