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Narcissistic Families: Growing Up in the War Zone

When you are raised in a narcissistic family it can feel like there is no help.

Parents who are narcissistic are often self-focussed. They will relate to their children as “self-adjuncts” serving to support them and their image of themselves.

Do something that reflects well on them and you are suddenly the Golden ChildMake a mistake, ask for help or express your vulnerability, and you are on your own or worse, ridiculed.

Children in this situation learn quickly that their needs are unwelcome. Because they are raised to ignore, undermine or suppress their natural sense of who they are, they become alienated from their authentic selves. It can take a lot of work in therapy to unravel this masking process and reveal the true self.

Often this fragile and undermined true self will be associated with intense shame.

Parents who are narcissistic will normally shame a child for asking for her needs to be met, because they are considered inconvenient. Having an imperfect, needy child can bring the narcissist back in contact with their own denied vulnerability, the unfolding shame causing them to become hostile and shaming towards their child. This temporarily rids them of their shame and puts it into the child, who becomes a convenient long-term container for the parent’s unconscious projections.

This shaming process is intensely destructive for young children — the younger they are, the more damaging it will be. Narcissistic parents often don’t provide the soothing and reassurance needed by the child to cope with the overwhelming emotional states accompanying these shame experiences. A child in this situation will develop their own coping mechanisms, usually leading to the splitting off of traumatic memories around the abuse and sometimes, dissociation.

Shame is the fundamental weak spot for narcissists.

Their vulnerability around shame will make them project it onto others, including their children.

Because they are hardwired for attachment, all children will gravitate towards an attachment figure, working to maintain a relationship with parents and looking for support, soothing, nourishment and validation. But the narcissistic parent is often unable or unwilling to provide the emotional validation needed by the growing child. They will be too caught up in their own needs to be attuned to their child or to provide the sensitive responses which help children learn to understand their own emotions.

In some cases these narcissistic parents will be overwhelmed by their own history of trauma.

Being confronted by the emotional needs of a child can bring up painful, sometimes dissociated memories of their own infancy and childhood. These experiences will be more than enough to prevent them from being able to empathize with their children.

A child in this environment soon learns that their emotions are overwhelming for the parent and will unconsciously lose contact with their genuine responses and feelings, understanding that these are likely to be met with hostility.

Narcissistic families often operate in an atmosphere of enmeshment and secrecy, where there is a lack of healthy boundaries and open dialogue. Communication will be unclear, perhaps tangential. Those who ask for what they want will soon learn that this is not welcome. Emotions will not be verbalized, but will be acted out (or “behaved”) sometimes with violence or verbal abuse. At times, addictive behaviors will be used to mask the pain of underlying feelings, making the parent even less available to their children.

A narcissistic home can at times resemble a war zone, with hidden traps and exploding emotions.

The non-narcissistic parent will be desperate to avoid triggering their partner, hoping that things will be OK, but never really knowing what they will come home to.

Often the non-narcissistic parent will deny their own emotions and dependency needs, tiptoeing around the narcissist in a misguided attempt to manage the destructive anger that can tip over into violence and abuse.

For young children, the unpredictability and unspoken tension of a home like this can be particularly harmful. Most children who experience these environments will develop trauma responses, including the complex trauma response.

As adults, these children will often be unaware of the trauma they experienced. They will be vulnerable to depression and anxiety — and loneliness. Some will find a way to manage their unacknowledged pain through addictions. Others will be left wondering why they find it hard to relate to others — or to trust.

It is only through psychotherapy that these neglected children will come to understand themselves and eventually come to terms with the pain of their past.

Narcissistic Families: Growing Up in the War Zone


Amanda Robins, MSW, PhD

Amanda Robins is an artist and psychotherapist based in Melbourne, Australia. After a career as an artist and academic, Amanda trained in Social Work at the University of Melbourne. She now specializes in working with young people and families and is particularly interested in early intervention for Borderline Personality Disorder. Her approach with young people is to try to understand their world and to help them work out who they are, and what they want from life. Her aim is to help young people find their true selves through creative practice and through the work of therapy.https://www.amandarobinspsychotherapy.com.au/


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APA Reference
Robins, A. (2019). Narcissistic Families: Growing Up in the War Zone. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 19, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/narcissistic-families-growing-up-in-the-war-zone/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Apr 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 24 Apr 2019
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