I think the hardest thing to understand, for those who haven’t experienced maternal narcissism, is that narcissistic parents don’t see their children as individuals. A narcissistic mother doesn’t see her children as independently functioning human beings who have their own thoughts and feelings. She doesn’t see their individual personalities or acknowledge their goals.
A narcissistic mother sees her kids as extensions of herself. Because of that, to her, everything the kids do and say reflects on her. She makes everything about her. The kids are simply satellites who learn at a very young age that they’re expected to contribute positively to their mother’s image. They understand that every decision and every action they take must happen within those parameters, or there will be ugly consequences.
When a narcissistic mother doesn’t like aspects of her personality, she emotionally separates herself from those qualities and then projects those unacceptable traits onto one of her children. She will then mistreat that child for “having” those qualities. When she does this, she’s using a defense mechanism known as projection, which is what occurs when we attribute a trait that we dislike in ourselves as being another person’s, not our own (Brenner 2019). The mother now has reason to blame the child for anything she thinks, does, or says that she finds objectionable within herself, but is unwilling to admit or change.
“Even perceived rejection activates the brain’s pain centers.”
When a narcissistic mom uses projection to protect her ego from her unlikeable qualities, there is a risk of neglect, maltreatment, abuse, blame, shame, or even physical violence to the children as a result. She’ll play a game of “whose fault is it? I know it’s not mine” (Brenner et al. 2018). 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. 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.
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:
1. 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.
2. She doesn’t know how to identify her emotions.
3. She hasn’t had an emotionally healthy upbringing, or she hasn’t witnessed emotionally healthy relationships.
4. She’s emotionally immature and can’t regulate her emotions.
5. 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.
Tools for Healing
Learn how to protect yourself with boundaries
Learn about the narcissistic abuse cycle
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
Learn about codependency
Learn why what you tell yourself matters
Learn why verbal abuse hurts us
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping skills and healing strategies for herself. She happily shares those with others who want to learn and grow.
Her Lemon Moms series and other books and articles are a combination of her education, knowledge, personal growth, and insight from her childhood experiences and subsequent recovery work.
Diane holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She’s worked in numerous fields, including domestic violence and abuse, and is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer about family dysfunction. On The Toolbox, she writes about recovery strategies from hurtful people and painful, dysfunctional, or toxic relationships. She has authored four transformational books about healing and moving forward from narcissistic Victim Syndrome.
Visit her author’s site here: DianeMetcalf.com
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.