How to Know if You Grew Up With Narcissist Parents, According to Psychologists
Plus, what to do if they're still affecting your mental health.
As much as you may love them, parents can drive you crazy. Some can struggle to respect boundaries, be a little tactless when speaking to you, and still might give you unsolicited advice about your career, finances, or love life. But if your parents seem to take satisfaction in cutting you down, refusing to take accountability for the hurt they cause, or being resentful of your independence, you might not have an overprotective helicopter parent on your hands, but rather, a narcissistic parent.
According to clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear and Date Smart, Dr. Carla Marie Manly, says that from a clinical perspective “a true narcissist suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The DSM-5, the manual used by health care professionals to diagnose mental health disorders, explains that NPD involves a pattern of grandiosity, lack of empathy, and constant need for admiration.”
It’s not really known exactly where narcissism originates from (though most believe that it’s a combination of genetics and upbringing), but Dr. Manly believes that neglectful (or otherwise misattuned) parenting plays a large role in developing narcissism. Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, says that “if a child is excessively praised by their parents and believes they can do no wrong, they may start to form symptoms of narcissism. Sometimes, constant criticism by parents or neglect can lead to a child yearning for praise and reacting poorly to criticism by others.” But both mention that a poor parent-child relationship is a major factor at the root of narcissistic behavior.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though. It’s normal to have a measure of narcissism: most of us have a natural, healthy degree of it. However, when narcissistic patterns become excessive and prominent in someone’s personality (like a parent), their interpersonal relationships are often dramatically affected. For example, a strained or antagonist relationship with your parents.
Signs of a narcissistic parent:
So what are the signs that you have a narcissistic parent? Dr. Manly says the main indicators of a narcissist parent is when they have the tendency to show far more interest in their own needs (i.e. physical, mental, emotional) than the needs of their children.
“The excessive level of self-interest creates a lack of necessary attunement to the child and the child’s needs,” says Dr. Manly. “At one end of the spectrum, the narcissistic parent may be very detached, hyper-critical, or obviously self-focused. At the other end of the spectrum, the narcissistic parent may hover, engage in over-protection, and appear to be caring yet the focus is on the parent’s needs for gratification rather than the best interests of the child. The narcissistic parent is often so self-focused that the child’s needs for safety, security, love, attunement, and consistency are simply not met.“
Dr. Hafeez mentions that narcissistic parents “tend to dislike when their children begin to form their own opinions and become more independent.” For the narcissistic parent, they want to be in control of their children so they can manipulate them into thinking that they will never be as good as their parents. “Narcissistic parents will live vicariously through their children and become frustrated and disappointed if their child does not live up to their expectations,” says Dr. Hafeez. “A lack of empathy for their children’s feelings is also common and narcissistic parents will rarely validate their children.”
Traits of children of narcissistic parents:
You might be thinking, well, that seems to describe my parents, but that doesn’t necessarily prove anything. If you’re looking for some harder evidence, it might be worth taking a look at yourself as well. Dr. Manly says that narcissistic parents tend to raise people-pleasers, who struggle with setting boundaries and who often feel unseen and unworthy. These children who grow into adults are often also chronically anxious and might struggle with emotional regulation, have a deep fear of rejection, and struggle to prioritize themselves.
“Someone raised by a narcissist will likely have low self-esteem and not fare well with criticism from others due to the overwhelming amount of it from their parents,” says Dr. Hafeez. “They may also be over-competitive as their parents have put pressure on them to live up to their standards.”
But although the general theory is that narcissistic parents raise more narcissistic parents, sometimes, a person raised by a narcissist may develop significant empathy for others, because they know how it feels to never have their feelings validated. “This can lead to balanced and healthy relationships outside of their narcissistic family members,” says Dr. Hafeez.
How to heal from narcissistic parents:
Narcissistic parents can leave terrible emotional scars on their children, but even if you don’t necessarily feel horribly traumatized, you still might want to consider directly addressing your trauma if you’re struggling with anxiety and emotional regulation. Both Dr. Manly and Dr. Hafeez stress how important it is to remember that your parent’s actions are not your fault and that a trained trauma psychotherapist is very important for you to help work through your feelings and trauma. Dr. Manly says that bibliotherapy (quality self-help books) and journaling can be “very helpful, as can group support work.”
However, if your narcissistic parent is still affecting your mental health, you might want to consider going no-contact, which can help to set new boundaries for the future. “Unfortunately, many narcissistic parents can be incredibly demanding, lacking in empathy, and invasive when engaging with their adult children,” says Dr. Manly. “If a narcissistic parent refuses to honor boundaries or continually engages in other toxic behaviors, it can be necessary to take a step back from the relationship altogether.”
Dr. Manly and Dr. Hafeez both stress that when an adult child chooses to have no contact with their parent, there is nothing to feel guilty over. In fact, going no-contact can be a healthy and appropriate form of self-care. “While going no-contact may bring up feelings of guilt, it is important to know that it is in your best interest to stop communicating with a narcissistic person,” says Dr. Hafeez. “If you feel guilty, try and walk yourself through why you decided to cut any contact. Think about how much more calm and rewarding your days are when they do not include the abuse from a narcissistic parent and allow yourself to grieve the loss of the person you are choosing to not talk to but know it is in your best interest.” At the end of the way, if a parent doesn’t consider your mental health, then it’s more than okay to put your mental health above the relationship.