How Children are Affected by a Parent with NPD

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Click to Jump to - Children of Narcissists May Have:

Complex PTSD

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.

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967

Changes in the Brain

A Swollen Amygdala

A child living under traumatic conditions will develop a brain that is very biased to danger. This will last into adulthood. The amygdala is the ‘smoke alarm’ and emotional centre of the brain. Brain scans have shown that the amygdala becomes swollen in people who have been traumatised, which means it is 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 of the brain 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.

Reptilian Brain

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

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.

https://childrenofnarcissists.org.uk/triggers-and-triggering/

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.

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/window-of-tolerance

Many children from abusive homes have lifelong issues with trust and very strong paranoid tendencies. This paranoia has served an important purpose during the person’s life as it was best for them to try to read the subtext in situations, expect the worst and to not take anything at face value. They will often develop strong sensitivities to reading and feeling the moods of others. 

A child of a narcissist will have been harmed and deceived, had disloyal and untrustworthy parent/s, had personal information used maliciously against them, had threatening things said to them which appeared benign and had their character constantly attacked. They will have been lied to frequently.

The brain will have adapted to this hostile environment when growing up and would have made paranoid ways of thinking part of its reality by necessity. 

Some children of narcissists may have elements of Paranoid Personality Disorder below:

Paranoid Personality Disorder

A. A pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:

  1. Suspects, without sufficient basis, that others are exploiting, harming, or deceiving him or her.
  2. Is preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends or associates.
  3. Is reluctant to confide in others because of unwarranted fear that the information will be used maliciously against him or her.
  4. Reads hidden demeaning or threatening meanings into benign remarks or events.
  5. Persistently bears grudges (i.e., is unforgiving of insults, injuries, or slights).
  6. Perceives attacks on his or her character or reputation that are not apparent to others and is quick to react angrily or to counterattack.
  7. Has recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding fidelity of spouse or sexual partner.
    (Does not occur exclusively during the course of schizophrenia, a bipolar disorder or a depressive disorder with psychotic features, or another psychotic disorder and is not attributable to the physiological effects of another medical condition)

The Need to Please Others

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.

A Fear of Abandonment

A fear of abandonment is a deep-seated fear of being left by people that you are close to. This fear affects your thoughts and behaviours.

It can be rooted in childhood from physical or emotional neglect or from an event such as the loss of a parent through death or divorce. This trauma results in an individual developing a fear or expectation that it will happen again.

Narcissists see their children as extensions of themselves, or as objects to be used to meet their needs, which renders them incapable of taking care of the emotional needs of another person. This is severe emotional neglect and means that they stifle their children’s real self and mould them into what they want them to be through the punishing behaviours of rejection, silent treatments and rages. They are highly critical and frequently shame and ridicule their children. Many will never tell their children that they love them or be physically affectionate.

A Fear of Abandonment Results in Being:

Highly insecure

Low in confidence

Low in the ability to feel safe in the world

Unable to trust others

Low in self-esteem

Jealous

Clingy or pushing others away

And Individuals May:

Have an expectation of abandonment

Expect relationships to go wrong

Accept a relationship where they may be treated badly

Feel they don’t deserve to be loved

Wonder why their partner is with them

Addictions

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.

Black and White Thinking

Black and White thinking is a defence 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. 

Life, for children of narcissists, is made of two contradictory opposing realities which cannot be reconciled due to their narcissistic parents own black and white thinking. 

This means that they do not learn to relate to others as whole people composed of a mixture of good and bad elements. They learn to split themselves, and others, into good and bad parts and therefore see others as parts of the whole. They cannot see the whole of themselves or others simultaneously. 

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.

Clues that we are thinking in a black and white way are that we are using words like always, never and every. 

Individuals will be triggered into the black or white and 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.

Feelings of Self-Hatred

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

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.

Constant Guilt

Many children of narcissists may not even be aware that they are usually in service of others and do not really do anything for themselves or consider themselves to be important. If they do anything for themselves or if they actively do not do something others want them to do, they may feel an overwhelming sense of guilt.

This is a pervasive dysfunctional guilt which was internalised in early childhood because of disapproval expressed by the narcissistic parent when the child tried to become their real independent self. The child learns to fear their real self and therefore, feelings of guilt around doing nothing or doing what they want develop as a protection. 

The feelings of guilt in adulthood can be as paralysing as when they were a small child. This guilt may motivate some to feel they want to cling to their parent or a parent substitute as the only way/strategy to not feel the guilt.

Children of narcissists may often fall apart in adolescence due to their not being permitted to self-actualise (become their real self) which means they have not built up the skills and resilience to enable them to transition into the adult world and become self-sufficient. They may become suicidal.

The adapted self (which developed in place of the authentic self) may cling to someone to take care of it as a strategy to avoid feeling guilty and assume that passive role. The adapted self may feel childlike at times and have thoughts of wanting to be rescued.

Shame

Children of narcissists will often have lots of feelings of guilt and shame. Shame can often ‘stick like glue’. Narcissists shame their children constantly, as a means of control, and this will be carried into adulthood and will often manifest as feelings of the self being worthless or inherently defective. Shame can be felt by children as young as 15 months old.

Shame is a feeling which can become a belief system. Infants and children make meaning from their bodies and will later, after developing language, attach words to explain those feelings. Uncomfortable and shameful feelings may be explained by thoughts of ‘I am stupid’ or ‘I am worthless’ etc. 

Chronic shame is a procedurally learned response, this means it is an automatic reaction (please see The Brain and Trauma). It can be triggered by events in the environment (see Triggers and Triggering) and can invoke feelings of not being safe and feelings of wanting to hide or isolate. Shame can manifest as feelings of sickness, wanting to curl into a ball or negative thoughts. Shame is an intense feeling of being unworthy, flawed and defective.

The body language of shame is very submissive with the head down, averted eyes and shoulders rounded. This has been learned as it can often diffuse a situation as it is an appeasing behaviour. If the body language is not submissive that may provoke more abuse.

Shame is a survival response on a par with fight, flight, freeze and submit and is often reinforced by ways of thinking such as ‘It is not safe to succeed, be happy, be assertive or have needs.’

Feelings of Needs Not Being Important

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’.

Emotional Enmeshment

Some children of narcissist will often end up becoming emotionally enmeshed with the parent. This means that  boundaries overlap in an unhealthy manner. The parent may treat the child more as a friend, a confident or a substitute emotional partner and it may feel parasitical to the child.

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.

A Narcissistic Partner

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 minimal 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, avoid and be alone. This is because they are 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.

Growing up in a home with narcissistic parents will cause the children to become conditioned through positive reinforcement (rewarded for obedience to the narcissist and acceptance of their version of reality as the truth) and negative reinforcement (punished through rages as the narcissist controls their environment through anger, humiliation and shaming, long silences and rejection) this can be terrifying for the child.

The ground rules in a narcissistic family tend to be unstable and ever changing (what was fine one day may invoke a rage from a narcissistic parent on the next) and therefore, adaptation to the environment in terms of responses can be difficult. A very adaptive and versatile set of defences is needed.

Children in narcissistic households are punished for their behaviours which assert their needs and when they want growth or independence. The child will come to see these aspects of themselves as their ‘bad self.’

They will be rewarded for behaviours which are immature, passive and clinging. The child will come to see these aspects of themselves as their ‘good self.’

This results in the child becoming disconnected from who they really are and their wants, needs and freedom to express themselves and they will develop coping mechanisms which suppress their true nature and real self. They are conditioned into a false adaptive self. 

Issues With Body Image

Narcissistic parents are incredibly critical and the excessive and often relentless criticism from the narcissistic parent regarding body shape, eating habits and bodily changes throughout puberty can have serious consequences for the way their children feel about and relate to their bodies. The excessive criticism emanates from the extreme envy and jealousy and the desire to control which comes with NPD.

The lack of support in a narcissistic family can result in their children not being confident, resilient or self-assured. Children of narcissists may place a lot of emphasis on what others think of their physical appearance (and of them in general). Other’s views are seen as more important than their own.

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Sarah Graham

Sarah Graham

I am a Counsellor, based in Bournemouth in the UK, with specialist knowledge of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I am trained in treating Complex Trauma. I work online and am insured to work in most places in the world.

Link to my Counselling Website Here