What is narcissism? What are narcissists like as parents? How can children who grow up in such a family thrive?

The Mayo Clinic describes narcissism in the context of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD):

“Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

A therapist’s experience

“Often, children of narcissists are overly-sensitive, deeply insecure, unable to see themselves as good, worthy and lovable.” ~ Kathy Caprino

Kathy Caprino, an author,  life coach, licensed marriage and family therapist, and former corporate executive, has seen her fair share of narcissists.

“I saw firsthand (that) adult children of narcissists can live their whole lives (unless they get help to heal and overcome it) thinking they’re not good enough, and seeking validation and recognition at every turn, yet never feeling they get it.”

Caprino, perhaps not so surprisingly, met a few narcissists in the corporate world.

“One example was a supervisor, who, on the day of the 9/11 attacks, went around the office pretending to care about how the employees were feeling, when in fact, he was completely devoid of feeling … if you watched his eyes and his “effect” as he spoke to grieving and frightened people, you’d see clearly that he felt absolutely nothing…”


The child’s brain and narcissists

Young children learn from what they see and hear.

Lacking critical thinking skills, a kindergartener exposed to violence may walk into a classroom and – without a moment’s hesitation – whack some poor classmate in the face. When asked “Why?,” the kid may say something along the lines of, “I say my (mom/dad/brother/sister) do it.”

Here are two facts about the extremely impressionable nature of a child’s mind:

  1. A child’s brain is 80 percent formed by age four.
  2. 95 percent of our subconscious is programmed by age six.

Most of the who, what, when, where, why decisions – even well into our adult years –  form almost entirely from this subconscious information.

In other words, the“forgotten years” can profoundly influence who we become. Sadly, this is terrible news for children of narcissistic parents.

Now Imagine…

Being the child of one (sometimes two) people who:

  • Believes they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by (other) special or high-status people.
  • Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited beauty, power, or success.
  • Always needs to be the center of attention.
  • Has an extreme sense of entitlement.
  • Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve their ends.
  • Has a complete lack of empathy.
  • Is excessively arrogant and self-righteous.

Ten Things to Understand About the Children of Narcissists

Let’s discuss some shared thoughts and behaviors of those who had the misfortunate of narcissists as parents. Here are ten:

1. They’re isolated and rejected

Children of narcissists have feelings of isolation and rejection from early on. While the child’s higher-level thinking processes aren’t yet mature, they can intuitively grasp that they’re emotionally deprived.

The narcissist’s inability to nurture their child instills a feeling of alienation and rejection.

2. A child of narcissists may possess very low self-esteem

Children of narcissists are often victims of shaming. Unless the child lives up to the parent’s standards – which is almost impossible – they may hear that they’re dumb, worthless, lazy, or some other terrible thing. This low sense of self-esteem often carries on into adulthood.


3. They’re incredibly self-conscious

Children of narcissists face constant scrutiny over every detail of their young life – from how they act, look and speak. The child never hears any encouraging words that would inspire a sense of confidence. This ever-present sense of inadequacy inevitably continues into adulthood.

4. They have an intense fear of abandonment

When the child receives the love and nurturing their parents withheld, they are often oblivious to how to act or respond. Their brain tells them to “Hold on!” which, sadly, often pushes the other person away.

5. They don’t accept compliments well

Again, the inability to accept compliments (or appreciate achievement) stems from the deprivation of any sense of self-worth. They heard they’re not good enough hundreds of times. Thus, it’s no real surprise that compliments and other things they should take some pride in are foreign to them.

6. Children of narcissists often feel inferior

Answering my question earlier, it turns out that narcissists have children to “mold” them into what they, now as parents, failed to live up to. Unable to grasp the absurd nature of placing demands on a child incapable of carrying them out, they’ll vent frustration by bullet-pointing every one of the child’s perceived “failures.”

Too often, these children – and eventual adults – live with a profound inferiority complex.

7. They are afraid to speak up

“You don’t speak unless spoken to” is a directive issued to inmates, military trainees…and children of narcissists. Forced silence throughout childhood – combined with a deep sense of inferiority – often leaves a person unwilling or unable to voice their opinion or knowledge over the fear of appearing stupid.

8. They don’t feel worthy of love or respect

Throughout their first two decades, love was an emotion that the most influential person in their world withheld from them. Predictably, once this child steps into society, they have only a vague notion of how love and respect feel. And they’ll have a difficult time receiving both.

9. They’ll self-sabotage relationships

Being the child of a narcissist is a drama-laden, roller-coaster affair. Children who experience years of psychological turmoil will almost assuredly experience problems in platonic and intimate relationships. Worse, they may (subconsciously) gravitate towards relationships that cause further harm.

10. Children of narcissists frequently feel depressed and anxious

As mentioned, a young child’s mind is super impressionable, especially during the first six years of life. As such, it’s commonplace for the child of a narcissist – because of the extreme mental anguish experienced – to develop anxiety and depression later in life.


Final Thoughts: Children of Narcissists Can Heal

Growing up with narcissistic parents can be a challenging and heart-wrenching experience, and the effects can follow the individual well into adulthood. These repercussions may manifest as low self-esteem, social anxiety, a fear of abandonment, difficulty accepting compliments, and a tendency to self-sabotage relationships, among other things. Additionally, there is a heightened risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders due to continuous stress and emotional neglect.

However, it is crucial to remember that these are not definitive life sentences. The strength and resilience of the human spirit, coupled with the right support and guidance, can bring about healing and transformation. A victim of narcissistic parenting can still create a fulfilling life, nurtured by healthy relationships and a solid sense of self-worth. There are many available resources, from professional therapy to support groups, self-help books, and online platforms, which can serve as valuable tools on this journey toward recovery and self-discovery.

If you or someone you know has experienced this form of parental abuse, know that awareness is the first step toward healing. Realize that you’re not alone, and it’s never too late to seek help and begin repairing the damage done. With time, patience, and self-compassion, overcoming these adversities and flourishing beyond the shadow of narcissistic parenting is possible.