If you were born into a narcissistic family, you may have grown up with a roof over your head, but sadly you weren’t raised. You must complete the job yourself. It’s called reparenting ~ Glynis Sherwood
Narcissistic Abuse, Developmental Deficits & Vulnerabilities
Over the years, as I’ve counseled survivors who’ve been scapegoated by their narcissistic families, many pictures of abuse, neglect and deprivation emerge. There are the more ‘obvious’ or blatant harms to self worth, peace of mind and relationship challenges that many people seem to be aware of.
Sadly, too many people have developed Complex Trauma, arising from long standing relationship abuse beginning in childhood. Complex Trauma is characterized by PTSD symptoms, such as dissociation, intrusive or numbing symptoms, fight/flight/freeze threat responses, as well as injuries to self worth, identity and close relationships. Complex Trauma can also be characterized by triggering into threat responses such as Fawning/People Pleasing, and what I have identified as Collapse, characterized by giving up in the face of what seems to be insurmountable obstacles, such as unrelenting family bullying aka Scapegoating. ‘Collapse’ and ‘Freeze/Numbing’ responses can work together to keep the scapegoat paralyzed. 1
These psychological injuries are often very difficult to deal with on their own. Then there are the more hidden faces of abuse that are also insidiously undermining to survivors. These more ‘subtle’ problems tend to be the by-product of ‘sins of omission’. In other words, damage caused through parental neglect, and a lack of positive mirroring, role modeling, support or guidance from narcissistic caregivers, that can profoundly interfere with abuse survivors’ development into fully functioning, confident and independent adults.
What NPD Parents Don’t Do For Their Children Causes Harm – Insecure Attachment and Developmental Deficits
Narcissistic parents don’t really raise their children. Instead, they groom their kids to be mini Public Relations departments and free Psychotherapists for their insecure, self absorbed and ultimately, fragile egos. The amount of positive attention a child receives under these circumstances is conditional on how well they 1/ caretake the parent’s fragile emotional state, and 2/ make their parent look good to others – including family members, and the outside world. This role reversal leads to the ‘Parentification’ of the child, whose legitimate developmental needs to be guided and supported into adulthood – ie ‘raised’ – are undermined by the needy, demanding narcissistic parent.
The developing child’s individuality is viewed as a threat and actively thwarted by parents who want their children to be flattering extensions of themselves. This leads to extremely destructive family dynamics where the parent is ‘one up’, and oscillates between walled off (dismissive avoidant) and boundaryless (dependent abusive) behavior towards their child. Conversley, the child is ‘one down’ and either walled off (frozen avoidant) or boundaryless (dependent fawning or right fighting). 2 The result is the development of an insecure attachment style in the child, either Avoidant or Dependent (formerly known as ‘Anxious’) attachment at best, and Disorganized (dissociative) attachment with alternating Dependent or Avoidant features.
The Scapegoat – Golden Child Dynamic
The parentified child dynamic is reflected in the Golden Child / Scapegoat polarities prevalent in NPD family systems. The Golden Child is rewarded with parental approval as long as they do an effective job of surrendering / merging their self identity with the parents ego demands, which require continuous propping up; and ‘performing’ in the outside world in a way that is viewed as complementary to the parent. The Scapegoat, on the other hand, calls the parent’s bluff in a sense, by failing to merge with unreasonable parental expectations, such as the reversal of parent-child roles. This is likely due to the Scapegoat having stronger boundaries than the Golden Child and, often, opposing or withdrawing from toxic family dynamics that threaten to engulf the scapegoat’s identity completely.
Many people think that the Golden Child has an ongoing advantage and, therefore, doesn’t suffer like the Scapegoat. Although on the surface, this can appear to be true due to parental favoritism and privileges, the Golden Child is in a precarious position, and feels insecure, as their favored position is only as secure as their last performance in service to the NPD parent. The Golden Child is also prone to developing NPD, as their identity fuses with the grandiose and entitled character structure of the Narcissistic parent they are an extension of and ‘serve’. The Golden Child also witnesses the abuse of the sibling Scapegoat, creating a sense of fear and insecurity which can be unconscious, but is always hovering in the background.
The Scapegoat tends to hold onto their individual identity more effectively than the Golden Child, as few of them become narcissistic, due to a strength in character that resists narcissistic identification and enmeshment. However, Scapegoats suffer tremendously, because the very thing that makes them unique human beings – their identity – is viewed as a threat and attacked or punished by the NPD parent. The result of conditional, essentially hostile parenting for both the Golden Child and the Scapegoat, is the creation of insecure attachment bonds and incomplete or delayed developmental stages for the child.
Psychosocial developmental stages – and their attendant tasks – are milestones that mark the maturation of a human being from infancy through late adulthood. The first three stages of development correspond with the years ranging from newborn through pre-school, roughly 0 to 5 years of age. The developmental task of stages 1 through 3 is the support of ‘healthy narcissism’ in the child, and are high contact years with the parent. If the child is adequately supported to be self actualizing (ie self centered) when age appropriate, while optimally validated by the parent, then they enter their school years with a sense of trust in others, self efficacy and self confidence. They are also ready to step into a more mature ‘pro-social’ stage of development where they begin to acquire emotional intelligence, such as empathy towards others, and develop friendships on their own. 3
Unfortunately, narcissistic parents tend to be negligent or hostile to their infants’ caregiver needs (stage 1); discourage independence and exploration in their toddler (stage 2), and shame their preschooler’s emerging assertiveness and self efficacy / belief in oneself (stage 3). This suboptimal parenting tends to lead to fear of others, low self confidence and false guilt and shame in the developing child. These kids can also struggle with under-developed social skills as they enter the school system, as their ‘healthy narcissistic’ needs remain unmet by their caregiver(s). Kids that stay stuck in the ‘terrible twos’, characterized by healthy but temporary narcissistic traits, can grow up to become full blown narcissists, grandiose Golden Children, or insecure Scapegoats.
Developmental Deficits & Vulnerabilities in Youth and Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents
Life Skills – the ability to manage life effectively – are learned from, modeled by and taught by one’s parents or principal caregivers. Narcissistic parents are deficient and often completely absent in relaying healthy life skills to their kids. In fact, children of narcissistic parents frequently only learn what not to do, leaving them at a loss in managing their psychological well being, navigating relationships dynamics and achieving healthy developmental milestones over a lifetime.
Children who were raised by narcissistic parents tend to be lacking Life Skills in two key areas:
1/ Personal / Psychological Well Being
a/ Self Awareness / Identity
Determining who one is, including character, personality, core values, aptitudes and interests. Possessing a sense of Intrapersonal boundaries: awareness of a separate self apart from others and the outside world.
Children of narcissistic parents often have a vague, undifferentiated sense of self brought about by pressure to merge exerted by the parent. This can contribute to an inadequate sense of direction or purpose in life, resulting in underachievement, lack of independence, emotional immaturity while being overly responsible, and either a tendency to put others ahead of oneself or self absorption.
b/ Self Worth
Having a stable sense of one’s inherent value as a unique human being. Alliance to the well being of the self is a priority.
Narcissistic parenting involves ongoing devaluing of the Scapegoat and conditional support of the Golden Child. Children are made to feel that their worth is contingent on what they can do for the parent. The scapegoat child is set up to fail completely as they are treated as defective and unredeemable, regardless of efforts to please the parent – a recipe for shame. Many scapegoats grow into adulthood believing they are defective, not realizing they are identifying with – and being victimized by – their parent’s narcissistic projections.
c/ Self Care
Managing the activities of daily living, including sleep, diet, exercise, time management, keeping commitments, etc.
Narcissistic Parents rarely invest in guiding their children to become independent adults, so creating a base of fundamental life skills gets short shrift. People who lack these skills can end up feeling lost regarding how to take care of themselves, and get into conflict with others if they don’t follow through on promises or responsibilities.
d/ Critical Thinking / Problem Solving & Decision Making
Learning to think for oneself through observation, evidence and deduction. Employing this capacity for analysis, reflection, risk evaluation regarding outcomes, and then taking action to make desired outcomes occur.
Children of NPD parents are discouraged from critical thinking as it threatens the parent’s sense of ‘ownership’ of the child who is required to attend to the bottomless needs of the insecure parent. This not only creates uncertainty in the child regarding how to assess choices, but can make them dependent on others when it comes to the adult business of making decisions for oneself.
e/ Emotional Regulation
Managing life’s inevitable disappointments and hardships, such as loss, grief and unpredictable change. Building distress tolerance and emotional resilience. Healthy coping with distress by facing problems head on, rather than distracting, avoiding or self medicating. Understanding what one can control and cannot control, and focusing on the former.
Narcissistic parents tend to not respond to their children’s emotional needs and challenges with empathy or soothing. Nor do they teach children perspectives that assist in managing life’s ups and downs. Children raised with inadequate emotional support can experience mood swings, chronic anxiety, trauma symptoms, depression and addictive behaviors. Perhaps more insidious though, is the double bind of having to rely on parents they can’t depend on, and who are often the main threat to their psychological well being. A child growing up in this situation will have a difficult time completing normal developmental stages, as they are undermined by the very people who are tasked with providing emotional support – their parents!
a/ Healthy Boundaries
The development of healthy relationship boundaries – an active sense of where one ends and others begin – requires the presence of a solid sense of self, and one’s right to be treated with respect by others.
Narcissistically abused children are constantly having their boundaries and autonomy violated by needy, demanding parents who require that children merge with their fragile egos to both soothe and make the parent look good. In fact many abused kids are punished for having needs that are different from those of the NPD parent. Children who are ‘forbidden’ from developing healthy boundaries often have an inadequate sense of their individual rights. It may also be difficult for them to be assertive or have a working understanding of collaboration skills that are essential for daily life.
b/ Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to perceive, understand, use and manage emotions effectively. People with high emotional intelligence are aware of their own feelings and those of others, use emotional information to guide their thinking and behavior, distinguish between different feelings and label them appropriately, and adjust emotions to adapt to different environments. 4
Children of narcissistic parents are raised under circumstances that are devoid of emotional intelligence, such as empathy, and are more likely to be bullied, intimidated, or shown conditional regard, which causes long term emotional distress. Consequently, it is harder for these kids to become adults who are in touch with their feelings, needs, or those of others. Emotions are essential to feeling fully alive, knowing whether a situation or relationship dynamic is good or bad for the individual, and are the driving force behind motivation. Many narcissistically abused kids regularly dissociate into threat responses: fight, flight, freeze, fawn or collapse, masking emotional survival signals that keep them safe.
At the heart of good relationships lie effective communication skills, such as openness, honesty, directness, clarity, active listening, attentiveness, the ability to navigate personal differences and conflict, repair relationships and a friendly, prosocial attitude. These skills are not taught, and can be openly sabotaged, in narcissistic family systems, through hostile, manipulative behavior and messages.
Children of NPD parents grow up in an emotionally distressing atmosphere of overt or covert conflict, where they are ignored and disregarded. This engenders feelings of shame, as they internalize parental blame shifting as (false) ‘proof’ of personal defectiveness. The absence of role modeling of healthy communication skills can result in socially awkward behavior, which can lead to rejection by peers and authority figures, further heightening feelings of shame and low self worth.
Secure interpersonal attachment is characterized by calm, confident, open and emotionally present communication styles. People raised in NPD households tend towards insecure attachment adaptations, especially under stress. The most common attachment adaptations are Dependent (emotionally needy, formerly known as ‘Anxious’) or Avoidant (emotionally remote). Both attachment styles are characterized by fear. In the case of the Dependent, fear of abandonment, and in the case of the Avoidant, fear of never getting their needs met. A less common attachment disturbance is known as Disorganized, which is more severe as it tends towards dissociation and fragmentation during stress, and an oscillation between Dependent and Avoidant attachment adaptations.
Kids from NPD families can have a very difficult time connecting securely with others. Their dominant insecure attachment style tends to cause relationship difficulties which can be triggered by anxiety over intimacy and closeness. Furthermore, an individual with a Disorganized attachment adaptation, can literally fall apart – ie decompensate – during relationship stress, leading to serious breakdowns in mental health.
The Road to Healing / Adult Development
Recovery from narcissistic abuse and scapegoating in no small way requires standing up to family ‘brainwashing’. Targets have likely been groomed and programmed to view themselves as bad, defective, inadequate, ‘the problem’, etc. through years of hostile, negative feedback that was designed to control and undermine them through false shame and guilt.
Young children’s identity is shaped by how their principal caregivers treat them. When the overarching experience with a parent is one of rejection, conditional approval or disgust, kids come to believe – falsely – that they deserve this treatment, and shame takes root at the core of their identity. Kids affected in this way cling to the belief that if only they can ‘cure’ themselves of their inherent ‘badness’, then their parents will come to love them. This devastating false narrative can set the stage for lifelong feelings of worthlessness. A broken spirit and adherence to a lie is the price that is paid for giving in to this self defeating belief.
Recovery Goals for Survivors
Psychological / Emotional Self Management
- Developing increased self awareness, such as the ability to identify personal strengths and weaknesses, recognize and trust emotions, clarify personal values, and align these values with reality based beliefs. Reclaiming one’s true narrative from internalized scapegoating (aka the Troll) and false guilt and shame, and coming to understand and appreciate the unique self. These efforts go a long way towards building self worth and confidence.
- Emotional Regulation, especially distress tolerance including Triggers (upsetting precipitating events), Emotional Flashbacks (reliving emotional trauma) and Threat Responses (fight, flight, freeze, fawn, collapse). Overcoming abandonment anxiety and depression, and what I call ‘annihilation anxiety’ (fear of destruction or loss of the self through parental abandonment). This requires both reality testing by calling on the rational mind, as well as soothing and tending to the Wounded Child part of the self who gets reactivated during times of loss, fear, sadness and loneliness.
Becoming aware of and standing up to false conscious and unconscious shame based beliefs that are the product of family programming and lead to self sabotage, revictimization of the self, anxiety and depression, and destructive self fulfilling prophecies, such as “I am a failure, so why bother trying”.
If you believe you are suffering from Complex Trauma, then working with a skilled Psychotherapist is strongly advised for dealing with challenging symptoms, such as emotional flashbacks and false toxic shame.
- Completing the developmental process of healthy separation, individuation and self actualization. Achieving one’s potential. Learning to value the self. To paraphrase acclaimed American Psychiatrist and Author William Glasser, ‘love and self worth are pathways to identity’. 5
- Learning how to recognize and develop healthy intrapsychic and interpersonal boundaries. The ability to develop a solid and separate sense of self, that was thwarted in childhood, is key to healing from traumatic abuse. This may involve challenging being a habitual ‘people pleaser’ who is unconsciously pursuing unobtainable parental approval. It may also require stopping being overly responsible for irresponsible people. These behaviors are demanded by narcissistic parents, who require their children to overcompensate for the unfulfilled, missing parts of themselves. It may involve ending being the ‘ignored listener’ / unconscious Fawner, who feels compelled to overcompensate for another, who in turn is making them feel invisible. Being and holding others accountable, so one is neither untrusting nor naive.
- Mastering basic life skills from a health based perspective, such as becoming educated and committing to a nutritious diet, prioritizing rest and physical activities, basic home repairs, time management, budgeting, learning to drive etc. The key here is to go slow and not commit to multiple changes all at the same time. This builds mastery, self confidence, and pride, and will make you less dependent on others.
Social / Relationship Skills
1. Building confidence through effective interpersonal communication, collaboration, cooperation and emotional intelligence.
2. Strengthening assertiveness and healthy interpersonal boundaries.
3. Overcoming Unhealthy / Fantasy Based Relationship Dynamics by recognizing and stopping abuse patterns such as Trauma Bonding, Codependency and Love Addiction – aka ‘choosing the devil you know’.
Becoming more aware of unconscious, auto-pilot like motivation, and increasing awareness of habit-patterns that work against you. Learning to recognize emotionally healthy people and relationships, be they friends, colleagues or lovers. Overcoming attraction to people who make you feel anxious, which you may confuse with ‘excitement’.
Learning to be attracted to emotionally safe, available people. Ending over responsibility towards under responsible people. Resisting being drawn to fix broken, entitled people who don’t make an effort to help themselves.
Moving past fear based defenses including right-fighting, viewing oneself as either one up or one down in relation to others, and transcending either false inferiority or superiority.
Challenging the judgmental Outer Critic, which can get activated by the Inner Critic Troll
Get to know potential friends, partners and colleagues slowly. Chunk it down. Overcome false survival thinking that ‘everyone is basically good inside’, a myth you may have developed as a child to help you hold onto hope, but also perpetuates the idea that you may be the problem, especially if you find yourself fawning, people pleasing, being attracted to people who want you to be the ‘ignored listener’. Conversely resist the urge to view everyone as untrustworthy, meaning you don’t have to live in fear of others, and give yourself the opportunity to find out if you can have more fulfilling relationships.
Learn and apply healthy conflict management and relationship repair skills where possible. Hint: This is related to healthy boundaries, including where to draw the line with abusers.
Live by Rule #1 – Love doesn’t hurt
4. Helping Oneself to complete the developmental process through community building, self help groups, mentors, independent studies, etc.
When attempting any major emotional or relational change, it’s important to be realistic regarding personal strengths, limitations and the emotional impact of traumatic relationship dynamics. You may be rebuilding your life from the ground up or just fine tuning. If you are stuck, feeling lost or overwhelmed, then you would likely benefit from Psychotherapy with a Therapist who is skilled in assisting others to overcome the damage of Relationship Abuse and Complex Trauma.
Effective Narcissistic Abuse Therapy involves working with a ‘Supportive Witness’ Therapist, with the goal being to reclaim a positive truth based narrative of the self. For many people, this may be the first time in their life that their story is witnessed empathically, while being assisted to overcome the psychological injuries of family abuse and betrayal, and, in the process, restoring peace of mind and contentment.
Photo – Aleksei Bakulin, StockSnap
Notes / References
- Collapse is a threat response I’ve identified that is characterized by giving up or surrender. It usually occurs in the face of unrelenting stress, with no end in sight, such as family bullying/NPD abuse and scapegoating, leading to learned helplessness and hopelessness.
- Terry Real MSW – Relational Life Institute, Boston
- Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) studied the impact of interpersonal interactions on the psychosocial development of individuals, and concluded that developmental stages occur in eight sequential stages across the lifetime of an individual.
- Emotional Intelligence, Wikipedia
- William Glasser, Schools Without Failure, 1968
Need help overcoming family scapegoating, Complex Trauma or dealing with Narcissistic behavior in family relationships? Check out my Family Scapegoat Counseling page
Counseling and Coaching is available by Video in select countries around the world.
Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor, specializes in recovery from Family Scapegoating, Narcissistic Abuse, Low Self Esteem, Chronic Anxiety, Estrangement Grief and Relationship Addiction.
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