The word “abuse” is full of shame. Using that word regarding childhood experiences might feel like a massive exaggeration of what happened and a handy but sad excuse for unresolved issues. When we use the word “abuse,” it feels like attention and sympathy-seeking. It feels like “poor me; I’m a helpless victim.”
Whether You’re Golden, Invisible, or a Scapegoat, it’s All About Control
We may intentionally minimize our painful childhood experiences because we don’t want to think of our mothers as “abusers” or ourselves as unwitting targets. Having those kinds of thoughts can cause us to feel more ashamed, and that affects our core identity. Those of us who’ve experienced traumatic childhood events at the hands of our mothers may feel a sense of disgust or humiliation in addition to shame, and we see ourselves in a negative light when we compare ourselves with others.
The Three, Interchangeable Roles
There’s a particularly dysfunctional family dynamic in which one of the children becomes “idealized,” the clear parental favorite, known as the “Golden Child,” and the other children take turns being devalued and blamed. They’re known as “Invisible Children” and the “Scapegoats” (Streep 2017). A narcissist-mom controls these roles.
The roles of the Golden Child, Invisible Child, and Scapegoat are flexible. Any role can be assigned to any child at any time, depending on the mother’s mood. It’s a “crazy-making” situation because the mom has the unchallenged power to change the entire family dynamic quickly and unpredictably. For those of us in this position, it catches us unaware and unprepared.
The Golden Child: The Golden Child’s role is to bring positive attention to the mother and the family. They are the favorite, and as such, may have a special status and receive more attention and praise. They’re the ones that get bragged about. They make the narcissistic mom look great as a mother. Even so, she will always take some credit for their accomplishments. When they walk into the room, mom’s focus is on them. Golden Children may grow up to be adults who are compulsive overachievers or perfectionists who feel a loss of identity and have low self-esteem.
“Forms of idealizing include praise, attention, and bragging. Types of devaluing include criticizing, blaming, shaming, lying about, lying to, intentionally frightening, projecting, and gaslighting.”
The Invisible Child (aka Lost Child): The Invisible Child “stays under the radar,” follows the rules unquestioningly, is quiet, and is easy-going. Invisible Children are often taken for granted, and their needs are neglected because they never complain or ask for anything. Invisible Children may internalize a sense of having no impact on others, or that their input does not matter. They may grow up to feel insignificant and inconsequential because their sense of identity has not fully developed (Stines, 2018).
The Scapegoat: The Scapegoat’s role is to bear the blame for all of the family’s problems. They are the butt of jokes and get less of everything than the other siblings. They are seen as the problem child. Scapegoats often grow up to become the ones who speak up and challenge the dysfunction. They’re the ones telling the truth about what’s going on in the family and will act out the frustration, anger, and feelings of the entire family (Cole 2019).
When we suddenly and unexpectedly become the Scapegoat, it leaves us wondering what the heck just happened. Was it something I said (or didn’t mention or was supposed to mention)? Was it something I did (or didn’t do or did but not correctly)? If not me, then who or what was it? Was it another family member? A friend? Her boss? The traffic? Did something happen at work? Was it the weather? Maybe it was a coworker. Or her supervisor. Perhaps it was the cat? Or something she got (or didn’t get) in the mail?
When I found myself in the Scapegoat position, I could literally spend hours trying to figure out why. I wanted and needed to fix it, or at least to understand what had so hugely affected my position within the family. I wanted to attempt to control it and not let it happen again.
A sudden change in family positions is upsetting. These random role reversals affect our sense of observation, decision-making, and self-trust because we never know if the explanation we’re giving ourselves is accurate. And we’re continuously guessing our current standing within the family. And if we’re the Golden Child, we’re also appeasing and pleasing our mom because we don’t want to lose that privilege.
“Narcissistic mothers revel in generating competition between their children and emotionally distancing them from one another.”
Living with a narcissistic mother has been described as “living in a war zone.” Those of us who’ve lived under those circumstances were usually on high alert, in fight-or-flight survival mode, because we had no idea when the next attack or role reversal would happen. It meant we were continuously producing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, so it was a common occurrence to feel confused or experience scattered thinking, and have difficulty making decisions, or remembering. Eventually, we became emotionally and physically exhausted.
There are other subtle ways that narcissistic mothers attempt to control or manipulate their children:
- Belittling, criticizing, and name-calling
- Patronizing and being condescending
- Publicly or privately embarrassing their children
- Threatening their children in some way
- Ordering their children to do things, taking away their choices
- Controlling money or access to it
- Monitoring and controlling whereabouts
- Exhibiting scary, emotional outbursts
- Acting on jealousy
- Using manipulative or guilt-inducing ploys
- Isolating children from friends, family members, or social connections
- Being indifferent to her children’s needs
- Denying or trivializing feelings
Any combination of these behaviors can result in lowering or destroying a child’s self-esteem and cause them to feel unnecessary fear and shame (McBride 2018).
Why It Happens
Because narcissistic mothers are so controlling, they need to have reasons that explain undesirable happenings, and they insist on having a person to hold accountable. This phenomenon is known as scapegoating.
When a narcissistic mom protects her ego from her own unlikeable qualities, she “projects” them onto the Scapegoat child. There is a risk of neglect, maltreatment, abuse, blame, shame, or even physical violence to these children as a result. She’ll play a game of “whose fault is it? I know it’s not mine” (Brenner et al. 2018). The scapegoating practice happens in dysfunctional families, with the role of the scapegoat being either temporary or permanent. The scapegoat is the “fall guy,” the person who gets blamed for offenses and injustices that happen to anyone in the family. Family members, except for the narcissistic mom, often take turns playing the scapegoat role, and at any given time, the mom determines who the scapegoat is.
Tactics like scapegoating are all attempts of the mother to maintain control. When a narcissistic mom feels like she’s losing control over her kids, she will often lash out in vengeful ways, subtly or with direct hostility. Narcissistic mothers are highly reactive to any threat or challenge to their power. They have a sense of entitlement, ownership, and possession of their kids.
More Manipulative Tactics
There is a multitude of ways that a narcissistic mother can emotionally injure her children. I believe these behaviors are the result of other, often unrelated issues, such as:
- She’s not articulate or doesn’t have a strong vocabulary, so she’s not able to accurately express or describe what she’s thinking or feeling.
- She doesn’t know how to identify her emotions.
- She hasn’t had an emotionally healthy upbringing, or she hasn’t witnessed emotionally healthy relationships.
- She’s emotionally immature and can’t regulate her emotions.
- She hasn’t personally experienced or learned strong parenting skills.
Narcissistic mothers manipulate and control their children in a variety of ways:
- Withholding affection, affirmation, validation, attention, encouragement, praise, and other self-esteem building behaviors
- Exhibiting intense and scary displays of emotion and drama (“narcissistic rages”)
- Verbally abusing them with insults, criticism, and name-calling
- Threatening violence (may or may not be carried out)
- Maintaining a victim mentality
- Giving the “silent treatment” as a form of punishment
- Exercising a “selective memory”
- Gaslighting to control perceptions and memories
I’m personally familiar with all of these tactics. Gaslighting is the one that harmed me the most. It’s an extremely emotionally and mentally destructive form of manipulation.
Even though most of the above-listed behaviors are not physically hurtful, each one can activate the pain centers in the human brain. Research in the field of neuroscience shows us that even perceived rejection activates the area of the brain where pain is felt (Eisenberger et al. 2004). The point is that verbal abuse, threats, rejection, and other forms of emotional mistreatment do hurt us.
“Stirring the Pot” (Triangulation)
A narcissistic mother revels in generating competition between her children and emotionally distancing them from one another. These moms enjoy creating distrust, doubt, insecurity, competition, and resentment between siblings. As I’ve mentioned, this is called triangulation. It’s also a manipulative tactic, used to control information or interactions between individuals.
A therapist once suggested that triangulation was a form of entertainment for my mom. She liked creating drama. She’d stir up trouble, then sit back and enjoy the show. For example, my mom would say one thing to me, putting a specific person in a negative light, and then she’d provide a slightly different version, with me as the “bad guy,” to the other person. When we sensed that something negative was happening between us, but not of our own doing, the other person and I began communicating directly with each other. We compared the different versions of my mother’s stories and soon came to realize that we were being manipulated seemingly for my mother’s amusement. I informed my mother that we were aware of what she was doing. Of course, she flipped the scenario, instantly becoming the innocent victim, but the triangulation stopped pretty much immediately.
More on Triangulation later.
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.