Narcissistic families emphasize the parent’s needs above the needs of others. While it can take a toll on your mental health, there are options to help you cope.

Living in a narcissistic family can be lonely, painful, and confusing. When you grow up in this environment, you may not be fully aware of the dysfunctional dynamics taking place. You may even blame yourself for family problems or things outside of your control.

But the dynamics in your family aren’t your fault. And help is available.

Understanding common signs and roles of a narcissistic family structure and what you can do to cope can be a good starting point.

A narcissistic family structure is one in which one or both parents exhibit traits of narcissism, often leading to unhealthy relationships and dynamics within the family.

Carly Claney, a licensed psychologist in Seattle, says narcissistic families tend to be characterized by:

  • emotional manipulation
  • lack of empathy
  • emphasis on meeting the narcissistic parent’s needs over those of other family members

“Children in such families often feel responsible for their parent’s emotional well-being and may be pressured to meet unrealistic expectations,” Claney says.

These characteristics of narcissistic families may also create the potential for physical or verbal abuse in some cases.

Signs of a narcissistic family

Other common signs of a narcissistic family include:

  • excessive control
  • favoritism
  • superficiality
  • an environment where family members feel constantly judged or belittled
  • extreme competition between members
  • unspoken rules about who can get attention and when
  • using guilt or shame to control others
  • devaluing certain individuals
  • general disregard for each other’s feelings

Kalley Hartman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, CA, notes not everyone who’s part of such a family has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). But many may display certain traits associated with it, such as:

“The focus is on maintaining a certain image or façade,” says Hartman.

There isn’t a ton of research around the full impact of growing up with a narcissistic family. But Mary Joye, a licensed mental health counselor in Winter Haven, FL, notes that some potential effects include:

Anxiety and depression

Often the spouse or children of a narcissist may feel intense anxiety about keeping the parent happy so the parent doesn’t deprive them of what they need or disown them.

They may become codependent, trying to please their parent, giving up their own sense of autonomy.

Some family members may develop intense anxiety symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression.

Difficulties in forming healthy relationships

Children of narcissistic parents tend to develop anxious-preoccupied or avoidant-attachment styles. Because they were never loved properly, they can sometimes feel detached or estranged.

Issues with self-esteem and trust

To survive in a narcissistic family, some children diminish themselves and do their best to become invisible, which can also affect future relationships.

Developing narcissistic traits as a coping mechanism

Narcissists and codependents are driven by a subconscious fear of abandonment, and it’s a dangerous stance between them, explains Joye.

“When a child is raised in this environment, they often reenact it in their marriage,” she says.

Though it’s unknown whether NPD runs in families, some research suggests that developmental experiences, such as rejection and insensitive parenting, as well as excessive praise, may play a role in developing NPD.

If you grew up or live in a narcissistic family, it’s important to understand the dynamics you experienced aren’t your fault, Hartman says.

She offers the following tips for coping with your family structure:

  • Acknowledge and validate your own feelings: It’s essential to recognize and honor your experiences. This can help you develop a better understanding of yourself and build healthy relationships with those around you.
  • Practice self-care: Make sure to take breaks from the situation whenever necessary and find activities that give you peace and comfort (e.g., sports, music, or art).
  • Avoid engaging in unhealthy conversations: Don’t let yourself be drawn into debates or discussions that may lead nowhere positive.
  • Seek professional help: If you feel overwhelmed or need advice, speaking to a qualified therapist can help you gain perspective and discover and recover your sense of self.

A therapist well-versed in narcissistic abuse can also help you cope with your situation in healthier ways. In some cases, family counseling may help family members find different ways to connect and manage shifts in mood.

These resources can help you start the process:

Living in a narcissistic family can have long lasting effects on your mental health. But there are things you can do to help cope with your situation.

With professional treatment and a focus on self-care, you can begin to gain autonomy and recover your sense of self.