Narcissism in the Family

We all have an ego. The ego is like our psychological skin; it holds our sense of self together, and literally is our sense of self. Children are in a developmental process as they form their ego, which is necessary for survival as a core aspect of the human experience.  

I define narcissism as an excessive focus on self preventing us from having a healthy sense of connection with and empathy toward other people. I’m using a more expanded definition of narcissism than the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is the manual mental health professionals use to diagnose and treat patients.

Narcissistic abuse is rampant in families and our society as a whole. Oftentimes, parents have unconscious narcissistic patterns that play out with their children and their spouses. This is felt by the children as excessive coldness, being treated like an object by the parents, or in some cases, being emotionally manipulated. In extremely toxic cases the children can experience a complete lack of love from the parent who has this pattern and it may come with physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. If your child is suffering extreme abuse from your spouse, you may need to take legal action or get the help of a therapist, CPS (Child Protective Services), the police, or whatever agency is required.

While we are not all pathological narcissists, we all have narcissistic tendencies. Any time we become unfeeling or frozen in trauma we lean toward narcissism.  While parenting, notice when you don’t use empathy to relate with your child. Notice when you treat them like an object. It can be easy to shift out of subtle narcissistic patterns by simply choosing to feel and consider your child in every decision you make. If you have more pervasive patterns of narcissism in your parenting and personality structure, a trained professional can help you with these patterns. Your spouse may be able to identify this pattern in you more easily than you may be able to yourself. Many narcissistic people are unable or unwilling to look at these patterns in themselves. If you are with someone who is unable to look at their patterns of narcissism, this can cause serious damage in your relationship and the co-parenting. It’s good to consider leaving, if the relationship is abusive and toxic. 

Signs of narcissism include excessive defensiveness and a denial of the other person’s feelings. Narcissists will use a technique called gaslighting in which the other person denies your experience, blames you, and makes you seem crazy for the feelings you simply have in response to their abuse. 

The specific tactic narcissists often employ in gaslighting is DARVO: Deny Attack Reverse Victim Offender Relations. Initially, you might say something relatively innocent like, “It hurt my feelings when you ignored me last night.” Using DARVO they will say something that denies your statement: “I didn’t ignore you.” Next, they move into the attack: “Why do you take everything so personally?” Then they will make themselves the victim by saying something like, “Now you’re blaming me for all your problems.” A simple sharing of feelings that could have been resolved by a simple act of listening and understanding instead becomes a psychological war over whose reality is right. 

When you receive a defensive reaction from someone, first check yourself for blame. If you were blaming them, then defensiveness is appropriate. If you were simply sharing your feelings, then the defensiveness is their issue not yours. Staying calm while stating the facts and pointing out the dynamics is usually best. Beware that someone who is entrenched in this pattern may be very difficult to communicate with. 

Children can also embody narcissistic tendencies. Many children will abuse their parents with narcissistic patterns of behavior. Often loving and compassionate parents will feel bullied by their children. When the child doesn’t get what they want, they can throw enormous tantrums and blame the parents. I’ve seen situations in which it becomes so miserable for the parents that many parents begin to give in to the child’s demands, simply to attempt to keep the peace. Although I have tremendous amounts of empathy for parents who give in to children’s bad behavior, this is not heart-centered parenting. 

Heart-centered parenting does not allow disrespectful behavior to run the show. In heart-centered parenting, we know we don’t want to reinforce selfish behavior in our children. We want to encourage their best behavior. It’s good to set firm boundaries on the children’s disrespectful tones. Children should be considerate and loving to their parents. Children can not survive without their parents. Children need their parents for food and shelter and there should be gratitude and appreciation from the children towards the parents. Every parent has unconscious patterns which will affect the child. Assuming the parents are not abusive, children should not be allowed to carry blame and longstanding resentment toward their parents. If they are carrying blame, this is typically indicative of a problem in the dynamics between the child and parent. Whatever is happening in the dynamics, acceptance is the best medicine for it. When we have acceptance, everything else becomes easier to sort through and find the best action to take. 

Often children will carry resentment when the parents are carrying resentment. The children may need to be encouraged to move through the dynamics. This will flow better when the parent is not holding any issue against the child. Ideally, this is done by the parent who is not having the issue with them, encouraging the child to feel their feelings, to accept and forgive their parent as soon as possible. 

It’s okay to be angry with your children. Every parent gets frustrated and annoyed with their children. Long-term resentment is a different story, however. It’s best when you can use the resentment as the basis to work through the dynamics of your relating to find deeper connection and greater love. The first step to more connection when you feel anger, is to accept what you feel. Then, if there is a message that needs to be communicated, express what you need to say to the other person. When you communicate what is needed and are received, the anger will typically dissipate. Express the anger in a way that is as loving and compassionate as possible. 

I’ve seen many children embody narcissistic tendencies around the use of technology. Because they can be so extremely addicted, they will say or do anything to attempt to gain access to the technology. The last thing on the child’s mind when they want their technology is considering their parents’ feelings and perspectives. This is why boundaries around technology,  disrespectful, and narcissistic behavior are so important. Any statement that is demeaning or subtly objectifying of the parent should be corrected. When you fight the small battles for basic respect and empathy in every interaction, it is easier to win the bigger victories for your child’s overall potential. As parents, we are dedicated to helping our children to realize their fullest potential as much as possible. Correcting their out of line behavior, while nurturing and encouraging their positive behavior, is essential to having the best possible outcome. Narcissistic tendencies can be very intense. The more patience and loving acceptance you bring to the whole dynamic, the better everything will go. 

When you are setting boundaries, try setting them with empathy and compassion as well as firmness. Remember that like all of us, your child is simply acting unconsciously. Punishment is not what is required, just firm boundaries to help them learn. Compassion is the way of the heart. In heart-centered parenting, we do not seek retaliation for bad behavior; we simply do not encourage it, reward it, or allow it. We nurture our children’s true potential. Everyone has the potential to live in connection with their hearts and treat each other with kindness and respect. This is our guiding star as we parent.

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Adam Bulbulia’s upcoming book, Parenting from the Heart: A Guide to Create a Family Culture that Works for Everyone will be available on Amazon, as are his earlier three books on the topics of nurture being, love, and authenticity. As you continue your exploration of heart-centered principles, we invite you to read other articles on our blog. We also offer parenting coaching, personal coaching, and business consulting.  

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