Good parenting requires empathy, compassion and the willingness to make some of your needs secondary — essentially, many of the traits that you wouldn’t find in a narcissist.
But as a psychologist who studies the impacts of narcissism in family relationships, I’ve noticed that many narcissist traits, such as grandiosity, superiority and entitlement, are on the rise.
Narcissistic parenting isn’t about bragging on social media or forcing rigorous extracurricular activities on your kids. It goes a lot deeper, and it’s one of the most toxic ways to raise your kids. Narcissistic parents have a hard time allowing their kids to become their own person, or have their own needs met.
You might know a narcissistic parent and not realize it. Here are the common signs:
1. They see their child as a source of validation.
Narcissists will often loudly flaunt their children when they score the winning goal or get the big part in the school play. You might see them constantly bragging online or bringing up their child’s beauty or talent in conversation.
Unless something involves their child’s achievements, the parent is checked out, detached and disinterested in their child. They generally shame their child’s need for connection or validation, and instead see them as a tool to fulfill those needs for themselves.
2. They are emotionally reactive, but shame their child’s emotions.
Narcissists are often angry and aggressive when they feel disappointed or frustrated. If they believe their child is being critical or defiant, they can lash out. These reactions can manifest as screaming, sudden bouts of rage or, in more severe cases, physical violence.
Meanwhile, the emotions of others can make narcissistic people uncomfortable and they may have contempt for them. They may shame their child into not sharing their emotions at all with phrases like, “Get over yourself, it wasn’t that big of a deal,” or, “Stop crying and toughen up.”
3. They always put their own needs first.
Sometimes adults need to put real-world issues first — maybe a late shift can’t be avoided or chores will take up an entire afternoon. But narcissistic parents expect their children to make sacrifices so that they can do or have whatever they want.
For example, if the parent likes sailing, then their children must go sailing every weekend. Or if the parent has a standing tennis game, then the parent will never miss it, even for something important like a graduation ceremony.
4. They have poor boundaries.
Narcissistic parents can be quite intrusive. When they don’t feel like it, they won’t interact with the child. But when they want the child to validate them, they may feel they can interrupt their child’s and ask them to do whatever they want to do.
They may ask probing questions or be critical of their child in a way that feels intrusive as well, such as commenting on weight, appearance or other attributes that leave the child feeling self-conscious.
5. They play favorites.
Narcissistic parents maintain their power by triangulating, or playing favorites. They may have a golden child who they compliment excessively, for example, while speaking badly about another child in the family.
This can make children feel uncomfortable, disloyal and psychologically unsafe. They may believe that they need to go along with or impress the narcissistic parent to avoid their wrath and maintain good standing in the family unit.
6. They shift blame onto their children.
Narcissists have the need to feel perfect, so they shirk responsibilities for their own missteps and blame their children. They can be cruel when they feel criticized, and their comments often sting.
Common refrains from narcissistic parents might be something like, “It’s your fault that I am so tired,” or, “I could have had a great career if I didn’t have to deal with you.”
Over time, children of narcissistic parents internalize these comments and begin to self-blame, believing: “When I have needs, I make everyone else feel or perform worse.′
7. They expect the child to be the caregiver.
At a relatively young age, the message from a narcissistic parent is that their child has to take care of them.
This often extends well into adulthood, where the narcissistic parent can be quite manipulative. A common line might be, “I fed and clothed you, so now you owe me.” Many narcissists expect their children to provide care and support later in life.
How to change narcissistic parenting tendencies
If you find yourself relating to any of the traits above, don’t worry. We all have a certain level of self-involvement. However, there are several strategies you can use to change your mindset and habits.
First, don’t gaslight your child. If they say, “You’re always angry at me,” don’t say, “That’s not the case.” This will only confuse them further. Instead, meet the child with empathy: “I am so sorry. Do you want to talk about it? How are you feeling?”
Another strategy is to avoid forced forgiveness. Forced forgiveness benefits the parent by pushing their bad behavior under the rug but only fosters self-blame and confusion in the child. Let the child have their experience.
Lastly, consider therapy; it’s one of the best places to explore your parenting attitudes and tendencies.