Good parenting requires empathy, compassion, and a willingness to make some of your needs secondary—essentially, many of the qualities you wouldn’t find in a narcissist.
But as a psychologist studying the effects of narcissism in family relationships, I’ve noticed that many narcissistic traits, such as grandiosity, superiority, and entitlement, are on the rise.
Narcissistic parenting isn’t about showing off on social media or forcing strict extracurricular activities on your kids. It goes much deeper and it is one of the most toxic ways to raise your children. Narcissistic parents have a hard time allowing their children to be their own people or to get their own needs met.
You may know a narcissistic parent and not realize it. Here are the usual signs:
1. They see their child as a source of validation.
Narcissists will often flaunt their children loudly when they score the winning goal or play the big part in the school play. You can see them constantly bragging online or bringing up their child’s beauty or talent in conversations.
When something doesn’t affect their child’s achievements, the parents become checked out, distant, and disinterested in their child. They generally shame their child’s need for connection or validation and instead see them as a tool to meet those needs for themselves.
2. They react emotionally but are ashamed of their child’s feelings.
Narcissists are often angry and aggressive when they feel disappointed or frustrated. If they think their child is being critical or defiant, they may lash out. These reactions can include screaming, sudden outbursts of anger, or, in more severe cases, physical violence.
Meanwhile, other narcissistic people’s emotions can make them uncomfortable and they may despise them. You can embarrass your child for not sharing his feelings at all with phrases like “Get over yourself, it wasn’t that big of a deal” or “Stop crying and be tougher.”
3. They always put their own needs first.
Sometimes adults need to put real problems first—perhaps a late shift is unavoidable, or housework may take up an entire afternoon. But narcissistic parents expect their children to make sacrifices so they can do or have what they want.
For example, if the parents enjoy sailing, their children must sail every weekend. Or if the parent has a standing tennis match, then the parent will never miss it, even for something as important as a graduation.
4. You have bad boundaries.
Narcissistic parents can be quite pushy. If they don’t feel like it, they won’t interact with the child. But if they want the child to validate them, they may feel like they can interrupt their child’s and ask them to do whatever they want.
They may ask probing questions or criticize their child in ways that also feel intrusive, such as comments about weight, appearance, or other characteristics that embarrass the child.
5. You play favorites.
Narcissistic parents maintain their power by triangulating or playing favorites. They may have a golden child that they compliment excessively, for example, while speaking badly of another child in the family.
This can make children feel uncomfortable, disloyal, and psychologically insecure. They may feel that they need to follow or impress the narcissistic parent in order to avoid their anger and maintain good standing in the family.
6. They blame their children.
Narcissists feel the need to feel perfect, so they shirk responsibility for their own missteps and blame their children. They can be cruel when they feel criticized, and their comments often sting.
Common refrains from narcissistic parents might be something like “It’s your fault I’m so tired” or “I could have had a great career if I didn’t have to deal with you.”
Over time, children of narcissistic parents internalize these comments and begin to blame themselves, believing, “If I have needs, I’ll make everyone else feel or do worse.”
7. They expect the child to be the caregiver.
At a relatively young age, the message from a narcissistic parent is that their child needs to take care of them.
This often extends well into adulthood, where the narcissistic parent can be quite manipulative. A common statement might be, “I fed you and clothed you, so now you owe me.” Many narcissists expect their children to take care of and support them later in life.