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 Some feel defeated and give up, becoming withdrawn or depressed, or self-isolating.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:
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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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Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism, by Diane Metcalf
For as long as I can remember, there was something “different” about my mother. She wasn’t like other mothers.
My mom didn’t hug or kiss, smile at, spend time with, or play with me. She never seemed happy to see me. She didn’t ask about my school day and wasn’t interested in knowing my friends. She seemed to have no interest in me or anything that I did. My mom called me hurtful names and obscenities, and at times, she ignored me, not speaking to me for days, weeks, or even months. When she felt sad I was expected to emotionally care-take her. When she didn’t feel like parenting, I was responsible for my siblings. When she lost her temper she hit. When I was disobedient, there were bizarre punishments.
I was not allowed to express feelings, ask questions, or show initiative or curiosity. My feelings were discounted, minimized, or invalidated. She re-wrote my memories, and I was expected to believe her version. I was to obey, stay quiet, and not question.
If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. If there is manipulation, power struggles, or cruelty in your relationship, this book can help. If you second-guess your memory, doubt your judgment or sanity, or continually seek your mother’s withheld affection, attention, approval, or love, this book can explain why.
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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.