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May 2019 Question – Family Scapegoat Asks: How Can I Help My Niece Who’s Neglected By Narcissistic Family?
I’m 38, and eldest of a family of 5 kids, and have a close extended family. I’ve been depressed off and on since my early teens, and have been the family scapegoat forever. When I was 14 my narcissistic parents started having marital problems, and I took over managing the household and taking care of my siblings as best I could. My parents never acknowledged my efforts and criticized me constantly, rather than expressing gratitude.
I moved to another state to go to college at 19 and began to find my true self there. I discovered I wasn’t the monster I was told I was. I found friends, but my coping skills haven’t always been great, and I’ve had a lot of abusive people in my life.
I moved back to my home town 5 years ago. My family was still a mess, and my brother and his wife using hard drugs. Their baby daughter was neglected, and I got involved in caring for her, almost like a substitute mother.
My niece has now been placed in the home of my “golden child” sister, rather than allowing me, the ‘evil’ sister to take care of her. Over time I’ve realized that I need a “no contact” approach with family, but they are punishing me by only allowing me to see my niece once a week for an hour, whereas before she lived with me on weekends.
I feel I’m slipping back into depression and am worried about my niece who is now 4. When I speak up, my family says I’m blackmailing them, need to change my attitude and get help for my problems. They have never acknowledged their narcissist neglect or abusive behavior towards me.
It’s so frustrating and hurtful to be separated from my niece after mothering her for three years and being ostracized by my family at the same time. My father has been the ring leader spreading nasty rumors about me that other family members buy into. How do I maintain distance from my toxic family while keeping contact with my niece?
What a heartbreaking situation for you and your niece. It seems like you have been doing a lot of heavy lifting – aka over-functioning – in an under-functioning family for a very long time. If not for you, some family members would likely have suffered further. You’ve done your family a great service, even though it was never your responsibility in the first place. And the price you have paid is steep, being abused, neglected, and shunned.
The psychological term for the role you occupied as a teen in your family is called ‘the parentified child’. The parentified child takes over roles that have been abdicated by parents, due to their narcissist neglect, incompetence, or mental health issues, such as narcissistic personality disorder. Sadly, though typically, you have received none of the credit and all of the grief in this dysfunctional family dynamic, meanwhile losing out on your teen years and the right to have been parented yourself, rather than becoming a surrogate parent to your siblings.
Many kids who function as the parentified child are vulnerable to developing depression and anxiety, as their own attachment needs have been so severely neglected in the family home. The abuse you suffered has also likely led to depression, as all narcissistic homes are inherently emotionally abusive. Later in life this can lead to the problems you are describing with ‘attracting’ abusive people, due to a combination of complex factors such as naivety, an overly trusting nature/inability to read warning signals, or knowing how to recognize and protect healthy interpersonal boundaries. Your situation is a common one in families and children with narcissistic parents.
Fast forwarding to the present, you are the victim, amongst other things, of “projection” by your father, the golden child and likely others who are complicit in keeping this negative family system going. Projection is a core narcissistic defense whereby the narcissistic person, in essence, blames the target for their own abusive actions and weaknesses. Thus projection is a lethal weapon of denial and blame shifting that is based on the absence of insight and the inability to ‘occupy’ reality. When a narcissistic person projects onto another they are in effect saying:
‘I am not and should not be responsible for my happiness or behavior, as I am the victim of others who disappoint me and don’t provide me with what I deserve. You are just another one of those people who betrays and lets me down by not making me the center of the universe. On top of that, you hurt me by suggesting I have a role to play in the problem. I’m furious at you and I am going to punish you for hurting me, and let others know how terrible you are’.
You can see by the nature of the defense of projection, that it is comparable to the thinking of a toddler. And in many ways, narcissistic families are stuck in a state of arrested development that reflects a time in their early childhood when their developmental and attachment needs were not met by their own parents. I am providing this information as a backgrounder for understanding the motivation of narcissistic family members who feel entitled, yet lack the reflective capacity or empathy to be able to repair or maintain relations with other family members like you. In no small way, narcissists are stuck in “the terrible twos”, a highly self centered developmental stage that is necessary for very young children, but anathema in adults, especially adults who become parents. Highly narcissistic people never make it to the next critical developmental stage of childhood – that of fostering the social skills and empathy that would enable them to inter-relate successfully in relationships.
Fortunately, you do not appear to have inherited this pathology. Unfortunately, as a member of this family, you suffer at the hands of it. Now, back to your niece.
It’s tragic that this young girl whom you have nurtured so devotedly is being victimized by being placed in the home of your “golden child” sister. It’s a major disruption for her, and as the golden child always has narcissistic tendencies, potentially places your niece in harms way emotionally. She has already suffered so much during a critical time in her own development, by not being able to rely on her own parents for consistent nurturance and support. I can see how the loss of the close bond the two of you have established would be very hard on both of you.
In truth, this is a complex issue of love, responsibility and child protection. Without knowing what’s going on with your niece’s parents, it’s hard for me to advise you regarding how to proceed with them. Your niece may very well have the greatest shot at security and contentment in your household, but advocating for that with family could be like navigating a minefield.
If your concern is that your niece is not safe emotionally or physically, then you might consider contacting child protective services. This can be tricky, as social workers can be woefully in the dark regarding the existence and negative consequences of narcissistic abuse on children, and could further bring the wrath of your family down on you. The important thing here though, which it seems you are advocating for, is looking out for the welfare of your niece.
I would encourage you to focus on what you can control. You do have some visitation rights, which perhaps over time you can increase. I suspect you would have to be very strategic in your approach. What do you have working for you here? Most narcissistic folks don’t really have ‘time’ for children and are certainly incapable of making the emotional investment this young girl needs. You could be clear about your availability to step in should uninvested family members begin to waver on caring for this young girl. Consider everything you can do to be the ‘backup auntie’ who’s there for your niece.
Now more about strategy. Given the punitive nature of your family, I’d advise you to keep your Low or No Contact stance to yourself if you want to increase your chances of gaining more access to your niece. Hold your cards close to your chest. You may have to pretend to go along with some family contact in order to have access to your niece. Only you can decide what is tolerable and acceptable for you.
Do not discuss the reality of what’s best for your niece or you specifically, or family relations generally with narcissistic family members and their allies. They can’t take it in, won’t care nearly enough and will likely become defensive. You need to get out of the habit of standing up for justice and truth with people who neither understand nor respect reality. Focus on becoming quietly effective. Do you have any leverage with other family members? Any extended family who could advise or support you?
Focus on your relationship with your niece. As tempting and understandable as it is to people with their feet on the ground, do not fall into the trap of discussing important matters with family you don’t trust. As much as you can, pretend to be friendly and cooperative, and practice being vague and superficial with difficult family members. This will give you some emotional breathing room. Narcissistic people thrive on conflict. Don’t feed the alligators! Keep your business and intentions to yourself, smiling all the way.
Regarding your own emotional well being, I hope you can hold on to the fact that you are not the problem here. You have good intentions and your heart is in the right place when it comes to your niece and protecting her from narcissistic family abuse. Your sadness and worry are completely understandable, and a reflection of the conscientious person that you are. But with you in her life even in this reduced way, there is hope for your niece and you. Let her know that you will always be there for her. Find a support group where you can vent and get advice. FaceBook has several groups for survivors of narcissistic family abuse. And there are also some good discussions going on in forums such as Quora. Depression is a symptom of loss and lack of love, that leads to anxiety, repressed feelings and hopelessness, and you need to talk to someone who understands the true nature of narcissistic family abuse and scapegoating. Consider contacting me for therapy if your struggles continue, and could use some support. I wish you all the best.
Photo – Jon Flobrant
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd is a Counseling Therapist specializing in recovery from Childhood Abuse and Neglect, Family Scapegoating, Chronic Anxiety and Grief, Relationship Problems, and Love Addiction.
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