Parental narcissism: 'The silent damage that can destroy the child's spirit'

Parental narcissism disorder is characterized by a lack of separation, a need for control, judgmental criticism, inflated self-worth, aggression and harm - and it has the potential to impact children throughout their lives

Hagar Kochavi|
Most of us have likely encountered someone who can be described as a "narcissist" at some point. Often, we refer to those who are arrogant and self-absorbed, and who belive that the world revolves around them. However, delving deeper into this personality disorder and its parenting implications reveals lesser-known aspects that can wreak havoc, especially on children raised under its shadow.
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In the professional sense, narcissism encompasses consistent patterns of behavior, such as an excessive need for admiration and recognition from others. It also involves expecting special treatment and showcasing exaggerated self-worth, as explained by Dr. Hila Yahalom, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Her book, "The Forgotten Echo – Psychoanalytic Insights into the Phenomenon of Narcissistic Parenting and Its Ramifications," paints a vivid picture of the severe harm this disorder can inflict on interpersonal relationships, particularly the parent-child dynamic.
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נרקיסיזם הורי
נרקיסיזם הורי
Parental narcissism
(Photo: Shutterstock)
"This damaging behavior is termed 'narcissistic abuse,' and it takes various distressing forms within relationships, leaving deep scars on those entwined with the narcissist. It's a subtle harm that's tough to point fingers at or even recognize. Dr. Yahalom states, "It's a quiet injury, one that's hard to pinpoint or even grasp as it unfolds."
Do we all have a certain level of narcissism within us? "Yes, there's a healthy level of narcissism in all of us. A person needs to be self-invested, as it provides the energy for positive actions. When discussing pathological narcissism, we're talking about an abnormal pattern that creates difficulties in personal relationships. This aspect is less known in this disorder. It's important to emphasize that often these parents genuinely love their children, and their intentions are good, even if their behaviors ultimately harm their kids."
What are the expressions of pathological narcissism, and how does such a person behave? Pathological narcissism manifests in two main ways. The first is the more recognizable form – arrogance and desire to be in the spotlight. You might see individuals who demand attention and want to be at the center of everything, and seek special treatment. They can't tolerate criticism, whether it's real or perceived. The second form pertains to the covert narcissist, the hidden one. Outwardly, they might appear humble, not the self-promoting type, but beneath the surface, there's that same belief that they deserve more than others, that they're somehow superior. This kind of narcissist might be less harmful outwardly, but within relationships where they feel secure or hold a position of power, like with their children, they can be extremely harmful. The pathology is consistent in both forms.
And even parenting, by its nature, involves a degree of narcissism. "We see our children as extensions of ourselves, but in cases of pathological narcissism, this becomes exaggerated," Yahalom explains. "There's a freezing of time and an inability to understand that the child is growing, evolving and needs space to become their own person. The parent doesn't allow the child to grow, to become separate. Narcissistic parents expect to remain involved, inseparable, to control their children even when they're adults."
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נרקיסיזם הורי
נרקיסיזם הורי
Parenting, by its nature, involves a degree of narcissism
(Photo: Shutterstock)
What are the signs of narcissistic parenting? "I categorize the expressions into eight key behavioral traits, and will focus on four here. The first is a lack of separateness. The child isn't allowed to differ from the parent, to have their own opinions or desires. Essentially, their wants and needs are to be erased. We observe children who lack a true self, a genuine core of who they are, and who they can develop and be.
"This situation gives rise to what's called a 'false self.' A child raised by such a parent will often appear agreeable and helpful to everyone on the surface, yet beneath they consistently feel some sort of emptiness, experiences akin to confusion or even depression, anxiety whose origins they can't really pinpoint. There's a dissonance between what the child must project outwardly and even tell themselves, and what's within, things they can't even acknowledge, like aggression and desire they've marked as forbidden, yet they exist."
The second behavioral trait is excessive judgmental criticism. "The child needs to be exactly as the parent wants them to be, while the parent needs the child to be perfect so they can see themselves as perfect. This can manifest in various ways - for instance, mothers obsessing about their daughters' appearance, weight or specific academic achievements, or dictating their clothing choices. Every family has its rules and values, but what's common in cases of pathological narcissism is the prohibition to deviate from them. Any breach or imperfection is perceived as tarnishing the family's image."
The third trait is linked to the child fulfilling the parent's needs. "You could call this a role reversal between the parent and the child. The root could be an early and unmet need of the parent, their own childlike needs that went unnoticed. The parent seeks validation from the child, needing them to show how wonderful they are. Children are an ideal source of narcissistic supply. They adore their parents, they think they're the best in the world and, at certain ages, they can't even conceive that the parent might be wrong."
And the last trait is the need for control, according to Yahalom. "The parent needs the child to do what they want, to submit to their desires. How is this achieved? Through manipulation of various kinds. For instance, if the child doesn't react the way the parent wants, they can belittle them, insult them, emotionally manipulate them, and make them feel bad. Money can be used - 'If you do this, I'll give you,' or conversely, 'If you don't do what I want, I won't support you, I won't fund you, I'll disinherit you,' which happens quite a bit. There are more traits that I specify in the book, but ultimately, they lead to the harsh realization for the child that love is conditional. They can't be loved as they are, they can't be themselves."
Does narcissistic parenting also involve physical violence? "Physical violence is at the extreme end of the spectrum, but it can certainly manifest in cases of pathological narcissism. Often, the aggression from the narcissistic parent might involve raised voices, and intimidating body language, which can be very frightening and menacing for the child. While the aggression doesn't always escalate to physical violence, it's still harsh.
ד"ר הלה יהלוםDr. Hila YahalomPhoto: Daniela Contini
Are children aware of all this? When do they understand what they're actually experiencing? "In most cases, children aren't consciously aware of the narcissistic disturbance of their parents. They sense that something isn't right, but they don't realize it's related to the parent or anything external. They might feel depressed, anxious or even emotionally tormented, but they can't grasp what's happening to them or why they feel this way. They won't connect it to their parent, nor will they have a label for it.
"Usually, non-professionals, in the majority of cases, won't say, 'My parent is a narcissist.' A child can't perceive their parent as someone who harms them; it's not something they can confront because it means acknowledging they live in a world where there's no one to protect them, and where they're vulnerable to harm. A child would prefer to feel bad and guilty, viewing the parent as flawless. When they seek therapy, even as adults, they might only recount positive aspects or the image of their parents, so the therapist might easily miss the issue. In therapy, the blindness that existed in the child's relationship with the parent can resurface.
How does parental narcissism affect children? Why is it so detrimental? "In many cases, the core experience for children raised by narcissistic parents is that their feelings and needs are deemed illegitimate. They learn that their path to navigating the world and receiving love, protection and security is to suppress their true selves and prioritize pleasing others, since deviating from this is perilous. This upbringing results in a person who lacks their authentic self, one who learns to appease and silence emotions that could be very challenging, such as anger, and consequently these suppressed emotions manifest in various ways, including anxiety, physical symptoms and more. It's all trapped within, needing to find an outlet.
"This process corrodes the soul from its foundation because even the most basic things become disrupted, including trust in the world and people. It fosters a sense of self-worthlessness and self-failure. At times, one might observe individuals recreating unhealthy relationships or entering such dynamics, as they fail to identify when someone is mistreating them.
"They rationalize abusive behaviors from others, blame themselves, and are more accepting of relationships that a psychologically healthy person would reject. They might struggle to set boundaries, since from an early age, whenever they attempted to do so, they were met with invalidation. Thus, the child becomes an individual susceptible to exploitation and harm, unable to establish healthy boundaries or protect themselves. Over the course of their life, they must rediscover themselves and grant legitimacy to their needs and desires. Often, this can only occur through therapeutic intervention.
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נרקיסיזם הורי
נרקיסיזם הורי
(Photo: Shutterstock)
What would you say to parents who are now recognizing such patterns in themselves? "On one hand, I wouldn't want parents to panic and rush into diagnosing themselves, as we've discussed that some degree of narcissism exists in all of us, and it's inherent and necessary in parenting. However, if parents consistently identify repeating patterns over time, it would be advisable to seek guidance from a professional and explore this further.
What are the treatment methods for this disorder? Regarding treating those affected by narcissism, there isn't a definitive study pointing to the single best therapeutic approach among various psychological treatments. Concerning narcissism, there's a method called "transference-focused psychotherapy" developed by Kernberg, a prominent psychoanalyst. In this therapy, experiences with early figures and associated emotions are projected onto the therapist. You feel those emotions toward the therapist, and experiences that you've had with your parents resurface. In my view, the crucial factor is building a strong therapeutic relationship with the counselor, ensuring they're skilled, professional and committed.
Will a child raised by a narcissistic parent become a narcissistic parent? "This disorder exhibits a strong intergenerational transfer. The child might acquire various behavioral patterns, such as difficulties in seeing others or establishing boundaries. Yet, my message to children who experience this is optimistic – you have the opportunity to halt the pattern's passage from generation to generation, to rectify it, and to experience an entirely different childhood with your own children. As they say, it's your second chance at childhood."
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