How to Deal With a Narcissistic Parent
Signs of a narcissistic parent and advice for navigating the relationship.
Medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition in which someone is extremely motivated by their own self-image and self-preservation. People with NPD often have a very high sense of self-importance, lack empathy, and will put themselves above the feelings of others—even their children.
Children raised by a narcissistic parent often deal with a range of issues that can follow them through adulthood, including poor self-esteem, people pleasing, and codependency. Creating boundaries around a narcissistic parent is key to healing and moving forward. Ahead, we’re covering some key signs of a narcissistic parent, the toll this behavior can take on a child, and how to deal with a narcissistic parent.
Related:What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?
12 Signs of a Narcissistic Parent
It is sometimes hard to spot a narcissistic parent—especially narcissistic parents to young children who cannot express themselves—because they tend to control the image of their parenting very well. As the child gets older, though, signs often become more apparent. Rachel Ruiz, LCSW, says that in her experience these are some of the most common behaviors of a narcissistic parent:
Talking exclusively about themselves and their accomplishments as a parent.
Reminding you often about all the things they’ve done for you, especially in a way that’s manipulative or used as leverage in a situation.
Having consistently low tolerance when your needs get in the way of their own, which may result in anger outbursts or temper tantrums.
Dismissing when you communicate day-to-day struggles and redirecting the conversation back to themselves.
Making expectations a “moving target" so that it becomes almost impossible to satisfy them or earn their approval. Once you meet an expectation, another one is set without recognition of the accomplishment.
Taking the “spotlight” away from you when others give you attention or praise. This can prevent you from making meaningful relationships with people who are positive influences in your life.
Being inattentive or detached.
Expecting you to adapt to their needs and schedule regardless of what’s going on in your life.
Demonstrating an inability to receive constructive criticism or feedback. Or, if they do accept feedback when it's given, they later deny what was discussed.
Inability to apologize or take responsibility for their actions, even when you’ve brought up something that hurt or offended you.
Complaining often that you or others are the problem instead of taking responsibility for hurtful actions
A demonstrated pattern of poor relationships with not just their children, but with others in their life, including partners, colleagues, and friends.
A Note About “Diagnosing” NPD in Others
Narcissism can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional following an assessment of someone’s biological, social, and psychological factors. That said, many people with NPD won’t ever be formally diagnosed due to the nature of their condition.
“It can help to recognize when it’s possible a parent has NPD so you can understand how to interact with them,” says Ruiz. She adds, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) notes that NPD is a ‘pervasive pattern,’ so you would want to notice these cues ongoing and in a way that impacts the overall quality of the relationship.”
Related:5 Types of Narcissism and How to Spot Them
The Toll of a Narcissistic Parent
Narcissistic parents consistently fail to engage in empathy or compassion with their children, which can have negative impacts that last into adulthood.
Also referred to as “people pleasing,” fawning is one of the most common coping mechanisms people experience when raised by narcissistic parents.
“Fawn response is when you appease the ‘threat’ by befriending them, so you can reduce the chance of becoming a target,” notes Ruiz. “Narcissistic parents are very difficult to please, and we all have a natural drive to gain approval from our parents.”
This can present as an inability to say no without feeling guilt, being overly accommodating to the point your needs are neglected, and having poor boundaries.
It is also possible, while living with a narcissistic parent, to cope by mimicking the parent’s behavior. The child may attempt to make themselves just as important as the parent.
“This is completely understandable [because] it’s common to protect yourself with a “fight” response, which can look like defensiveness or arguing,” says Ruiz. “Rest assured, it’s normal to get caught up in the narcissistic dynamic, and if you notice this happening, it may be a sign to take a break from interacting with the parent in order to get support for yourself.”
A narcissistic parent’s behavior can greatly impact their child’s self-esteem. They may find it difficult to celebrate their achievements, experience “imposter syndrome,” have a difficult time making friends, and have negative thoughts about themselves. Some children of narcissistic parents also struggle with anxiety, sadness, and depression.
Related:Can a Narcissist Love?
How To Deal With a Narcissistic Parent
The dynamic between child and parent can often be inherently challenging, and introducing a mental health condition such as NPD only compounds the issue. That said, there’s no “right” answer for how to deal with a narcissistic parent.
For some, this may look like completely eliminating contact or limiting contact drastically. For others, it may mean maintaining the relationship, but stepping back emotionally. Here are some strategies to consider.
Ceasing All Contact
One way to deal with a narcissistic parent is to remove yourself from the relationship entirely. This clearly defined boundary is particularly helpful if you’ve already made many attempts to salvage the relationship without any demonstrated improvements and you need to protect yourself.
“If you feel that [the relationship] is negatively impacting your mental health—you are becoming fearful, depressed, or panicked during interactions—stop contact at least until you seek professional support for yourself and can come up with a game plan,” Ruiz says.
Limited contact may look like getting together just on special occasions like a holiday or birthday, limiting the time you communicate via phone or text, or shortening visits. Having ‘buffer’ people present when spending time with a narcissistic parent can help things go more smoothly, as can participating in an enjoyable activity. Planning self-care following a visit can also help you decompress.
It’s OK to maintain communication with a narcissistic parent permitting you feel comfortable doing so. That said, whether you decide to move to “limited contact” or continue engaging per usual, it’s important to create some clear boundaries and adjust your mindset with a narcissistic parent.
Here are some techniques and strategies that can help your interactions go more smoothly:
Reframe the relationship as different compared to others in your life. “You may not be able to share intimate thoughts and feelings, but you can still enjoy time together and appreciate the positive qualities of your parent,” says Ruiz
Recognize their illness. It’s easier said than done, but try to avoid absorbing hurtful words or actions from a narcissistic parent. This is a reflection of them and their illness, and what they say to you or how they act toward you isn’t rooted in reality.
Focus on what works in your interactions. Are they thoughtful with gifts? Do they appreciate getting a card in the mail? Do you have a shared interest in common? Focus on the parts of your relationship where you can connect in a meaningful way.
Be cautious when delivering feedback. Delivering criticism to a narcissistic parent can trigger an outburst or fight. Be aware that this reaction is possible and prepare yourself in advance.
Communicate clear boundaries. It’s OK to draw clearly defined boundaries around your relationship to create a sense of what’s acceptable and what’s not. For example, communicate that you retain the right to walk away or take a pause from the relationship when there’s an outburst, negative talk, character attacks, or other unhealthy behaviors.
Avoid the “who’s right or wrong” fight. “Don’t spend time deciding who’s right or wrong,” Ruiz cautions. “For example, if a narcissistic parent reneges on an agreement, you can say something like ‘Let’s avoid this in the future by communicating by email.’” In other scenarios, it may be best just to drop the conversation entirely. Decide in advance what you will go to bat for, and what you are OK with letting go.
Validate their feelings and quickly move on. It’s usually not worth getting into an argument with a narcissistic parent. For example, if they complain about someone after a family gathering, you can say something like “That sounds upsetting. I want to hear more about what you liked about the event.”
Related:The Role of Genetics in Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Dealing with a narcissistic parent is extremely challenging. Whether you decide to cease the relationship or maintain it with caveats, remember to take care of yourself first. Also know that you can love this person and care about them without bending over backwards to create a strong relationship.
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