Signs of a Narcissistic Parent and How to Cope

If you have a narcissistic mother or father, you may be wondering how being raised by narcissists can hurt a child. Maybe the effects have already shown up in obvious ways, such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, complex PTSD, and feelings of unworthiness or not being capable as an independent adult. 

It’s not your fault if you developed certain beliefs early on that may be continuing to cause problems at work, school, or home. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn healthy ways of improving self-esteem and changing negative thought patterns you developed earlier in childhood. 

This article discusses what narcissism is and isn’t, what it means to have narcissistic parents, how to deal with them, and what treatments may be of interest. 

Dealing With a Narcissistic Parent - Illustration by Laura Porter

Verywell / Laura Porter

What Is Narcissism?

Narcissism is defined by a spectrum of self-centered feelings regarding self-importance, an insatiable need for attention, and a lack of self-awareness with arrogance on the extreme end.

We all have varying levels of narcissism. Healthy levels of narcissism are called having good self-esteem while being humble or practicing humility. People with unhealthy levels of narcissism are considered to have a dominating attitude and lacking in empathy for others.

Narcissists can be highly functional people. They take advantage of relationships and are known for easily manipulating or exploiting others. Many narcissists are extremely charming. 

Narcissism vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Someone who is a narcissist isn’t necessarily living with narcissistic personality disorder (or any personality disorder). Narcissism isn’t a diagnosis, it’s referring to a set of personality traits.

The following are characteristics of narcissists:

  • Inflated or exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Constant thoughts about being better (more successful, powerful, smart, loved, or attractive) than others
  • Feelings of superiority and entitlement
  • Desire to only associate with people of perceived high-status
  • Need for excessive admiration and validation
  • Manipulative of others to meet their own goals
  • Lack of empathy
  • Arrogant or snobby behaviors and attitudes
  • Difficulty or inability to apologize or recognize when they're wrong
  • Pattern of selfishness and lack of awareness about selfish behaviors
  • Blaming others and difficulty holding others accountable
  • Frequent excuses and inability to take responsibility

Characteristics of Narcissistic Parents

Your parent’s genetics, childhood, early relationships, general personality and temperament, trauma, and more factors impact their feelings and behavior.

Characteristics of narcissistic parents may include:

  • Focusing all the family's time and attention on themselves
  • Not showing concern or compassion for their children or other family members
  • Blaming others when things don’t go according to plan (i.e., it's always someone else's fault if they're late, forgetful, grumpy, etc.)
  • Not taking ownership of situations or acknowledging wrongs
  • Codependent or controlling and abusive relationships 
  • Rule by domination, fear, manipulation
  • Tease, mock, bully, or gaslight (e.g., they publicly embarrass or shame you)
  • Love feels based on how you behave or respond (conditional)

Traits of Adults Raised by Narcissists

As a child, you may not have had much choice other than to try to meet the demands of the narcissistic parent. If you were raised by narcissists, it will undeniably have some impact on the way you see yourself and your role in the world. This means you may have developed toxic traits or unhelpful ways of thinking about your value and sense of worthiness or purpose. Maybe you have spent years trying to please or earn the recognition, respect, and love from a narcissistic parent only to be continuously let down. 

You may want to consider if you see yourself in any of the traits of adults raised by narcissists below:

  • Low-self esteem or feelings of self-worth
  • Feelings of chronic shame or guilt
  • Overly sensitive to criticism or rejection
  • Dependent relationships where you’re trying to “earn” love and validation
  • Depression and anxiety influenced by a lack of agency or independence during childhood
  • Poor understanding and enforcement of boundaries
  • Challenges with healthy emotional regulation 
  • Competitiveness (to win love)
  • Feeling like you don’t deserve success and happiness
  • Self-destructive and self-harming behaviors 
  • Self-shaming or internalized gaslighting

Mental Health Hotline

If you or a loved one are struggling with self-harming behaviors or other distressing mental health concerns, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

The traits of adults raised by narcissists can also be associated with mental health conditions because of the way they influence how the child feels about themself and the world. With a narcissistic parent, you may have grown up in an environment filled with passive-aggressiveness, tension, and unclear boundaries. You may have witnessed abusive behaviors in your parents' relationship, too. 

The Office on Women’s Health explains that children who witness interpartner violence or domestic violence are at greater risk for repeating the cycle as adults by entering into abusive relationships or becoming abusers themselves. One example is that a boy who sees his mother being abused is 10 times more likely to abuse his female partner as an adult.

Children who witness or are victims of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse are also at higher risk of developing health problems, including mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety and physical health problems such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and others.

Dealing With Narcissistic Parents

Dealing with narcissistic parents is a choice as an adult. You may need to make some hard decisions that include setting new boundaries about what you will and will not tolerate moving forward. It may take time to figure out what type of relationship (if any) that you want to work on with this parent. Ups and downs are to be expected.

When in any relationship with any type of narcissist, it’s good to prioritize self-care and emotional wellbeing. Narcissists can drain energy and twist facts to the point that may have you wondering whether you’re the one with the problem. That’s because the finger has likely always been pointed in your direction.

Here are some ways to deal with narcissistic parents:

  • Remind yourself you are dealing with a narcissist
  • Know you cannot change the narcissist (only they can do that)
  • Avoid questioning yourself or not listening to your gut 
  • Keep in mind that explaining to the narcissist that they’re being narcissistic doesn’t work (they’re not self-aware enough, don’t have enough empathy, and can’t fully receive what you’re saying)
  • Don’t isolate yourself on an island with your narcissistic parent (i.e., work on your other family dynamics and don’t spend all your attention on this one person)
  • Set healthy boundaries about what you will and will not do for them
  • Don’t accept false promises to change after arguments or blowouts with a narcissist
  • Tell them directly the role you want them to play in your life or the life of any future pets, children, etc.
  • Seek external help and support for yourself including mental health help and developing a strong network of emotionally healthy people
  • Be willing to pause or permanently end the relationship if necessary for your own wellbeing

Treatment for Children of Narcissists

As an adult raised by narcissists, you now have many options for dealing with them and coping with unhealthy family dynamics and trauma. You don’t need to repeat the past. You can work towards early childhood traumas not having such a negative impact on your life. 

There is no set treatment plan for children of narcissists. You may decide to do self-work by reading about narcissism and the effects of having a narcissistic parent, put space in between yourself and this person, or see a mental health professional like a counselor or therapist to determine how best to move forward.

If you are considering ways growing up with a narcissist may have impacted your life, it may be helpful to have professional guidance. Depending on their exact training and services, psychotherapists may offer help in the following ways.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy that takes place over several or many sessions. It can help you recognize unhealthy beliefs you learned in childhood and how they may be contributing to your current everyday problems. Your therapist can also share information on narcissism to help you see how it influenced your home dynamics and relationship with your parents.

CBT is all about how to change thought patterns in ways that can help you live the life you want, including how to change the way you feel about yourself and your capabilities so you can work on your goals. These goals may or may not involve the narcissistic parent; that will have to be your choice.

CBT is currently considered the gold standard for certain mental health conditions as it’s the most well-researched form of psychotherapy. However there are other evidenced -based psychotherapies, such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, that can help you better understand and master the impact of your early relationships on your current life.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

If you have lasting effects of living with a narcissistic parent like trauma flashbacks, being easily triggered emotionally, or issues with emotional regulation, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing may be an option for helping you desensitize and reprocess traumatic memories in ways that they become more manageable.

EMDR therapy uses a structured eight-phase approach over multiple sessions that includes:

  • Phase 1: History-taking
  • Phase 2: Preparing the client
  • Phase 3: Assessing the target memory
  • Phases 4-7: Processing the memory to an adaptive resolution
  • Phase 8: Evaluating treatment results

EMDR therapy differs from other trauma-focused treatments in that it does not include extended exposure to the distressing memory, detailed descriptions of the trauma, challenging of dysfunctional beliefs or homework assignments.

Interpersonal Family Therapy

Certain types of family therapy, including interpersonal family therapy may be considered in addition to the other methods of treatment, but typically only if both you and the narcissistic parent agree to work together on your relationship. Getting a narcissist to agree to their role in poor relationships or in toxic behaviors may be particularly challenging since they often believe they can do no wrong.

Seek Help If You Need It

If you are experiencing signs and symptoms of mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, please consider talking to a mental health professional about how you feel right now and consider opening up about your past.

Telling your healthcare provider about any signs and symptoms is always a good choice. Certain medical conditions can be associated with or contribute to whatever you’re experiencing. 

Summary

Growing up with a narcissistic parent is a unique challenge that can have lasting effects on mental and physical health. However, it’s never too late to recognize the role narcissism played in your self-development and to change.

There are many options like CBT and EMDR that can help you deal with trauma, set healthy goals, and find and maintain healthier relationships.

Only you can decide whether or not working on a relationship with a narcissistic parent is worth your time, effort, and energy. Working on healing yourself from damages done, though, will always be worth it. 

A Word From Verywell 

As children, we may not have much choice but to live in the narcissistic parent's shadow. As we grow up, we may recreate these dynamics in our other relationships and may even continue to feel as though we have no autonomy or choice in how we live our lives. We may find ourselves in a frantic dance with the narcissistic parent, trying to please them, win their love, and avoid confrontations that disrupt the narcissist's sense of being all-important.

You don’t need to do that anymore. Now, you really do have the power and opportunity to change the effects of narcissism on your inner child and future self. What you learned can be unlearned and what you feel can change.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does being raised by a narcissistic parent affect a child?

    Being raised by a narcissistic parent can affect a child’s self-esteem. The child may experience poor self-confidence, low self-worth, and have no feelings of unconditional love from the parent. They may develop anxiety, depression, traumatic stress responses and be at an increased risk for physical health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

  • What therapy is best for children of narcissists?

    There are several psychotherapy approaches to help one deal with the impact of a narcissistic parent. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the largest evidence base. It can help children of narcissists to identify narcissistic behaviors, unhealthy belief systems that developed in childhood (i.e., the world revolves around pleasing one person, it’s your job to keep the parent happy, if something goes wrong it's your fault, etc.), and how to work on goals to establish healthier coping mechanisms and relationships.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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