When a primary caregiver, like a mother, is somewhere on the narcissism spectrum (or is a narcissist,) any children in their care will be vulnerable to becoming targets of mistreatment or abuse. That’s because children don’t have the mental and emotional maturity to comprehend their circumstances or to set protective boundaries. Their age dictates complete dependence on and trust of the narcissistic caregiver. As a result, they can easily be manipulated and emotionally controlled.
All children need and want their parent’s approval and validation. If kids grow up in home environments that are competitive or where love is conditional, they realize that they have to be “the best” in order to be loved. Deep down, they understand that they must earn their parent’s or caregiver’s love and affection by “doing” or “achieving.”
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What Happens When a Caregiver is Emotionally Unstable
If a parent or caregiver is emotionally unstable, the children will experience almost daily drama and chaos, along with the resulting feelings of insecurity, instability, and fear. If a parent or caregiver is threatening, angry, or verbally abusive, the child’s role in the family will frequently change according to that parent’s current emotional state. All children in the home will take turns being devalued or idealized by the unstable parent. These dynamics mean that everyone in the family “revolves around” the explosive or unstable parent, trying to keep them calm. This is often achieved by hypervigilance; monitoring the parents’ moods, and doing whatever pleases them in order to hold off an unprovoked attack or to remain in good standing for as long as possible (see dysfunctional family roles). Every child responds to this chaos and uncertainty in their own unique way, possibly developing feelings of anger or becoming rebellious or violent. Some feel defeated and give up, becoming withdrawn or depressed, or self-isolating. And others feel a deep sense of shame for not being “good enough,” eroding their self-confidence and self-esteem. They are the shy, quiet ones.
The feelings of inadequacy that stem from “not being good enough” to receive unconditional love from a parent may be the catalyst for developing a “false self.” Learning to hide “faults” by developing a false self, and adopting the values and characteristics of the narcissistic parent, may contribute to kids becoming narcissists themselves (Greenberg 2016).
Narcissists enjoy believing they’re superior, smarter, and better at everything than everyone else. This is one of the reasons they’re often defensive and become angered so easily and quickly. If you challenge a narcissist, there will usually be undesirable repercussions, and children of narcissists understand this very well.
Needless to say, narcissistic parents are not healthy role models for their children. They have no problem with using foul language in front of or even directed at their children. They may make age-inappropriate adult or sexual comments, inferences, or jokes in front of or to their children. They generally behave immaturely and impulsively and may openly express their addictions. They may also violate laws in front of the children.
Narcissistic parents are oblivious to the damage they inflict by exposing their children to inappropriate situations and behavior. They’re not self-aware enough to see how their actions affect others (see Traits of a Narcissistic Mother.)
Codependency is a survival skill set that children may develop when living in these kinds of conditions. Codependent skills are developed from necessity. Codependency ensures survival and safety in a potentially dangerous situation. It provides a sense of security, a type of self-esteem or purpose, and a means to obtain love or affection. Using codependent coping skills makes it possible for any child living with a narcissistic caregiver to deal with their chaotic, confusing, and often hurtful home environment.
As children, if we were caretakers for our mothers (or others’) emotional or physical well-being, we likely matured quickly and took on responsibilities that were not age-appropriate or even our own. When it felt physically or emotionally unsafe to be around our parents or caregivers, we learned to tiptoe around their instability, trying not to upset them, in order to feel safe. We learned to make ourselves “invisible” and live under the radar. We monitored moods and responded accordingly. We noticed behavioral patterns, and we became very good at predicting behavior. We learned how to take the initiative in making life easier or better for them so that we could feel a sense of stability, security, and safety for ourselves. We became accustomed to doing things for others that they could do for themselves. We became watchers and doers. We became codependent.
Could you be feeling the effects of Narcissism Awareness Grief? Download the free chapter to find out:
from Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism
Forming Healthy Adult Relationships
It is necessary for children to develop a healthy sense of self, a foundation for forming healthy adult relationships later. To do this, they must feel safe in their caregiver relationships. When children don’t have mentally healthy caregivers, they don’t learn or develop healthy relationship skills to equip themselves for adulthood. Instead, they imitate family members’ maladaptive skills, such as using manipulation, physical aggression, violence, threats, and substances, which do more harm than good.
If we became codependent as children, we can heal as adults. We can do all of the things for ourselves that our caregivers could not or did not do. We can reinvent ourselves and move forward. We can learn to affirm and validate ourselves, and we can develop high self-esteem and self-confidence. We can begin to trust our minds and our memories. We can learn to recognize unhealthy or mentally ill people and steer clear. We can set boundaries. We can use our voices to empower ourselves. We can find our lost authentic selves and reclaim our lives.
Tools for Healing
Learn about the narcissistic abuse cycle
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
Learn more about codependency
Learn why what you tell yourself matters
Learn why verbal abuse hurts us
Learn about attachment styles
Learn how to protect yourself with boundaries
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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, author Diane Metcalf developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those with others who want to learn and grow.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on family dysfunction and narcissism. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology. She has worked in numerous human service fields, including domestic violence and partner abuse.
She has authored four transformational books about healing and moving forward, including the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains maternal narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
The Lemon Moms series, as well as her other books and articles, are an aggregation of education, insight, and personal growth resulting from childhood experiences and her subsequent recovery work.
She writes about strategies for recovering and moving on from hurtful people and painful, dysfunctional, or toxic relationships on The Toolbox blog.
See what’s happening on her author’s site: DianeMetcalf.com
Learn about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.