One trait that nearly all narcissistic parents have in common is the need to infantilize their children. This can be as direct as making the child feel incompetent every time they try something new, or it can be as subtle as always stepping in and offering to do something they can clearly do for themselves.
Unfortunately, this behavior rarely stops even after the child becomes an adult. In fact, it can sometimes become worse as the narcissistic parent fears their children’s growing independence and the end of their narcissistic supply.
The Collins Dictionary defines infantilization as “the act of prolonging an infantile state in a person by treating them as an infant.” In other words, deliberately treating someone as being much younger than their actual age.
Narcissistic parents do this because they see their child as an extension of themselves. If the child begins to realize this, the narcissistic parent will use guilt, control, fear and any other tactic they can think of to bring the child back into line. This is why many of them find the teenage years unbearable as their growing adolescent demands to be allowed more freedom and control over their own life — the very thing the narcissistic parent feels most threatened by.
In order to combat this threat, the narcissistic parent will undermine their children’s growing independence in a variety of ways. This can include anything from giving them the message that they lack the ability to handle things on their own to talking down to them as if they were still a toddler.
Here are some other tried-and-true ways narcissistic parents infantilize their adult children:
- Disapproval. This can take the form of looks that silently tell you you have failed in their eyes or it can be pointed questions regarding your lifestyle choices or other decisions you have made. Almost any decision you have made without consulting them first will be met with disapproval. They do this to try to get you into the habit of running everything past them first, thus reinforcing their belief that you are incapable of making your own decisions.
- Interference. Many narcissistic parents believe they have the right to interfere in their adult children’s private lives. This can take the form of telling you who you should date — or that you’re not allowed to date. At the extreme end of the spectrum, narcissistic parents have been known to deliberately sabotage their adult child’s relationships.
- Excessive criticism. Excessive criticism is designed to destroy your self-confidence. Many narcissistic mothers do this to their daughters under the guise of ‘being helpful.’ Hurtful comments regarding your weight, clothing, choice of career, choice of partner or your ability to be a good parent to your own children are all ripe subjects for the narcissist mother to show that she knows what’s best for you, implying that you don’t.
Being infantilized by a narcissistic parent may have been such an integral part of some people’s lives that they may not even realize until they reach adulthood just how much they are enmeshed with their parent.
So how can you make a narcissistic parent stop treating you like a child?
There is nothing a narcissist hates more than being stood up to, but until you start setting some healthy boundaries, they will continue to control your life. Don’t overshare details of your private life with them or tell them anything they can later use as ammunition against you.
Have a few handy phrases ready.
Memorize four or five phrases you can use for any given situation. When your narcissistic mother starts telling you that’s not how she would do it, simply say in a respectful, but firm tone: “You have your way of doing things, and I have mine. And neither of us is wrong.”
Other phrases could include:
- “Thanks, but I can manage.”
- “That may be your opinion, but I don’t have to agree with it.”
- “That’s my decision and I’m not prepared to discuss it with you.”
By closing the conversation down, you deny the narcissist the chance to gain control of the situation.
If all else fails, leave the room. There is no point in arguing with a narcissist. They will never see your point of view and will always insist on being right. However, if the situation has become so toxic that your mental and physical health is suffering because of it, you may want to ask yourself if it’s worth having them in your life.