Why Can’t Narcissistic Personality Disordered Parents Love Their Children?
The truth is – you are not unlovable or inadequate – you are the opposite. Anyone possessing empathy
and accurate powers of observation can see that.
The reality is that your Narcissistic Personality Disorder parent failed to love you, because they couldn’t.
Recovery and healing from narcissistic family abuse takes a great deal of courage. In particular, the courage to face reality and its harder truths. One of the hardest truths you may be required to face is that your narcissistically disordered parent did not truly love you. Not because you aren’t a lovable and worthy person – you most likely are both – but because a full blown narcissistic is psychologically incapable of loving another human being, including their own child.
By full blown narcissist I mean people who aren’t just selfish, arrogant or self absorbed from time to time, but people who possess enduring negative character traits that are harmful to themselves, others and, especially, young vulnerable children.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) exists on a continuum from mild to severe, but core pathological character traits exist across that spectrum. It’s more of a question of degree than kind. So can narcissistic parents love? Individuals and parents with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) have an inability to love due to a hard-wired impairment in empathy, and a tendency towards negligent or abusive behavior stemming from that impairment. NPD folks are in a state of arrested development, at an emotional stage that roughly corresponds with the ‘terrible twos’, or slightly older. This time of life – 2 to 4 years old – is a time of healthy self absorption, where a child learns that he is an individual with needs for a separate identity and, at the same time, appreciation by others, especially parents. If a young child’s need for positive regard and the fostering of independence are met optimally by parents, then this child develops normally and is able to move into the next stage of healthy human development, which revolves around social intelligence, cooperation, and empathy. As NPD parents’ needs were not met at this crucial stage of development, they stay locked in the seemingly contradictory requirements of the toddler – to be both autonomous, admired and cared for by others. It’s a self-centered journey that repeats itself, as narcissistic personality disorder parents struggle unconsciously and futilely to obtain the regard they did not receive as children. Unreasonable demands for attention are continuously made of family, friends and children to provide them with the parenting they needed as young children but did not receive. But the NPD parent does not see or recognize the needs of others. Love cannot exist in the absence of empathy and insight regarding the emotional needs of others, nor the presence of recurring abuse or neglect.
People on the ‘milder’ end of the narcissistic personality disorder continuum lack social and emotional intelligence, which always negatively impacts their relationships with their children and others. Sometimes people with mild narcissistic traits can ‘mature’ out of these developmental deficits, but it takes strong self awareness regarding the negative consequences of the disorder and the discipline to overcome it, usually requiring years of therapy. This level of introspection and commitment is the exception rather than the rule with narcissistic personality disorder, even milder versions. Most NPD people who make it to therapy have been ‘read the riot act’, and yet continue to see themselves as victims, often hoping the therapist will collude with them. 1
One of the more insidious aspects of milder NPD occurs when people respond unconsciously but reactively to what they believe is an assault on what they are ‘entitled’ to, meaning being revered without working to achieve that reverence or being held accountable for their behavior like other adults. This triggers a firestorm of demanding and sometimes punitive behavior by the unconscious narcissist who believes they deserve to be admired or respected unconditionally, without having to earn that respect from others. This wreaks havoc on children who are on the receiving of rage and projection when they don’t caretake their narcissistically ‘wounded’ parent.
At the extreme end of the continuum, we find more blatantly anti-social folks. These are people who are more commonly referred to as Psychopaths or Sociopaths or, more recently ‘Malignant Narcissists’. In addition to being self absorbed, grandiose and insensitive, these people are deliberately ruthless and have aggressive intent towards others, sometimes including their own children.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) Defined
The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR)2 defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as:
“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts… as indicated…. by the following”:
- wanting to be admired
- having a sense of entitlement
- being exploitative
- lacking empathy
- being envious
When most people hear the word ‘Narcissist’ they usually think of the overtly grandiose, selfish and arrogant individual in the description above. However, there is another kind of narcissist who is more difficult to detect, as their personality disorder is concealed more from others. In fact, the ‘Covert’ narcissist presents as humble, self sacrificing and the innocent victim of others. They are masters of putting on the false front of the benevolent target.
However, the Covert’s goals are the same as the overtly grandiose narcissist: to be admired and entitled to special treatment, without being required or expected to earn that elevated position, or to give anything back. Covert narcissists tend to be highly emotionally dependent on others and appear to ‘fall apart’ more easily than overts if their demands aren’t meant, or if they are required to stand on their own feet. At the same time, coverts are just as capable as overt narcissists of being vindictive and manipulative if they believe they haven’t received what they ‘deserve’.
Overt and covert narcissists have other traits in common, such as disregard for the personal limits of others. Narcissists do not recognize the need for healthy boundaries and are blinded by their failure to recognize that others do not exist merely to meet their needs. A narcissistic parent will often treat others, especially those that are close to them, like their children, as if their job is to fulfill their emotional needs, whims and expectations. Rage, blame, pouting, the silent treatment, manipulation, gaslighting and malicious gossip are meted out to children, family members, and friends who are deemed uncooperative.
Because coverts excel at presenting themselves as victims, they are masters at recruiting others to side with them against their targets. Traits of children of narcissistic parents and covert narcissist parents often feel confused, anxious and extremely prone to self blame as they have been conditioned to believe they are responsible for the narcissistic parent’s unhappiness.
Impact of Narcissistic Personality Disorder on Parenting
A parent with NPD is an emotionally impaired parent, lacking empathy, insight, wisdom, and accountability. There are many signs of narcissism in parents that should not be overlooked. A narcissistic personality disorder parent may throw their child an emotional bone from time to time, feigning interest and even love, especially if their child makes them ‘look good’ to others. This is not real love, but a self serving investment in buoying up their fragile ego.
What the NPD parent is in fact habitually doing – being confusing, selfish, inconsistent and cruel – is very much reality. NPD parents tend to emotionally and physically neglect their children. This behavior results in invalidation, boundary violations, manipulation and abuse of their children. Although their behavior may not be conscious, NPD parents regularly engage in punitive, undermining, devaluing, contemptuous, critical, gaslighting, stonewalling and lying. This negative behavior may cause their children to develop low self worth, chronic anxiety, loneliness, depression, and attract bullies or NPD friends. Later in life, adult children of narcissistic parents may struggle with self identity, and find themselves in intimate relationships with narcissistic partners – aka ‘the devil you know’. They may feel chronically insecure about relationships, either maintaining distance or engaging in clinging behavior. Adult kids of NPD parents may also be vulnerable to Complex PTSD, which results from relationship trauma.
In a nutshell, NPD parents lack of empathy, sympathy, nurturing, healthy guilt, compassion and heart, is extremely damaging to their children. Harming one’s emotionally dependent children could rightly be seen as the most destructive act a person can engage in. Being motivated by an empty sense of self, yet feeling entitled at the same time, causes NPD parents to act from a desire to control others, so they can fill themselves up emotionally by proxy. The role of their children under these circumstances is implicit – to make their parent look good and feel admired. The legitimate emotional needs of a developing child are completely lost, as it is the parent who presents as the ‘needy child’, powerfully overshadowing and abandoning their offspring. As no child can ever make a parent feel whole and complete, this sets up a double bind situation where children are punished for not being able to do the impossible, which is to parent their parent.
If you were required and expected to over-function for an under-functioning parent, you were being used and victimized. As an adult, every time you experience false guilt, shame and self doubt, you are still being controlled by your NPD parent. This insidious conditioning is akin to Stockholm Syndrome – aka Brainwashing. You may have a harsh inner critic who further falsely colludes with the NPD parent, keeping you stuck in a vicious cycle of low self esteem, false guilt and shame. It is this relentless inner critic, that I call ‘the Troll’, that keeps the abuse running, sometimes long after the NPD parent has lost major influence over the life of their adult child.
Your fear, hurt feelings and emotional injuries are not only real, but they are the only signs
you need to pay attention to that prove you weren’t loved.
Absence of Love in Narcissistically Abused Children and Adults
Looking at the impact of NPD behavior, the evidence supporting the absence of love from a narcissistic parent can be found in both the behavior the end results of narcissistic parenting effects – specifically the emotional distress experienced by an abused child, as all children of narcissistic parents are abused to some extent. As discussed, this emotional distress can cause a psychological injury that endures well into adulthood. You may recognize some – or all – of these symptoms at the heart of your struggles as you come to terms with the damage of being raised by an NPD parent: anxiety, depression, low self worth, identity confusion, feeling defective, self doubt, poor self confidence, emotional instability, difficulty trusting others, clinging to the false hope of a ‘good’ parent emerging, complex trauma symptoms and a variety of relationship problems.
So your fear, hurt feelings and emotional injuries are not only real, but they are the only signs you need to pay attention to that you that prove you weren’t loved. True love never produces continuous emotional distress or psychological injury. Many children of narcissistic parents are conditioned to believe that they are loved and that they, not the abusive parent, are the problem. This is pure projection – the cornerstone of narcissistic defenses, as narcissistic people accuse others of their own behavior.
Narcissistic People Accuse Others of Their Own Behavior
It is usually very painful to confront the reality of not being loved by a parent, and can cause relationship grief on several levels: The loss of love that 1/ never was and 2/ never will be and, 3/ disillusionment at having been duped and cheated. This grief can feel intense and overwhelming. However, this grief is also fundamentally positive as it marks the beginning of the necessary recovery work of being able to process the emotional truth about the harm of one’s upbringing and to, ultimately, heal from that hurt. Confronting the reality of an unloving parent and creating a truth based narrative about one’s identity and inherent self worth are the cornerstones to healing from narcissistic parental abuse.
Unfortunately, many adult children of Narcissists prolong their suffering when they cling to the myth that they were loved by an NPD parent. Holding fast to this false belief tends to come at the cost of misplaced self blame for the absence of love. In truth, it is the absence of love by an NPD parent that causes serious emotional distress in the child. Yet a lot of children of narcissistic parents have a hard time coming to terms with these hard facts as they believe that grieving the loss of that parent is beyond their capacity or could harm them. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, as healthy – ire reality-based – grieving is essential to solid mental health.
A further cost of clinging to false beliefs of being loved by an emotionally absent or narcissistic abusive parent is living in a fantasy world of wishful thinking. Though certainly, as your parent’s child, this is love you needed like oxygen, and were entitled to. However, true love is neither abusive nor negligent at its core. This is immensely important when it comes to the little people parents have the obligation and responsibility to care for. Age appropriate dependence on their parents makes children highly vulnerable. The approval, attention and validation of an optimally loving parent is essential in order to develop into an emotionally stable and resilient adult.
A child’s fantasy – born of self preservation and the biologically wired need to connect – is that they can make an unloving parent care for them. And kids blame themselves when they can’t, falsely assuming they are the flawed being their NPD parents tries to convince them of. False self blame for the absence of parental love, leads to the loss of the self, that can carry well into adulthood. Again this points to an overarching reality, that it is the absence of love in the NPD parent that is defective, and not the child, who is innocent, dependent and vulnerable. The hard truth is that a truly loving parent doesn’t have this sort of negative impact on offspring.
Loving parents simply don’t engage in hurting their kids, except by accident or in a momentary lapse in judgment or emotional reactivity. A loving parent will be mindful of an attachment breach with their child. Their conscience will then direct them to self correct and make a contract with themselves to not do it again. And they make themselves accountable to their children, by apology and by example. If they lapse again, love dictates they will stop the behavior, whether they are asked to or not. Healthy guilt, which aligns humans with their moral compass, prompts loving parents to be accountable and to learn from and correct their mistakes. This is what it means to be a loving parent. The prerequisites for parental self reflection and accountability are a conscience and empathy – both extreme deficits in NPD parents. Furthermore, NPD parents lack both healthy guilt and a moral compass. They hurt their children repeatedly. Rather than being responsible for abusive or negligent behavior, they lean towards defensiveness, justification and projection of their actions – all evidence of a lack of love.
What Love Is
In his seminal book The Road Less Travelled, psychiatrist Scott Peck defines love as “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. Note the emphasis on action, not emotion. Peck continues : “When we love someone, our love becomes demonstrable or real only through our exertion – through the fact that for that someone (or for ourself) we take an extra step or walk an extra mile. Love is not effortless. To the contrary, love is effortful.” He clarifies further the role of conscious decision making inherent in love “Love is an act of will – namely both an intention and an action.” 3
Children learn to love themselves – and grow into secure adults – as a direct result of having been loved optimally by parents. It’s not about perfection but consistency. NPD parents do not offer the loving support, engagement or role modeling that are prerequisites to nurturing healthy children into adults who are sure of their identity, secure in their emotional well being or safe in the knowledge that they are valuable and matter.
What is the Job of a Good Parent?
Love is about feeling and it is also a verb – as in behaving lovingly. Love’s proof is in the actions a parent takes. The ultimate act of love may be to behave lovingly towards a child when the parent doesn’t feel up to it, due to fatigue, preoccupation or absorption in his or her own interests. This is a demonstration of the discipline and morality of true love, writ in the willingness to extend beyond self interest in order to nurture the well being of their child as a higher good.
A loving parent takes responsibility to create a positive relationship with their developing child – over whom they have considerable power – very seriously. The reward is a loving, connecting bond that communicates respect for and dedication to both the relationship and the individuals in it.
What To Do About Your NPD Parent
An NPD parent is about as safe to their child as a mine field. In childhood, you had no choice but to ‘go along with the program’, before you could escape to a life of your own. Now that you are an adult, you have a whole new set of choices and responsibilities towards yourself, including not allowing your NPD parent to continue to wreak havoc in your life. You must ‘handle’ your NPD parent, or they will continue to manhandle you. Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries are essential in order to untangle and heal from the abuse.
Most people in recovery from narcissistic abuse find they must control the amount, frequency and nature of contact, if any, with a NPD parent. Many people decide to go No Contact4 to avoid recurring abuse. Others choose Low Contact5, especially if there are elder care issues that the abuse survivor is providing, or they want to maintain contact with other family members, which necessitates at least some contact with the NPD parent. It’s very important to get clear about your motivation regarding contact, and to consider how you will respond to potential push back if going No Contact, or ongoing mistreatment if maintaining Low Contact from the NPD parent and, possibly, extended family. You need to be clear and determined regarding your decision, which involves staying in touch with what you have to gain from low or no contact, and having a strategy for handling family members who may try to manipulate you back into the status quo of family abuse.
Once you have made a decision regarding the boundaries you need to maintain, you create ‘breathing room’ in which to begin your healing journey. This involves letting go of false hopes and fantasies and seeing the reality and limitations of family, as well as challenging and releasing false beliefs that cause low self worth and other forms of ‘Inner Scapegoating‘.
You may need to recover from relationship trauma, which involves learning how to access and manage memories and emotions voluntarily, including ‘estrangement’ grief and anger. The process of recovery from narcissistic abuse leads to the development of a true narrative of the self, built on an increased ability to love, and value oneself while overcoming triggers and developing missing parts of self, such as life goals and healthy relationships.
My job is to support you as you uncover your ‘truths’, including the ways in which you weren’t loved or cared for by NPD parent(s), so you can discover the reality of who you really are – a person of value, worth and deserving of true love. I will help you find your true story, as you process and release pain, and put family distortions and delusions behind you, so you can become the person you are meant to be and reclaim the contentment and peace of mind you deserve.
1 Masterson, J. F., & Klein, R. (Eds.). (1989). Psychotherapy of the disorders of the self: The Masterson approach. Philadelphia, PA, US: Brunner/Mazel.
2 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR), American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000
3 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled, Simon & Schuster, 2002
4 Going No Contact – The Scapegoats Last Resort, Glynis Sherwood, 2015
5 Low Contact with Narcissistic Family– The Scapegoats Compromise, Glynis Sherwood, 2017
6 Self-Functioning and Perceived Parenting: Relations of Parental Empathy and Love Inconsistency With Narcissism, Depression, and Self-Esteem, Nevelyn N. Trumpeter, P. J. Watson, Brian J. O’Leary & Bart L. Weathington, 2008
Photo – Sydney Sims
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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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