The term narcissism has been used a lot in our current culture: we see articles revolving around narcissism on dating, on social media, and even in our pop culture.
What does narcissism mean exactly? Rather than give a straight-up definition, I think it would be better to share an anecdote.
A couple of years ago, when the film House of Gucci was all the rage, I interviewed Sara Forden, the author whose book the Hollywood film was based on.
Patrizia Reggiani—played by Lady Gaga—was convicted of killing her ex-husband, Maurizio Gucci (once heir to the Gucci fashion house), because he has lost the company amid a series of poor business decisions.
In my interview with Forden, she explained that during the televised court trial, Reggiani had been diagnosed with having narcissistic personality disorder.
“Patrizia had an exaggerated perspective and put herself at the center of things,” she told me. “She perceived things being done against her, so when Maurizio started to take [pushing back at her influence], and then lose control of the company, Patrizia felt like it was a slight against her personally. That was her personality and how she read things as happening in her world.”
While Reggiani is certainly an extreme example of the term, the truth is that narcissistic behavior can be prevalent in a myriad of ways and it can relate close to home.
You may have people in your family who have narcissistic traits—including your own parents.
Do you suspect you were raised by a narcissistic parent? Here’s how to know.
1) They like to be the center of attention in any setting
This first one can be hard to see as narcissism—it’s more subtle in nature—particularly when it comes to a parent.
Perhaps you had a mother who enjoyed being the center of attention at dinner parties: a social butterfly with a sparkling sense of humor, an engaging conversationalist, maybe even a great dancer.
Maybe this public persona was “on show” at home too: for instance, whenever your friends came over, somehow your mother managed to take center stage with her wit and charm.
Sometimes, it didn’t have to involve other people.
For every story you brought home from school, your mother might have had one of her own to compare from her own childhood—except that her story always seemed to be “bigger and better”—as if it was some kind of competition. Inevitably, the attention seemed to always revert back to her.
No doubt this can make a child feel like they’re not good enough and will never live up to mom or dad’s expectations. This can cause issues with self esteem and make a child withdraw into themselves.
2) They almost always put their own needs first
Narcissistic people tend to have an inflated sense of self-importance.
No doubt parents have to put real-world issues first,
says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula.
This could be a late work shift that can’t be avoided or chores that might take up a whole Saturday afternoon. “But narcissistic parents expect their children to make sacrifices so that they do or have whatever they want.”
Durvasula gives the example of a parent that likes to sail. “Then their children must go sailing every weekend. Or if the parent has a standing tennis game, then the parent will never miss it, even for something important like a graduation ceremony.”
This can, of course, make a child feel like their own interests are unimportant and not worth mom or dad’s time and attention.
3) They had no problem playing favorites
Many children feel that their parents prefer a sibling over them at some point, even when nothing could be further from the truth.
A narcissistic parent doesn’t necessarily see anything wrong with having a favorite—or triangulating, in psychological terms.
They might have a golden child, for example. This child might get all the affection, better clothes, and put into piano or tennis lessons. This parent will be particularly critical of the “non-favorite” child, who might be needed at home after school to help with outside chores.
Of course this can make a child feel unloved, uncomfortable, and emotionally unsafe, says Durvasula. “They may believe that they need to go along with or impress the narcissistic parent to avoid their wrath and maintain good standing in the family.”
4) They used you as a scapegoat
Children of parents with narcissistic tendencies are often scapegoated in a number of ways.
One example could be a sibling breaking a window playing ball, for instance. “If you had been watching so-and-so, then this wouldn’t have happened!”
Or say, the narcissistic parent was supposed to have done chores on a weekend but nothing was done. “It’s so-and-so’s fault! I saw that he screwed up his homework and I had to help him do it all over.”
Durvasula says that other common complaints from narcissistic parents could be: “It’s your fault that I’m so tired,” or “I could have had a great career if I didn’t have to deal with you.”
It’s easy to see how this kind of cruel communication from a parent can make a child internalize these kinds of comments, making them think they are a burden to the parent.
5) They expected you to take care of them
Narcissistic parents can be very demanding to their children for their own needs.
This can mean having them do chores around the house that are inappropriate for their age—tasks they as parents should be doing.
It can mean cleaning up after the parent: their dishes, their laundry, making them dinner. It can also mean taking care of younger siblings.
All of this can take away from a child’s right to a real childhood and compel them to grow up a lot quicker than they should. It can also make them feel like they are missing out on being with their friends.
6) They used you to validate them
Maybe you had the kind of parent who pushed you to excel at school and extracurriculars—even participate in things you had no interest in.
They enjoyed talking about how well you were doing to friends and relatives.
A narcissistic parent might also make you live the life they couldn’t.
A typical refrain might sound like: “You should feel grateful that you get to be in the ballet class. I wanted to learn dance as a child but my parents couldn’t afford the classes.”
7) They threw temper tantrums
Holistic psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera who is something of a sensation on “X” (formerly Twitter) says this about narcissistic parents:
“Narcissistic parents (NP) have not gone through full emotional development and are [therefore] highly emotionally immature. The best way to think of an NP is a child within an adult body.”
It’s no wonder then, that a narcissistic parent will throw the equivalent of a temper tantrum whenever they are triggered or don’t get their own way.
This is because they never learned to emotionally regulate themselves and don’t have control over their outbursts and reactions, says Dr. LePera.
So they feel intense anger or rage every time they are triggered—which could be frequent.
They also can feel extreme envy—even with their own child as I described in the first point.
A parent who is not able to emotionally regulate is very unsettling for a child because they never know when “Mean Mommy or Daddy” will show up. They learn not to trust their unpredictable environment and don’t feel safe.
8) They had a poor sense of boundaries
Parents with narcissistic tendencies don’t just have a poor sense of boundaries, they often think they’re above them.
Perhaps you had the parent who would routinely snoop through your backpack when you were a teenager.
Or maybe they found your diary and would look through it to make sure you “weren’t doing anything you weren’t supposed to be doing.”
All this does is encourage a child to go to extreme lengths to hide things from the parent. Since there isn’t a sense of trust between the parent and child, the child can take this into their adult relationships where they precipitate emotionally and intimately distant relationships.
9) They would often give you a guilt complex
A narcissistic parent is quick to lay guilt on their child (or children) as a way to “keep them in line.”
For example if a child complains about something, the parent may say something like, “After everything I do for you, you better not be complaining. I have made so many sacrifices for you.”
I love how Dr. LePera demonstrates this in this TikTok video. It’s oftentimes not even about the child—rather the parent uses guilt tripping as a way to cope with how they’re feeling themselves.
So, in turn, the narcissistic parent’s coping strategy is to make the child responsible for the way that they feel.
The result is the child, again, blames themselves for being “bad,” and for causing emotional distress to the parent.
10) Their love was conditional
It’s not that narcisstic parents are cruel to their children all the time—but certain conditions had to be met to be “worthy” of their love.
This could be anything from getting good grades and excelling in extracurriculars to making sure their needs were met such as cooking for them and doing household chores (as mentioned above).
“Conditional love is common in abusive homes and has devastating long-term effects on children,” says therapist Hailey Shafir.
“When a parent is narcissistic, the conditions usually revolve around the emotional needs and self-esteem of the parent,” she says.
“When the child makes the parent feel good about themselves, important, or special, narcissistic parents will often show love and affection towards their child.”
On the other hand, whenever the parent happens to feel bad about themselves or the child “fails” in some way, the parent can give them the silent treatment, be cruel, or even become abusive.
Shafir says that children believe their parent’s love is conditional, which can result in struggles with self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and unhealthy relationships that follow them into adulthood.
How to get past a narcissistic parent so that they don’t affect your present
Therapist Annie Wright says that the healing work required by adult children of narcissists includes:
- Educating yourself: this could be through books and professional support.
- Confronting your personal history of trauma and neglect. Again, Wright recommends seeing atherapist. She says that you may not not be able to look to your own family of origin if you have questions or gaps in memory as they may refuse to validate your trauma.
- Grieving what you didn’t receive. It’s okay to be sad about what you didn’t get from a parent during your childhood. This can include developmental milestones.
- Setting boundaries. For your own mental health and healing, you may have to distance yourself from a narcissistic parent.
- Focusing on your healing and recovery work.