Narcissism is one of the most insidious character disorders in existence.
It’s often difficult to recognize, especially in your own children. You might feel as if there’s something just a little off about their behavior, but finding that your child might be a narcissist is difficult to accept.
It raises all sorts of feelings for you as the parent. Where did you go wrong? What could you have done better, if anything?
It’s vital to remember that there is no definitive science that points to you as the cause of your child’s narcissistic tendencies or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
There are several theories that may explain how these traits develop, and one maintains that having a parent who is narcissistic can lead to some children developing the disorder themselves. But, we’re now learning that what we originally believed about the origins of narcissism is not so cut and dry.
So then, what could be the cause? How do you recognize it, and more importantly, how can you deal with it?
How to Know if You’re the Parent of Adult Narcissistic Children
Children learn how the world works through the almighty lenses of their caretakers, and research rooted in attachment theories shows that. When a caretaker attunes appropriately to the child’s feelings and needs, the child subsequently experiences safety and security.
However, in narcissistic families, children experience repeated incidents of their parent misattuning, misaligning, or downright ignoring their feelings. The parent does not validate the child’s emotions; the parent validates whatever is in the parent’s best interest.
The narcissistic parent may punish children for crying, shame them for experiencing fear, and even quell them when expressing ‘too much’ happiness. In other words? Children learn that their feelings are erratic and unsafe. They learn that they are a source of problems.
For this reason, many children grow up believing that feelings must be suppressed. To achieve this suppression, we see many children of narcissists struggle with substance use, eating disorders, self-harm, and other impulsive or compulsive lifestyles.
After all, if they’ve experienced compounded years of condemnation for having feelings, why should they feel safe within their own emotional selves? In many cases, this can cause a child to form narcissistic personality traits. (In other cases, children will form submissive personality traits).
There are a few signs of narcissistic behavior that parents should watch out for:
- Inflated ego: The narcissist has a huge ego. Narcissistic adult children demand that you do what they want, try to control you, and push every boundary. Every time you give them what they want, they demand something else. They say your job is to make them happy.
- Need for validation: A narcissist needs constant admiration. Often, they need praise for simple tasks, like making an appearance at your birthday party. You may find yourself giving your narcissistic adult child an inordinate amount of praise over something that’s a normal and expected part of family life.
- A sense of entitlement: The narcissist feels entitled to things they should have to work for. For example, they may demand ridiculous things like financial support well into adulthood. Or, tasks they should be doing themselves, but you find yourself performing…such as doing their laundry and folding their clothes, filling out their job applications, calling into work sick for them, or fixing their breakfast or lunch to take to work.
- Exploitation: A narcissist acts without conscience, thinking only of themselves. They lie, trick and steal to get what they want. This exploitation can be glaringly obvious or very subtle, so be on the lookout if you feel used. This may manifest as their throwing temper tantrums, blackmailing you by withholding their love or your grandchildren, trying to entice you with sweetness and affection when they want something, and blaming their behavior on you.
- Distorted thinking: A narcissist occupies a fantastical world where he or she is the greatest and most important person in the universe. In order to maintain the fantasy, narcissists lie. They often deny things that are obvious. They may make up fantastical tales to support the fantasy.
- Unpleasant personality: Contempt and belittlement are the narcissists’ tools of choice. When they feel threatened by success, they get mean. Watch out for those who are constantly putting down other people’s accomplishments. You may find your narcissistic adult child talking badly about their friends behind their backs, but pretending to care for them when these same friends come around.
How Normal Toddlers Grow to Become Adult Narcissistic Children
Narcissism is a condition that can form early on and manifests more clearly in adults. However, doctors are reluctant to diagnose and treat the disorder in people under 18. That’s because it can be tricky to discern whether the behaviors listed above are the result of narcissism or normal childhood development phases.
So how did this happen? There are a number of probable causes for narcissistic behavior:
- Genetics: Inherited genetics are believed in some cases to be the reason for the development of narcissism, which oftentimes forms in childhood. That’s why it’s so important not to have children with anybody who shows signs of narcissism in the first place. They could pass this disorder on to the kids.
- Neurobiology: There have been some studies on patients with diagnosed NPD that show that neurobiology may play a role in narcissism. A narcissist’s brain simply may not work the same way as yours. They process others’ feelings, yet feel no empathy.
- Environment: Certain familial environments seem to nurture this disorder. They include living with a narcissistic parent in an absence of love and affection, or in a highly competitive environment. Neglect, abuse, and even excessive idolization of a child can contribute. Most children who grow up with a narcissistic parent in the household typically either become narcissists or codependents as adults.
How to Manage Your Relationship with Adult Narcissistic Children
Dealing with a narcissistic adult child is a lose-lose situation.
When you face off with your adult child, you only want to help them. But you can’t. Narcissism generally develops during childhood. Once your child is no longer a child, it’s often too late to treat the disorder.
The narcissism grows to be a part of their personality. It’s an extension of themselves. Therapists say that some people with narcissism don’t even know they have it. These people have no desire to get “better”. They don’t see that there’s anything wrong with them in the first place.
Changing Your Point of View
Narcissists have managed to delude themselves into thinking that they are perfect, and so have no real desire to change. You won’t help them become better people. You’ll only be able to help them reach selfish goals, often at your own expense. That’s not really helping anyone.
So how do you get out of this lose-lose situation and make it a win-win?
By taking away the hyphen. It is not a double-sided situation, with your outcome on one hand and the outcome for your child on another. The outcome for you is what you must think of. Your adult child’s outcome is his or her own responsibility now, not yours.
Stop seeing things from your adult child’s point of view, because your child’s point of view is likely selfish and irrational.
As hard as it is, stop fighting. Acceptance of your child’s personality and behavior doesn’t mean that you go along with it, giving in to their demands. Quite the opposite. It means accepting that your child will never change while standing up to their exploitative behavior.
Recognize that you love them dearly. Accept that they likely do not and cannot love you back. Realize that no matter what you do for them, it will never be enough. This will save you a lifetime of heartache and is the only way to protect yourself.
If you keep trying to change the relationship, your child will keep fighting you. Likewise, if you continue giving in to their demands and allowing them to use you, you’ll never find happiness.
Let them know that this is the way you feel. Don’t listen to their arguments, and don’t believe their proclamations about changing.
Oftentimes, the only surefire method in dealing with a narcissistic adult child is cutting off contact. It’s incredibly difficult to do this, especially when it comes to your children.
Delete and block your child’s phone number. Be prepared for them to contact you anyway and be ready to walk away. You must steel yourself against their reaction. When you decide enough is enough, make sure you have a support system of loving family and friends around you.
You can also join a support group that caters to other victims of narcissistic behavior. It can help exponentially to talk about your feelings and find strength within a group.
Eventually, your child will get the message and stop fighting you.
Dealing with Your Adult Narcissistic Children Means Taking Control of Your Life
Dealing with an adult narcissistic child is painful and difficult. However, confronting the problem is something you have to do to improve your own life and stop the cycle of abuse. The only path with hope is to stop giving them anything, to demand civil behavior, or to cut off contact.
To learn more about narcissistic behavior and how to break free from it, check out our online courses.
In the Break Free Program, you’ll have the opportunity to connect with other parents who have discovered that their adult children have become narcissists. Many of the same approaches and boundaries used with other types of narcissists are largely the same ones used with narcissistic children.
Remember, you have the power to change your life.