Who is the narcissistic parent?
She is the parent who demands certain behaviors from her child because she sees her child as an extension of herself. He is the parent who needs the child to represent him in the world in ways that meet his emotional needs. She is the parent who expects the child to realize her unfulfilled dreams, wishes, and fantasies. For these narcissistic parents, the child is groomed to be a trophy, a symbol of the parent's success and specialness, to be admired and envied in the way that the parent would wish for him or herself. The child, in this way, serves as a source of narcissistic supply for the parent.
The child learns from the very beginning what is necessary to capture the interest and maintain the positive regard of the narcissistic parent. She quickly learns to stifle her own desires, her authentic self, and to become the shiny, attractive trophy child that will make her parent feel good. He quickly adopts a false self, an accommodation of himself that leads him to define himself and his value by his ability to gratify his narcissistic parent. His true self, his authentic self, is left far behind.
So what becomes of this trophy child?
She is the child who devotes her life to the sport that her father loves, sensing that her success as a player makes her father feel like a winner, thus winning his praises and special affection. He is the child who never expresses any feelings of upset to his mother, ensuring that her needs are taken care of and that she is never unhappy with her 'special boy'. She is the girl who becomes her mother's confident, setting aside her own need to be mothered to become the mother to a mother whose needs are made to be greater than her own. He is the boy who must show his loyalty to his father by appearing to hate his mother just as much as his father hates her.
The narcissistic parent has a hard time tolerating the separateness of thoughts and feelings that exists between the parent and the child and feels that his or her views are the child's views. This parent has a hard time recognizing that the child may have different and separate feelings than she does. He is oblivious to the child's needs that do not comport with his own. In order to survive such a relationship, and so as not to cause injury to this narcissistic parent and experience the resulting abandonment and rejection, the child quickly accommodates to the parent's desires. She quickly discovers that her authentic self has to be set aside. This true self holds little value when compared to the parent-pleasing self she takes on. His identity becomes constructed around maintaining the admiration and positive regard of the other - a false self. At times, it is constructed around merely avoiding disappointing by making choices of his own.
As a result, the child may fail to develop confidence in her own feelings and may need constant reassurance that she is pleasing, lest she may face parental abandonment by way of disapproval. She becomes the person who needs to let others know at all times that she is pleasing and will set aside her own needs to make sure that the other person remains happy. She will find herself in a relationship with someone who needs someone who is willing to set aside their own needs for him, likely a narcissist.
At other times, he identifies with the parent's confirmation of his special trophy status and becomes attached to the idea of his uniqueness, specialness and entitlement for special attention and praise. He learns that there should be no space between what he thinks and needs and what others think and need and therefore becomes intolerant (and sometimes rageful) when others fail to be in line with his desires. He is the one who will likely find himself in a relationship with the girl described above.
The narcissist rarely recognizes his narcissism and its impact. Christopher, a product of a narcissist parent himself, would often brag about his son's accomplishments, about how bright his son was, and about his son's expected future. He would swell up with pride to feel that his son reflected the specialness that he felt to be a part of himself. He enjoyed seeing the admiration that his son would capture as it felt like an admiration of him. He could not psychologically separate himself from his child. As a result, Christopher's son was tasked with the responsibility with ensuring the ongoing admiration that the father had come to depend on. When Christopher's son announced that he wanted to go to film school instead of law school, Christopher felt betrayed. It hadn't mattered to him that his son had no interest in the law. In fact, he had never even noticed that. And he was not even fully conscious of his worry that his own father would be disappointed that he had not been able to produce a son worthy of his own father's admiration.
Janine had spent much of her life aware of the special relationship she had with her mother. Throughout her life, her mother would often remind her of how similar they were. When her parents divorced, Janine, as was expected, supported her mother. She refused to talk with or visit her father. Her mother had demanded absolute loyalty. Janine and her mother would often talk about how Janine's father had betrayed them both by leaving Janine's mother. Once Janine became a teenager, she and her mother began to dress more and more alike. Although this was increasingly troublesome to Janine, she grew weary of the fighting between herself and her mother when she would try to establish a more separate life. Janine was embarrassed when her mother would flirt with her high school boyfriends and yet her mother appeared so unaware of how Janine might feel about this. It was not until Janine's mother emptied their joint bank account to make an extravagant purchase that Janine came to understand that her mother had always been incapable of thinking about her needs.
But for all the trophy children who try to please their narcissistic parents, there are those who conclude that they can't, or won't. There are those children who become convinced very early on of their inherent defects because of their inability to please their parent. These children easily give up in their own pursuits or don't even begin to try. There are those who refuse to succumb to the parent's impossible need for mirroring and gratification and, therefore, rebel. They live their lives in anger and opposition, refusing to meet parental (or societal) expectations. And for all the narcissistic parents that appear to be so preoccupied by their children, there are those that are so excessively focused on themselves that their children barely register on their radar, except for the moments when the child gratifies them. These children continue to struggle, to varying degrees throughout their lives, to establish their authentic selves.
To understand more about this dynamic in parent-child relationships, the following books are recommended:
- The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
- Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in Their Struggle for Self by Elan Golomb
- Why is it always about you?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandra Hotchkiss