Many children of narcissists will grow up to have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Any type of long-term trauma, over several months or years, can lead to Complex PTSD. It appears frequently in people who have been abused or neglected by someone who was their caregiver or protector. Complex PTSD will include symptoms like hypervigilance – this is when a person is on constant guard as their brain/body is primed to expect trauma.
Other symptoms may include intrusive memories, an exaggerated startle response, irritability, sudden outbursts of anger, feelings of emotional numbness and trouble sleeping. There may be panic attacks, anxiety or mood swings. There may be trust issues and they may have serious issues with trusting anyone. There may be nightmares and/or flashbacks, substance abuse and dysfunctional relationships, low self-esteem and a negative view of the self.
There may be dissociation. Dissociation is a defence mechanism which is activated when the other defence mechanisms such as fight or flight are not available as options. An aspect of the mind can be separated from the main conscious awareness which will then hold the traumatic memories and feelings. This happens because the traumatic situation the individual is in is too overwhelming.
The Effects of Childhood Stress on the Brain
A child living under traumatic conditions will develop a brain that is very biased to danger. This will last into adulthood. This is done through the amygdala which is the ‘smoke alarm’ and emotional centre of the brain. Brain scans have shown that the amygdala becomes ‘irritated’ which means it is swollen and on constant alert for danger. When threat is detected the human body will respond by releasing neurochemicals which will result in defensive action. The prefrontal cortex shuts down (the part which has regulatory abilities, cognitive and executive functioning and analytical reasoning) which frees up the body to make the best response in the quickest and most effective way.
The defences of the reptilian brain are activated. Fight and flight responses utilise adrenaline which produces a rush of energy and freeze/submit responses are controlled with cortisol which causes the body to shake, become numb and/or feel exhausted. After the threat has passed the hippocampus (responsible for memories) will not have processed the experience due to being inhibited whilst feeling under threat and the prefrontal cortex which was also ‘offline’ at the time will not have witnessed the event. We then have ‘raw data’ which is encoded in the amygdala as feeling/body memories, muscle memories, or feeling states. They are not connected to a narrative that can explain them. The amygdala remains very sensitive to any reminder of the event and will be triggered into action if any similar event occurs in the future.
Triggers can be things such as recall of traumatic events, being asked questions, self-disclosure, not being allowed to speak, being put on the spot, being ignored, being the centre of attention, emotions, vulnerability, loud noises, authority figures and eye contact among many others.
Triggered reactions to stimuli can be sudden, intense, and hard to shift as they are those body memories/feeling states being triggered. Clues to this are the feelings and bodily reactions of anxiety, fear, increased heart rate, tightness or clenching in the stomach, shallow breathing, hyperventilation, holding the breath, obsessive thinking, a response disproportional to the event and/or a major change from the previous mood/feeling state, among others.
This is because the traumatised child/adult has feeling memories stored in their brain from childhood without a story attached. The brain is biased to danger signals it has seen before, and when triggered, it feels that that old danger is happening in the present and responds as such.
If there is a feeling of fear but no threat of danger then the fear is a memory.
Traumatised children/adults may often have impulses to run, drink or hide and be alone, but have no conscious understanding of why they are feeling that way.
Traumatised children/adults have a narrow ‘window of tolerance’ (see link below) and the priority is to widen this through self-awareness, mindfulness, meditation and grounding techniques.
The rejection of the child’s real self from birth by the narcissistic parent leads to the child having no sense of themselves. They learn that to be accepted/tolerated and not shunned/punished they need to be what others want them to be and this means that they must mirror others and serve the needs of others. This will likely lead to them serving most of their relationships in the same way throughout their lives.
The child of a narcissist exists in a false/adapted self which has been created to comply with their parent and minimise the amount of shame, humiliation and disapproval with which their parent will punish them when they express their true self and its wants and needs. Their real self is suppressed into their subconscious.
As the children of narcissists often do not have much idea of who they really are they may mirror others in terms of copying the interests of others or taking up hobbies that their spouse/romantic partners are interested in. These hobbies and interests may be dropped as quickly as they are taken on as they are often not authentic. This will be remedied when some healing has been done and the child of the narcissist finds their authentic self.
Many children of narcissists develop addictions. Their nervous systems have been affected by and adapted to the long-term trauma and they may have developed Complex PTSD. This means they have what is known as a narrow window of tolerance. This is the mental space in which a person can function without things becoming overwhelming for them. If someone has a ‘narrow window’ then they will easily become overwhelmed by events and this can cause them to become either hyperaroused (this is the fight or flight response and results in hypervigilance or anxiousness amongst other effects) or hypoaroused (this is the freeze or submit response and results in numbness, hopelessness or depression amongst other effects).
The brain works together with the nervous system to run an elaborate system of defence mechanisms which are triggered by events in the environment to alert the person to possible danger. Much of the time this can take place without the person having much conscious awareness.
An addiction can help a person to manage their nervous system by creating a sense of calm or arousal with uppers (such as cocaine and methamphetamine) and downers (such as alcohol and marijuana) according to the needs of the person at the time.
Addictions are used to manage the after effects of trauma and also help the individual to deal with their emotional pain as they work as an anesthetic. Addictions can also work as a distraction as an addict can spend a majority of their time planning the use of and obtaining their substance of choice and then using it, or, participating in their addictive activity of choice such as gambling or shopping.
Splitting/Black and White Thinking
The splitting defence is demonstrated below. It is a coping mechanism which develops in children at a very early age. It will often develop in children of narcissists as they try to keep themselves safe and sane.
Good Mother – benevolent
‘Good’ behaviours (approved of by mother) – immature, clinging, passive
Warm, comfortable, safe
Good self image
Bad Mother – hostile, critical, angry
‘Bad’ behaviours (disapproved of by mother) – independent, assertive, wants growth
Frightened, hungry, tired
Bad self image
In the first months of life mother and baby are fused. During psychological separation from the mother at around the age of two, the child separates good images from bad images whilst they are separating their own image from the image of their mother.
The child ends up splitting their own good self-image from their own bad self-image and the images/perceptions they hold of their bad mother from the images/perceptions of their good mother.
This splitting defence means that the child does not learn to relate to people as whole people composed of a mixture of good and bad elements. They learn to split others into good and bad parts and therefore see others as parts of the whole.
The split occurs because these two contradictory opposing realities cannot be reconciled.
This can lead to black and white and all or nothing patterns of thinking and can also lead to the idealising and devaluing of the self and others.
The child will be triggered into the black or white/good or bad patterns of thinking by what is going in their environment. Please see Triggers and Triggering.
This idea of splitting and parts can also be found in the Structural Dissociation Model and Internal Family Systems Theory.
How We Become Our Own Abuser
Children of narcissists will often ‘internalise the narcissist’. This means to develop part of the brain/personality which mirrors/copies the narcissist’s critical voice. This defence mechanism ensures that the child can regulate their own behaviour by pre-empting the narcissist’s criticisms in an attempt to deflect painful criticism and devaluing from the parent. In this way the child becomes their own abuser. This is the internal negative critical voice that is often a constant companion to some children of narcissists.
They may also have submissive body language and may sit with hunched shoulders and head down slightly. Any other posture such as head up, shoulders back and a confident stance may result in harsh devaluing from the narcissist.
Young children have the dilemma of needing to attach to the narcissist for their own survival even though the narcissist is terrifying. The child needs to find a way to do it even when a parent is rejecting or abusive. There are findings that an infant will cling more strongly to an abusive parent. This clinging has been named traumatic bonding. The child dissociates the pain in order to engage in attachment behaviour with the narcissistic parent. Without this attachment the child feels an intense ‘abandonment depression’, this is a term introduced by the psychiatrist James F. Masterson in his work on personality disorders.
Abandonment depression is an umbrella term which encompasses the emptiness, depression, panic, rage, guilt and helplessness felt by a child growing up in a dysfunctional and abusive environment.
Traumatic bonding in children can result in the same relationship patterns being played out in adulthood.
The ‘internalised abuser’ may also hold the feelings of anger and rage that the child may feel but cannot show as this affects both the attachment with the narcissistic parent and may invoke punishments from the parent. The child suppresses these into the ‘internalised abuser’.
Self-harming may be a way to ‘act out’ the rage and pain. It may serve to control rage against others by directing it against the self. Physiologically, when we are injured or stressed, endorphins are released. These are neurotransmitters that act in a similar way to morphine by reducing the amount of pain we experience when hurt.
These may be soothing and help the person to deal with the emotional pain they are feeling. A focus on the physical pain can help to dissociate from the emotional pain.
The Narcissistic Mother
The narcissistic mother is cold, distant, unaffectionate, controlling, critical and jealous. She will not accept her child for who they are and will start to mould them as soon as they are born through behaviour modification. Narcissistic mothers shape their children into objects to fit their needs and the child must be perfect for the mother.
In a family where there is more than one child there are usually the ‘golden’ children (idealised) and the ‘scapegoats’ (devalued). The ‘golden’ child may identify with this idealisation and become a narcissist themselves if they also already have the inherent characteristics. The narcissistic mother will almost continually devalue the child she has chosen to be the ‘scapegoat.’ The narcissistic mother will play her children against each other, in what is known as triangulation, and it is common for children of narcissists to be estranged from their siblings. Only children will be idealised and devalued and will fulfill both roles.
She will make her child’s real self feel unseen and unheard. She will project the blame onto the child for everything that is wrong in the relationship between them. The child will internalise the mother’s critical voice and berate themselves as a defence mechanism as they try to regulate their own behaviour to protect them from the harsh attacks of their mother. She will go into terrifying narcissistic rages and may be physically violent. Many narcissists have addictions so substance abuse may be an issue.
She will have romantic relationships with other narcissists or co-dependents. She will allow abusive men to abuse her child/ren. Her relationships with men are likely to be unstable and she will usually have a succession of boyfriends/husbands although some of the relationships may last a few years.
It will take her child years to recover from the devastation of having her as a mother. As an adult they may develop addictions and/or codependency, they may develop a narcissistic, borderline, schizoid or other personality disorder or develop a panic disorder or Complex PTSD.
The Narcissistic Father
Narcissistic fathers have the same characteristics as narcissistic mothers. There will be a lack of boundaries and encroachment into their child’s personal space. Acceptance and approval are conditional. Narcissistic fathers are engulfing and controlling and do not support their child’s real self. The child will be moulded into what the father wishes them to be and is only interested in the child for ‘narcissistic supply‘. He is emotionally cold and will control others with his aggressive moods. Narcissistic men are often workaholics and so they may spend a lot of time out of the house. Children of narcissistic fathers often try desperately to win their father’s approval but it is an impossible task. He will not meet his child’s emotional needs or be someone who can be relied upon.
The narcissistic father may have been very abusive to the children’s mother and perhaps would try to involve the children in this by using triangulation. Triangulation is when one person manipulates a relationship between two people by controlling communication between them and playing one person against another.
"It's My Way or the Highway"
Narcissists have a deep-seated need to control those around them. A narcissistic parent has complete power over a child and they will exercise that power. They are quick to anger and will aggressively coerce their environment into bending to their will. The child is denied their right to be themselves and they will be punished and rejected when they try to exert their rights and wishes.
An adult narcissist will be the same towards their partner. They will be domineering and controlling and their partner is aware either consciously or subconsciously that it is the ‘narcissist’s way or the highway’. If the narcissist’s partner stands up to the narcissist then there may be a punishment such as a narcissistic rage or a period of silent treatment. If the narcissist has lost control of their partner then the relationship will rapidly disintegrate. The narcissist will turn to other sources of ‘supply’.
A child of a narcissist will often end up becoming emotionally enmeshed with the parent. This usually happens between a narcissistic parent and a ‘golden’ child. This means they are literally emotionally entwined together. Their boundaries overlap in an unhealthy, parasitical manner. The parent may treat the child more as a friend, a confident or a substitute emotional partner.
A scapegoat child will be emotionally engulfed and suffocated but on the whole there will not be the emotional enmeshment aspect to their relationship with the narcissistic parent.
In healthy relationships people have healthy boundaries. Each person is an autonomous individual with their own identity, thoughts, feelings and opinions. In an enmeshed relationship there is very little separateness. In this type of relationship one person believes they have the right to define, dictate, and control everything about the other person.
In the case of the enmeshing parent, the child is defined by the parent and the parent believes and behaves as if what the child does is about the parent. The child is taught from birth that his purpose in life is to be a reflection of and serve the needs of the parent.
Repeating the Cycle
As adults, if unhealed, children of narcissists are likely to become involved in dysfunctional relationships, often with a partner who has the same emotional make-up as their mother or father. The child of the narcissist will be unconsciously recreating (as attachment theory shows) their childhood relationship patterns.
People feel a sense of safety in relationships which allow them to stay comfortably in the defence mechanisms they built throughout their childhood. This is why children of narcissists will often go on to marry narcissists.
Without knowledge and healing, the child of a narcissist may not recognise that they are with a narcissistic partner who is abusive, or they may know they are unhappy but feel ‘trapped’ and unable to leave. It is likely that they have no boundaries and are conditioned to people please. They put up with the abuse because at some level they feel they deserve it more than they feel they do not. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with kind acts and this can trigger them into self-destructive behaviours or feelings of wanting to run or avoid and be alone. This is because of the disruption to the attachment defence which now becomes triggered into feeling there is danger when someone wants to be close emotionally.
If the partner of a narcissist ever finds the strength to leave the relationship, the narcissist may promise the earth to get their partner to go back to them and then things will quickly revert back to dysfunction. The narcissist’s behaviour will always deteriorate.
The child of a narcissist sees the ‘potential’ in their narcissistic partner and hopes things will get better in the future. They may think that if they could just show/prove to their partner how nice or worthy they were everything would be OK. This is magical thinking and also the same thinking pattern they would have had as a child. It is an old wound retriggered.
Growing up as a child of a narcissist skews the child’s concept of what love is. They will recognise dysfunction as love. Knowledge and healing will correct this and they can then seek healthier relationships.