11 Dec Children of a narcissistic parent – how it affects children and how the other parent can help them
Firstly, to put narcissism into context, there is a spectrum; in fact, all of us might have some narcissistic traits. However, any personality trait taken to an extreme can become pathological. A person who is excessively high in narcissism is said to have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is a diagnosable mental illness. I mention this as it depends on where your partner is on these scale. So, you can have someone at the beginning of the spectrum who may be mildly self-centred at times, but if they are right at the end with NPD then they are to the point where it interferes with normal functioning across a wide range of settings. Studies show that this may be due in part to brain differences. People with NPD often have less brain matter in areas related to empathy. With NPD narcissism becomes pathological, even malignant. This is why it’s possible for people to have narcissistic traits but not be pathologically narcissistic. The narcissistic traits displayed with NPD people are rigid, inflexible and detrimental to their general functioning.
Regarding the affect on children bear in mind where you perceive your partner is on the scale. So, there’s a difference between someone who has narcissistic personality disorder and someone who has higher than normal narcissistic traits. That means there is a huge grey area of what are narcissistic traits and behaviours a person can have and how these affect their lives. Also, bear in mind a narcissist does not normally know he or she is one.
Personally, and along with what experts say, I feel you should never tell children that their parent is a narcissist. The narcissistic parent does love his or her children and this is important that you tread very carefully here or it could backfire against you.
I would also like to emphases that you should not feel guilt, self-blame or regret once you understand that your partner is a narcissist. Let go of these feelings. Your partner was very clever when he or she hooked you into the relationship and his or her ‘love-bombing’ was no doubt expertly carried out. Wasting energy on regret and blaming yourself will only make matters worse for you and your children.
As the non-narcissistic healthy parent, it is your role to protect your children at much as possible. Do understand that you cannot change a narcissist and do not waste your energy trying. You can improve the situation for your children and help them develop coping skills.
If the narcissist invalidates your feelings it is something he or she may also to your children, and an NPD will definitely do. Since the narcissistic parent routinely invalidates others through various means such as denial, shame, ridicule, and projection, your children are especially in need of acknowledgement that their feelings are real, and that they matter.
Especially for the child who is scapegoated and constantly targeted by the narcissistic parent, it is vital to recognise that his or her feelings of hurt and anger are justified and don’t deserve the treatment he or she is getting. Quite often narcissists have a favoured child and thus you need to watch for this and manage the situation. There is often the scapegoat child and the golden child, which controls the family narrative for the narcissist.
The golden child is the ‘can do no wrong’ favourite whose strengths and successes are celebrated and failings overlooked or blamed on the scapegoat. Often the golden child is a projection of what the narcissistic parent wants to believe about himself or herself, i.e. idealised mirror image. The scapegoat, by contrast, can do nothing right. Both roles in the narcissistic family are damaging false identities which deny and negate each child’s authentic self. For the narcissistic personality, blaming others, particularly a scapegoated child, is as natural and necessary as breathing.
Helping your children understand that the narcissist’s blame is unfounded, unfair, and not their fault is critical to their sense of an accurate reality, as opposed to a highly distorted one engineered by your narcissistic partner. Seeing that they are not to blame will also relieve your children of a heavy burden that should not be theirs to carry.
See also this article which I think helps greatly in understanding the effect on children. The Real Effect of Narcissistic Parenting on Children https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love/201802/the-real-effect-narcissistic-parenting-children
So, do children eventually learn to see their parent as a narcissist? Obviously, it is age dependent on the child. As he or she grows they will see their parents’ traits of course, but they will not have a label for it when young. The problem is they have been conditioned to this being a norm for them, as they do not know any better. For me, the more important issue is making sure that children have one healthy parent who is protecting them and giving values and morals that offset the damage of the narcissist. One important part in breaking away from a narcissist to become a single parent is that the healthy parent spends the majority of time with his or her time with the children, but this is highly beneficial for them.
Amongst my clients I have experience of those with older, even adult children. These adult children do realise that one of their parents has certain traits which they do not find easy to live with and they see them for what they are. However, most still love their parent but have learned to tread carefully around the personality traits. Quite often it has resulted in them being better parents themselves as they do not wish to replicate the parent mistakes.
See article The Legacy of a Narcissistic Parent https://goop.com/work/relationships/the-legacy-of-a-narcissistic-parent/
Forget Co-Parenting with a Narcissist. Do This Instead. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anxiety-zen/201502/forget-co-parenting-narcissist-do-instead
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