Many parents would no doubt say that their lives changed entirely when they had or adopted their first child. They learned to put someone else’s well-being before their own, to anticipate the wants and needs of another person. In other words, many people go through a transformation that people often describe as simply “becoming a parent.”
But not everyone changes or feels the same way when they hold their child for the first time. While a lot of people take time to adjust to the idea of parenthood, some continue to struggle long after that baby grows up. They have a hard time putting themselves in a position that isn’t No. 1
And at the top of his list are people with narcissistic tendencies and those with narcissistic personality disorder.
“Narcissistic parents will struggle to empathize with their children if they, themselves, are not under threat,” says Mike Gallagher, a clinical counsellor.
This lack of empathy, a hallmark of narcissism, makes it difficult for narcissists to parent traditionally and can lead to the development of hostile or damaging environments for their children. Other telling signs of narcissism in parents and non-parents alike include manipulation, an aversion to criticism, and insecurity. Narcissistic parents may be neglectful of the child and focus on their own self-absorbing interests instead.
Different types of narcissists include the closet narcissist, exhibitionist narcissist, failed narcissist, and malignant narcissist. Here are four different ways that parents may reveal these narcissistic tendencies and the effects they can yield on children’s development.
The “we are great” family
“In this instance, the whole family has narcissistic values,” explains Dr Elinor Greenberg, a licensed psychologist and author of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety. “Children are rewarded for bringing glory to the family name, for being great and doing things the family respects.”
If they can fit into this mould and follow through, children in these families will grow up in a relatively high functioning way – to a point.
“These kids know how to achieve, but their personal relationships are very primitive,” says Greenberg. “Their relationships with their parents were entirely transactional, not based on love.” As a result, they will struggle to form loving, intimate relationships as adults.
But children who aren’t able to follow the family way? These kids struggle in a “we are great” family, since narcissistic parents treat them like outsiders or failures. “They won’t feel nurtured or nourished,” adds Greenberg. “Since they don’t have the same qualities as their brothers and sisters, they feel very fragile, insecure, bitter, and paranoid.”
Forced to face the world and find a path independently without support, these children tend to struggle to find their footing and go through life constantly seeking external validation for their actions.
The helicopter parent
“Helicopter parents who always hover around their kids and demand attention could be classic vulnerable narcissists,” says Dr W. Keith Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia and author of The New Science of Narcissism. “Although the line between a supportive parent and a needy parent can blur, you know the ones who live vicariously through their children, demand special exceptions, and require affirmation as the ‘best’ parent that can be.”
Unlike grandiose or exhibitionist narcissists, these parents seek to express their superiority in quieter ways. “They express antagonism but in a subtle form with a sense of entitlement and suspicion of others, alongside insecurity and fragility,” says Campbell.
These parents may also use their children as the vehicle that brings their family to greatness. “This parent wants to be an exhibitionist narcissist but doesn’t have the nerve,” says Greenberg. “Instead, they choose a child to worship and prop up. Like stage mothers who wanted to be but were never great themselves.”
As a result, a child may grow up with a false sense of entitlement or a distorted view of their place in the world, which can lead to a rude awakening as an adult.