Do You Have Narcissistic Parents? How to Tell

Updated: Jan. 19, 2021

Narcissism and parenting don't mesh well. Here's how to tell if you have narcissistic parents and how to deal with them.

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Many parents would no doubt say that their lives changed entirely when they had or adopted their first child. They learned to put someone else’s well-being before their own, to anticipate the wants and needs of another person. In other words, many people go through a transformation that people often describe as simply “becoming a parent.”

But not everyone changes or feels the same way when they hold their child for the first time. While a lot of people take time to adjust to the idea of parenthood, some continue to struggle long after that baby grows up. They have a hard time putting themselves in a position that isn’t No. 1

And at the top of this list are people with narcissistic tendencies and those with narcissistic personality disorder.

“Narcissistic parents will struggle to empathize with their children if they, themselves, are not under threat,” says Mike Gallagher, licensed professional clinical counselor and clinical director at the Shoreline Recovery Center in Encinitas, California.

This lack of empathy, a hallmark of narcissism, makes it difficult for narcissists to parent traditionally and can lead to the development of hostile or damaging environments for their children. Other telling signs of narcissism in parents and non-parents alike include manipulation, an aversion to criticism, and insecurity. Narcissistic parents may be neglectful of the child and focus on their own self-absorbing interests instead.

Different types of narcissists include the closet narcissist, exhibitionist narcissist, failed narcissist, and malignant narcissist. Here are four different ways that parents may reveal these narcissistic tendencies and the effects they can yield on children’s development. (And here is how to tell if you have a narcissistic mother.)

embraced senior couple looking at their family in natureskynesher/Getty Images

The “we are great” family

“In this instance, the whole family has narcissistic values,” explains Elinor Greenberg, PhD, a licensed psychologist and author of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety. “Children are rewarded for bringing glory to the family name, for being great and doing things the family respects.”

If they can fit into this mold and follow through, children in these families will grow up in a relatively high functioning way—to a point.

“These kids know how to achieve, but their personal relationships are very primitive,” says Greenberg. “Their relationships with their parents were entirely transactional, not based on love.” As a result, they will struggle to form loving, intimate relationships as adults.

(Here are signs you might be dating a narcissist.)

But children who aren’t able to follow the family way? These kids struggle in a “we are great” family, since narcissistic parents treat them like outsiders or failures. “They won’t feel nurtured or nourished,” adds Greenberg. “Since they don’t have the same qualities as their brothers and sisters, they feel very fragile, insecure, bitter, and paranoid.”

Forced to face the world and find a path independently without support, these children tend to struggle to find their footing and go through life constantly seeking external validation for their actions.

The helicopter parent

“Helicopter parents who always hover around their kids and demand attention could be classic vulnerable narcissists,” says W. Keith Campbell, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia and author of The New Science of Narcissism. “Although the line between a supportive parent and a needy parent can blur, you know the ones who live vicariously through their children, demand special exceptions, and require affirmation as the ‘best’ parent that can be.”

Unlike grandiose or exhibitionist narcissists, these parents seek to express their superiority in quieter ways. “They express antagonism but in a subtle form with a sense of entitlement and suspicion of others, alongside insecurity and fragility,” says Campbell.

These parents may also use their children as the vehicle that brings their family to greatness. “This parent wants to be an exhibitionist narcissist but doesn’t have the nerve,” says Greenberg. “Instead, they choose a child to worship and prop up. Like stage mothers who wanted to be but were never great themselves.”

As a result, a child may grow up with a false sense of entitlement or a distorted view of their place in the world, which can lead to a rude awakening as an adult. (Here are the signs of narcissistic abuse.)

The parent with separation anxiety

Separation anxiety disorder is a condition most often diagnosed in children who grow anxious and uneasy when separated from their parents. But if you reverse the roles, you may have a case of narcissistic parents.

“Parents may reveal themselves to be narcissists as the child begins to separate physically and emotionally from the parent,” explains Gallagher. “Narcissistic parents find their value in maintaining superiority in the parent-child relationship. Once a child starts to develop a greater sense of independence, the narcissistic parent will feel threatened and attempt to manipulate the child to a more dependent state.”

Keeping their children in the more dependent role ensures that they will be unable to establish superiority in the relationship. Thus, the narcissist will remain in that position, potentially damaging the child’s self-esteem and belief in their own abilities.

“Signs of narcissistic parents are those with enmeshed boundaries who seem to struggle most when their children are finding their own hobbies and interests,” adds Gallagher. Think about a parent who volunteers to chaperone their teenager’s school dance, then proceeds to take over the dance floor. Actions like these serve as a reminder to the child of their subservient place in the relationship.

The alpha narcissist parent

Growing up with a parent who is an alpha exhibitionist narcissist means growing up in an incredibly tense and stressful environment, says Greenberg. “Often, in this case, the kids are split and set to be competitive with each other. This way, nobody can challenge the head narcissist because they are too busy competing with each other for attention.”

And the other parent, if one is present, typically can’t provide much help. “The alpha narcissist often marries someone who is subservient or willing to be devalued,” explains Greenberg. “In this household, ‘don’t do or say that because Mommy or Daddy (whoever the narcissist is) will get mad’ becomes the punchline of everything. But it’s an impossible endeavor because they will be mad about something eventually.”

The result: Children are forced to be secretive and walk on eggshells in their own homes. They grow up feeling inferior and like their wants and needs play second fiddle to those of their narcissistic parent. The alpha narcissist parent may resort to manipulation or gaslighting to promote this fear.

Dealing with narcissistic parents

It is difficult to identify these conditions during childhood, especially those like the “we are great” family and the helicopter parent in which the child may see it as a positive experience.

But therapy can help children with narcissistic parents work through the ideals they learned and help them create a more realistic view of the world and their place in it. Many people who grow up in these situations first present for therapy in adulthood. At times, it is in the context of not understanding their own role in building a meaningful life, separate from pleasing their parents.

Next, read these narcissist quotes that can help you deal with a narcissist in your life.