Some parents with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) tend to treat their adult children as an extension of themselves. Here’s how you can cope.
Infantilization of adult children can be a common behavior among parents with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
NPD is a mental health condition characterized by behaviors like:
- a need for admiration and praise
- grandiosity and self-importance
- a pattern of exploiting others for personal gain
- a strong conviction of being special and unique
There are several types of narcissism, which can influence a person’s thought processes, emotions, and behavioral patterns in different ways.
In the case of infantilization, it often occurs when parents or guardians don’t adjust their style of parenting to match the maturity of the child.
In many cases, parents with NPD see their children as an extension of themselves. As a result, they may have a deep-seated need for control. Sometimes, a parent with NPD may step in and do things that the child can do for themselves, which can stunt the child’s mental and emotional development.
“Those who struggle with narcissistic personality disorder have a strong need to be needed and to have praise for their efforts,” says Kimberly Perlin, LCSW-C, a licensed clinical social worker in Towson, Maryland.
“One way to ensure that one gets positive feedback from others is to create scenarios where one is needed,” she says.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition. Only trained mental health professionals can diagnose NPD, or other personality disorders.
You can find specific criteria for diagnosis in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Though symptoms of a parent with NPD can be different for everyone, there are some classic signs to be aware of.
A parent with NPD may have a grandiose view of themselves and their value. As a result, they may place extremely high expectations on their child.
“Due to this grandiose sense of their importance, they may expect all others to defer to their needs and wishes,” Perlin says.
“For example, parents with NPD can struggle with having unrealistic expectations of their children, even as adults,” she says.
Perlin explains that an example of this behavior might be a parent “expecting an adult married child to spend every holiday with them, even though their spouse’s family wants to see them.”
Parents with NPD may enjoy having the spotlight on them.
“Those who struggle with narcissistic personality disorder long to have all the attention in a social setting or with their loved one’s affection,” Perlin says.
“They may struggle sharing their adult child with the adult child’s partner,” she adds. “They may monopolize the topics of conversation and become miffed quickly if they do not receive their expected fawning.”
Parents with NPD may have a tendency to make conversations about them, their personal successes, and what’s happening in their lives.
“They can struggle to interact with others, unless the other is catering to their interests and needs,” Perlin says.
Perlin adds that it can be common for someone with NPD to “spend the night telling you about their latest dazzling accomplishment, yet neglect to ask how you are doing.”
Perlin explains that infantilization occurs when one “is forced to not do for themselves, despite the fact that they have the means and interest in doing so.”
A note on culture and families
Each family and culture typically have their own norms around giving gifts and supporting one another. What is most important is the impact your parents’ behaviors have on you and your relationship with them.
Insists to complete one of your tasks or responsibilities without asking
Some signs can be that your parent insists on completing your task, claiming they can do it better.
For example, a narcissistic parent might do their adult child’s laundry without asking, or they pay their adult child’s taxes without notifying them — after specifically being asked not to by their child.
Pays for things when you don’t need them to or expect them to
“A lot of parents still love to treat their adult children,” says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, LCP, a licensed clinical psychologist.
But Daramus warns, “beware of the gifts that are control battles in disguise. If you can’t refuse, reciprocate the gift with thanks, in a way that puts you back on a more equal footing.”
You avoid sharing personal details for fear of your parent stepping in
If you feel like you might have a parent with NPD, consider asking yourself: Do you refrain from telling your parent certain facts about your life because you’re afraid they will take over?
This can be a strong indicator of a narcissistic parent, Perlin says.
For example, you don’t tell them you’re having a hard time at work because your parents might stalk a coworker on social media.
Or a parent may argue with a professor regarding their college student’s grade. Or they can’t let go of asking you about one of your struggles until you agree to implement the parent’s solution.
You feel guilty
Parents with narcissistic tendencies may cause you to feel guilty or ungrateful for their help and actions. They may hold this over your head as collateral, or act like — or even tell you — that you’re unappreciative for things you didn’t necessarily ask for.
Having a grandiose sense of self, parents with NPD often have the belief that their way is the best way.
“The defining trait of a narcissist is confidence that sometimes becomes arrogance,” Daramus says. “They’re sure they can do things better than others, and they see it as making sure things get done right.”
“People with NPD want to be more important than other people, sometimes including their children. They’ll probably want you to excel, but they’ll infantilize you so you don’t exceed them,” Daramus adds.
There are steps you can take to cope with infantilization from a parent with NDP.
Identify what you want
The first step is often to focus on you and your wants and needs without the outside influence of your parent.
“If you have a narcissistic parent, you probably have a lot of insecurities about meeting their expectations and standards,” Daramus says.
“Your work is to shift away from that and get focused on what you want for your life,” she adds. “Don’t worry if that takes a while. It can be difficult to tell the difference between what you want and what you’re expected to want.”
Set clear boundaries
This may be difficult at first, especially if they’re genuinely trying to be caring while also controlling you.
“Insist on taking an adult role in family gatherings and decisions that affect you, and let them know that you won’t commit to a decision that you didn’t have a voice in,” Daramus says.
“Pick and choose your battles, and when you know they do care about you, give them credit for that even while you set the boundaries,” Daramus states.
If your parent has NPD, know that you’re not alone and their behavior isn’t a reflection of you in any way.
Establishing healthy boundaries with a narcissistic parent can be essential for adult children.
In some cases, it may be helpful to speak with a mental health professional to work through what’s happening. A therapist can guide you in learning coping mechanisms and finding the best course of action for moving forward.
If you are looking for a therapist but aren’t sure where to start, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.