Lacking a moral compass or the ability to act selflessly, narcissist parents create devastating havoc and damage in the lives of their kids. Unlike emotionally mature parents whose priority is to meet their children’s needs, support their healthy development, and respect and nurture their individual identities, narcissist parents put their own needs first and do not recognize their children as separate individuals.
In the narcissistic family, although spouses often suffer excruciatingly, children are most vulnerable to the narcissist’s abuse because they
- are relatively helpless;
- are reliant on the narcissist parent for caregiving;
- are especially susceptible to the narcissist parent’s opinions; and
- are easy and manipulable targets.
Parentifying: The Upside-Down Parent-Child Relationship
Consistent, appropriate caretaking and unconditional love are beyond the narcissist’s scope. Rather than seeing those things as his responsibilities (and privileges) as a parent, the narcissist expects such treatment from his kids, often turning the adult-child relationship upside down.
In the narcissistic family it is common for adults to parentify their children, expecting them to meet their emotional and even physical needs and fulfill roles beyond their maturity level or rightful responsibility. The parentified child may be placed in the role of therapist, confidante, or even surrogate spouse. That child, or others in the family, also may be burdened with excessive chores, caretaking siblings, managing finances, or earning money for the household.
Parentified children may feel flattered to be given adult responsibilities and honored to play the role of “special helper.” It may feel as though they are getting attention from their parent, which they can’t get any other way. But parentification is an extreme violation of boundaries, and the parentified child is being used at her own expense to meet the needs of the person whose job it is to meet hers. As they mature, parentified children are likely to struggle with healthy boundaries, fall into caretaking roles, and believe they can only “earn” love and approval by “working” for it.
Idealizing and Devaluing
To rule the family, with the goal of managing their dysregulated self-esteem, narcissist parents are always looking for ways to divide and conquer, breeding doubt and distrust and isolating family members from one another. Such parents often rank and compare their kids and set up inequitable conditions, creating competition, insecurity, and resentment among siblings. Often one child is favored, or idealized, and one or more others are devalued.
Common Idealizing Tactics
- excessive attention
- exaggerated praise
- bragging to others
Common Devaluing Tactics
Golden and Scapegoated Children
The narcissist parent assigns roles to his children to meet his emotional needs and pit family members against one another. Typically there is a golden child and one or more scapegoats. Golden children are idealized, while scapegoats are devalued and even discarded (neglected or disowned).
The golden child is the privileged, can-do-no-wrong favorite whose strengths and successes are celebrated and failings are overlooked or blamed on the scapegoat. Often the golden child is a projection of everything the narcissist parent wants to believe about herself—an idealized mirror image. The scapegoat, by contrast, can do little to nothing right. The scapegoat is blamed for the ills of the family, burdened with excessive responsibilities, and targeted with negative projection, criticism, rage, and sometimes physical abuse. No matter how hard the scapegoat tries or how capable he is, it is rarely good enough.
The narcissistic parent assigns the roles of golden child and scapegoat to particular children for a range of reasons, both calculating and irrational. A golden child may be selected because she is more tractable, while a scapegoat may be targeted because she is more independent-minded and therefore threatening. Sometimes children are assigned roles based on gender or whether they remind the narcissistic parent of herself in bad or good ways. Ultimately both roles in the narcissist family are damaging false identities that deny and negate the child’s authentic self and cause emotional and psychological trauma that can last a lifetime.
The Golden Child’s Hurt
Although the golden child is shielded from the narcissist’s worst offenses and elevated in the family hierarchy, that privileged status comes at a cost. The narcissist parent charges a high price for his favoritism: isolation and compliance. If you are his golden child, he “owns” you and demands your loyalty, attention, and adulation. As a result, you may feel overresponsible for that parent and/or smothered, controlled, and alone. Other family members may resent you, and you may feel guilty about your unearned status or become perfectionist and overachieving to maintain it. You may become arrogant and superior, adopting the parent’s narcissistic traits. If you attempt to break away from the narcissist’s control or form independent relationships, you will likely face reprisal, from guilt trips to judgment, rejection to ostracism.
Beyond the narcissist’s grasp, as the golden child your most difficult challenges are establishing a separate identity, healthy independence, and an appropriate sense of self-importance in the scheme of things. Life’s realities are likely to run interference with your confusing mix of overconfidence and immature, instilled helplessness. As an adult, you may struggle with the cognitive dissonance of having felt that your privilege was undeserved or having others view you as ordinary when you have been told that you are extraordinary. You may also feel angry or resentful about the burdens placed on your by your selfish and demanding parent. Your ability to form healthy independent relationships requires a willingness to assert boundaries with your narcissist parent and examine and move beyond your prescribed role in your family of origin.
The Scapegoat’s Hurt
As the family target, you as scapegoat have it hardest, at least on the surface. Your personality disordered narcissist parent directs her wrath onto you, seeing in you what she hates about herself. This may be because you are most like that parent, most aware of her shortcomings, or most questioning of or confrontational about the family’s unhealthy dynamics. Often the most sensitive and/or strongest child is scapegoated because that child is most apt to threaten, directly or indirectly, the narcissist’s architecture of lies about herself and others. The narcissist will enlist her flying monkeys to help direct family propaganda against you and further isolate you from family support.
The scapegoated child triggers the parent’s narcissist injury, activating his most violent defenses. Your mere act of “seeing” causes the narcissist parent to lash out with projecting rage: You are labeled difficult, unfair, angry, cruel, rebellious, disloyal. The narcissist’s abuses become your misdeeds. The narcissist’s disappointments become your fault. The narcissist’s responsibilities become your weights to carry. In short, the narcissist parent uses you to deflect accountability and as a catchall for his rage at the world.
Like the golden child’s, your identity is distorted by the narcissist parent’s false projections. Your challenge is to believe in your own perceptions and truths—no small matter for someone who has been systematically psychologically undermined in a devastating smear campaign. This means dissecting the narcissist family system, recognizing its cruelties and lies, and nurturing the self within who was never properly loved. As an outlier, you are likely to have greater perspective and freedom to break away from the family dysfunction.
The scapegoat inevitably carries the emotional and physical fallout of abuse. You may respond by becoming a hyperresponsible overachiever or a highly empathetic caregiver and rescuer. You may display internalized fear and anger in the form of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or self-destructive behaviors; struggle with healthy boundaries; experience self-doubt, anger, and trust issues; or fall into abusive relationships.
The Path to Healing
Whether you are the golden child or scapegoat, breaking the narcissist family cycle is the path to healing. Replicating similar dynamics in your adult relationships is common and difficult to avoid. Often it takes repeating unhealthy patterns to begin to understand them and seek out truly nurturing friends and partners. As a parent, you have the opportunity to achieve profound healing through giving the kind of unconditional love and authentic caretaking you never received enough of yourself.
Julie L. Hall’s articles on narcissism regularly appear in her blog The Narcissist Family Files, The Huffington Post, PsychCentral, NYMedTimes, SmartNews, and YourTango. She is the author of a forthcoming memoir about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family (read excerpts).