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How to Deal with a Narcissistic Parent as an Adult

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Written by Jennifer Sizeland

The effects of NPD may last far beyond your childhood. While the impact of problematic parenting styles on children is often discussed, adults who continue to feel the impact of being raised by narcissistic parents can be overlooked.

It is not known precisely what causes narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Some research points toward a genetic predisposition. Negative developmental experiences, childhood rejection and a fragile ego have all been hypothesised to contribute to it. On the other hand, excessive praise that creates the belief that the child is ‘above average’ could also be a factor.

Much like any personality disorder, narcissism exists on a spectrum, so it can manifest in a myriad of different ways that range in severity.

While it is diagnosed based on a series of behaviours, it is important to note that narcissists will not display all of these traits. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) has a checklist to indicate narcissism. According to their classification system, someone with NPD will exhibit as least five of the characteristics below:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance.
  • Consumed by fantasies, whether in success, power, brilliance, beauty, or love.
  • The belief they are ‘special’ and can only associate with others they deem to be the same.
  • A sense of entitlement.
  • Is exploitative and takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends.
  • Lacks empathy and is unwilling to identify with the needs of others.
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviours and attitudes.
Narcissistic Parent

Catherine Hallissey, a chartered psychologist, explained that even though narcissism is one disorder, it can present in different ways:

Overt or Grandiose Narcissism An inflated sense of self-importance.

Covert or Vulnerable Narcissism Tendency to be insecure and hypersensitive to criticism and rejection.

Communal Narcissism Tendency to have an inflated sense of moral superiority, altruism, and craving admiration for these altruistic acts.

Malignant Narcissism Characterised by grandiosity, aggression and a lack of empathy. Parents with these traits tend to be emotionally abusive, controlling and manipulative.

Narcissistic parents “have very limited levels of empathy, which can easily lead them to do and say hurtful things to their children,” explained Alena Scigliano, licensed psychotherapist and clinical expert in narcissistic abuse. “They also tend to parent from a self-centric perspective, meaning their parenting choices come from a place of serving themselves rather than what’s best for their child.” She added that in her work, she sees a tendency for the children of narcissists to end up in relationships with narcissists themselves.

During episode 47 of Women Who Rebrand, Sareta was joined by Harriet Shearsmith, Author, Blogger and Podcaster, as they delve into narcissistic mother and adult-daughter dynamics.

Harriet knows the challenges of navigating estrangement, toxic family dynamics, and setting boundaries. She created Unfollowing Mum, a podcast for those wanting to break the cycle of generational trauma and how to finally put themselves first. Tune in to this episode of Women Who Rebrand to hear her harrowing story of growing up with a mother who has narcissistic traits, parental alienation, the impact of emotional abuse as an adult, and practical advice on healing after going no contact.

Narcissism is the art of thinking too highly of oneself and too little of others.” – Unknown

These are some of the common traits exhibited by those who were raised by narcissists, as described Patapia Tzotzoli, a clinical psychologist:

  • A dysfunctional perspective of what love looks like.
  • Living with internalised shame and guilt due to feeling unworthy.
  • People pleasing.
  • Adopt caretaking or rescuing roles in relationships for validation.
  • Struggle to set healthy boundaries.
  • Unable to form healthy attachments or identify healthy romantic partners.
  • Struggle to identify their needs and wants.
  • Fail to validate their feelings or trust that they can be met.
  • Struggles with self-esteem.
  • Coping with emotional pain through addictive self-soothing activities such as substance use or overeating.
  • Compulsive behaviours such as gambling, sex or shopping.
  • Difficulty self-regulating, which can cause stress, low mood, or other mental health symptoms.
  • Developing potentially narcissistic traits themselves.
  • Unconsciously replicating similar patterns of behaviour with their own children.

It is difficult for everyone who grew up like this, regardless of whether or not the person is aware that their parent was a narcissist.

Adults that are not aware risk repeating similar behaviours or not knowing where their negative feelings come from. Those who realise that they were raised by a narcissist then have their own process to go through, explained Tzotzoli. This can include mourning as they grieve for their troubled family relationships. They can also feel a range of emotions, from betrayal, sadness, guilt, existential angst, inner conflict and anger. It can also put pressure on them to try to better deal with those relationships, which can be a drain in itself.

To manage this, “you also need to set boundaries within yourself so that even when you don’t have the power to be able to stop a narcissistic parent from being manipulative, you can at least limit the negative impact their behaviour has on your thoughts and emotions,” said Scigliano.

Tzotzoli advised that working with a trauma-trained psychologist can help you process these feelings. She also had these suggestions for better managing your relationship with narcissistic parents:

Psychoeducation: Understanding what narcissism is, how it shows up in parenting and working on how its impact has affected our sense of self and life.

Acceptance: Reaching a point where we let go of the hope that they might change or that we’ll get an apology.

Healthy boundaries: This may look like not engaging in specific topics of conversation to avoid power struggles or to clearly communicate expectations and limits.

Self-care: Interacting with narcissistic parents is emotionally draining, so prioritise your mental health by unwinding, fun activities and self-care.

Support network: Surrounding ourselves with people who understand what this experience means and how it affects us.

Scigliano also recommends therapy, especially if you plan on being a parent. “You’re going to need to process the impact that narcissistic parenting had on you as a child, how that shaped your vision of parenting, and learn what healthy parenting actually looks like,” she advised.

Hallissey has this advice for managing the relationship if you become a parent yourself:

Set and reinforce boundaries: Be clear about what you expect from them and what behaviour is unacceptable.

Be prepared for pushback: They may try to manipulate or guilt you into changing your mind. If your parent does not accept your boundaries, you may need to limit their time with your children.

Focus on your children: Try not to get caught up in the drama cycle with your parent and focus on creating a healthy environment for your children—model healthy communication and boundary-setting in relationships so children do the same in their own relationships.

Build your support network: Building your network of trusted friends and family is essential.

Consider therapy: One of the greatest gifts that we can give our children is to make sense of our own childhoods.

While it is challenging to navigate the impacts of narcissism, it is important to exercise forgiveness and empathy when working through negative feelings.

Knowing someone with NPD can be triggering, so it can help to remember that they may have gone through abuse or difficulties themselves. Even though this doesn’t exempt anyone from problematic behaviour toward others, it can sometimes help to have an explanation that it is usually all about the person with narcissistic traits and rarely about the person at who it is aimed.



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