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The Wounded Child: 7 Needs Narcissistic Parents Cannot Provide

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Living with a narcissistic parent can be devastating, complicated, and downright toxic for children. The home, which should embody a comforting place of safety and love, resembles a quasi-battleground where there is only one clear winner.

Furthermore, many of these wounded children grow up falsely believing that their home lives were normal and acceptable. With that said, they experience aching and painful needs that may feel bottomless in their adult lives.  Following are seven things narcissistic parents can never provide to their children.

1 – Attunement To Feelings

Children learn how the world works through the almighty lenses of their caretakers, and research rooted in attachment theories show 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?

2 – Room For Flexibility

Children have fickle and temperamental personalities. One moment, they love ketchup; the next moment, they detest it. One day, they want to become an artist, and the next, they’re telling you they intend to sign up for the military.

According to childhood development research, these identity shifts are both normal and healthy. As children grow, they seek to establish their own identities and understand their proverbial place in this world. Subsequently, they need support and reassurance from their caretakers that they are allowed to engage in this process.

However, in narcissistic homes, this freedom for flexibility doesn’t exist. The child must conform to the parent’s wrath- or face serious consequences. The narcissistic parent holds a rigid view of how their children must act and behave (and it’s typically a mirrored version of the narcissist).

This parent cannot tolerate outside peer or societal influence. Furthermore, this person cannot understand why a child would be “susceptible” to these influences, either. Children, therefore, grow up without ever being certain who to trust or what to believe.

3 – Healthy Communication

Simply put, narcissistic parents do not practice assertive or sensitive communication. They do not consider how the recipient will receive or understand the information. Instead, they use dialogue as a manipulative tool- as a means of furthering their own agendas.

This rupture affects children in profound ways. For one, they rarely feel safe expressing their own feelings. For two, they struggle to understand the nuanced differences between aggression and assertiveness.

That’s because narcissistic parents use a blend of cognitive empathy with aggression to communicate with their children. Regardless, children tend to experience this dreaded sense that it’s always their fault, as this is the mantra reinforced time and time again.

Thus, children will grow up dancing the tango of continuously walking on broken eggshells. In their adult lives, they may struggle with healthy communication patterns in their own relationships.

They may become passive people-pleasers, cowering in the face of authority, always worried about offending or angering other people. Or, they may take on the same, familiar communication habits as their parent, shifting into a narcissist themselves.

4 – Acceptance of Mistakes

In a healthy family system, parents understand (and embrace) the inevitable fallacies of their children. They know that children make mistakes, and they can reasonably accommodate for these inconveniences.

In households driven by narcissism, these mistakes aren’t embraced or accepted. The opposite occurs. The parent perceives mistakes as catastrophes.

That’s because anything beyond the realm of the parent’s rigid image reflects poorly on him or her. That is a hollow feeling the narcissist cannot tolerate.

In these types of households, parents often use physical or emotional abuse as a form of punishment. However, the emotional damage isn’t just in the bounds of criticizing or insulting the child. It’s taken a step further.

The parent continuously abuses the child by making it about the parent. As in, how could you do this to ME? Can’t you see how this affects ME? It’s no longer about the child’s “mistake.” It’s about the parent’s belief that the child has intentionally “harmed” the narcissistic parent.

5 – Conflict Resolution Skills

We know that narcissists do not engage in conflict on an even playing field. In fact, they play on their own field, and they make up their rules and parameters along the way.

The narcissistic parent cannot convey appropriate conflict management. That’s because the narcissist always wins, no matter the context. It’s not an issue of disagreeing or experiencing healthy tension. It’s a matter of, I’m right, you’re wrong, and anyone who thinks otherwise is insane.

When the narcissistic parent becomes angry, there is no compromise or healthy processing of emotions. The entire house shifts to what the narcissist needs at that moment. Many children continuously witness the useless power struggle between their narcissistic parent and their enabling parent. They quickly learn that the narcissistic parent always wins- even if someone else tries to put up a fight.

Again, children in these households will typically struggle with conflict management in their adult lives. Many will attempt to avoid conflict altogether, often emulating placating people-pleasers. These individuals risk repeating childhood patterns and becoming attracted to narcissistic partners.

Other children attempt to restore the power they never had by essentially mimicking the same narcissistic conflict resolution skills as their parent.

6 – Unconditional Love

All children need to experience the inherent sense of universal security and love. They must know and feel that they are worthy and loved- no matter what they do. Unconditional love provides children with a healthy form of attachment to their caregivers, and it also provides them with the self-esteem needed to succeed in the world.

The narcissistic parent does not provide that love.

Instead, they often oscillate between love bombing (when the child is behaving according to the narcissist’s standards) and complete discarding (when the child is acting otherwise).

In other words, love is conditional. It’s based on how the child can fit the needs of the narcissistic parent. It’s based on what the child does and gives- rather than who the child is. And it can change instantaneously.

You can see how this creates a conflicting paradigm throughout childhood. Children cannot anticipate the emotional reactions of their parent. They never know if it’s going to be a good or bad day. And, furthermore, they never know what kind of love (if any) they will receive.

7 – Age-Appropriate Responses

In healthy parent-child relationships, the parent provides age-appropriate responses based on the child’s needs and development. When narcissistic parents interact with their children, they do not accurately attune to the emotional needs of that child. They attune to what they need from the child, and not the other way around.

On the one hand, many narcissistic parents parentify their children. This means they treat the child as if the child is older than her actual age. Likely, they cannot comprehend that children do not operate on the same emotional levels as adults.  

Some parents will use the child for ‘peer support’ by dumping their own adult issues onto the child and expecting legitimate advice and solutions. Other parents may place unrealistic expectations of their children, such as assuming a child will take care of her younger sibling (and then get upset if and when the child asks clarifying questions).

When these children grow up, we see these narcissistic parents engage in infantilizing. In other words, this parent cannot accept that the child grows up into his or her own unique identity and adult self. The parent cannot tolerate the idea of not being needed, desired, or appreciated.

Thus, these parents will attempt to sabotage the natural, developmental process of adulthood. Some try to do this in subtle ways (such as making minor decisions for the child). Others will do it in far more destructive forms (disregarding boundaries, assuming complete responsibility for the child’s well-being).

The Future for Children

Growing up in a narcissistic family can be traumatic for all children. Though the narcissist’s child requires love, affection, flexibility, and encouragement, he or she receives the continuous message that their needs are unreasonable and insulting. It’s a troubling dynamic, and it’s one that can impact a child for the rest of their life.

Healing from the childhood wounding inflicted by the narcissistic parent takes time, but recovery and redefinition of love and acceptance are possible if actions are taken to remove children from toxic environments.  

If you have a child with a narcissistic partner, there is still hope!  Grab your free Beginner’s Healing Toolkit and begin paving a better future for you and your child!

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25 comments
Shattering The Ugly Cycle: 3 Reasons Why You Keep Falling For Narcissists - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program says April 7, 2019

[…] to Overcome Fear After Psychological Narcissistic Abuse The Wounded Child: 7 Needs Narcissistic Parents Cannot Provide Working The 5 Phases of Trauma Recovery After Narcissistic Abuse Healing from Identity Loss […]

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How Narcissists Determine if You're Good Supply - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program says March 10, 2019

[…] to Overcome Fear After Psychological Narcissistic Abuse The Wounded Child: 7 Needs Narcissistic Parents Cannot Provide Working The 5 Phases of Trauma Recovery After Narcissistic Abuse Healing from Identity Loss […]

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Julie Burdick says February 17, 2019

I really wish you would write something about narcissistic fathers and parental alienation. I know so many who abuse their children in this way. How can it be prevented? How can one deal with it when it does happen?

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Bianca says January 22, 2019

This is heart breaking. For almost 7 years I watched my ex partner treat his children exactly as you have described. It left me with a bitter taste in my mouth when I saw it but at first I thought that all I experienced was a different (and working) parenting style/approach.

As with their mother, his children were put in another conflict of loyalty when I decided to leave. When I see them now, I hardly recognise the eldest. It is like she is a completely different person with no clue as to who she is. The youngest has severe social (anxiety) issues and has trouble trusting anyone.
This behaviour in both children is far less apparent when they are with their mother; the woman who has always been angry with me for hijacking Daddy’s love from her children with my own two children, whom, by the way, were severely traumatised by my ex partner too (and luckily getting over this quite well).

It took me some time before the black veil I was under was lifted but I am so glad that all three of us ( my daughter, my son and I) got away from this miscreant. I still feel bad for his children though and possibly also for his new girlfriend.

I hope that one day they will see the truth and act accordingly too.

Thank you for your article.

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Tommy says January 12, 2019

One powerful explanation of the unfortunate confusion . I keep commited to continue to learn and digest as much information as possible throughout my older years along my journey of life .When I was 17 years of age receiving my first tattoos I could never have realized that this I have just read .Was relevant through my misunderstood journey called life .I feel this is a real blessing too be able to understand why I am me . As my mouth hit the floor I now have a understanding of the affects this behavior had on me . The shaking and emotions ran all over me .Finally answers of truths can now take hold of the future of now knowing it was not me .Thankyou all with love and blessings greater than air .I knew unconditional love was part of me thank god I am able to give it willingly too the beautiful people that mean so much too ME .

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Tracey says December 27, 2018

I stayed with my Marc for the sake of keeping my children safe, and by that I mean that I stayed so he didn’t get them alone to abuse them…I thought that as long as I was there then at least I could protect them. Well that all ended up so badly for me and my children because we did end up apart and going through the worst custody battle I could ever imagine and that’s still happening. My children have been physically and sexually abused at this point as well by that monster and still it’s me who’s being put on trial yet again because our narc is claiming he’s so hurt from being alienated from my children. He also is claiming it’s me who’s mentally unstable. It’s the hardest and scariest fight I have ever been through and I’m so scared for my children and even myself at this point. The legal system never seems to care at all what he’s done to the kids and they are only two and four. They listen to all his lies and seemingly couldn’t care less that this is nothing to do with me not caring for my children it’s completely the opposite and that’s me doing everything in my power to save them and protect them. I’m honestly so afraid right now I have no way to accurately describe the feelings the three of us live through every single day.

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    Anonymous says February 17, 2019

    I’m so sorry you’re going through this! I went through it, too, and it took three years before I finally won sole custody. Once that happened, my ex completely lost interest in my daughter and faded out of her life. He just wanted to torture me. Get a good lawyer. Document EVERYTHING. This is the age of the father, in which everyone in the legal system (the country, really!) seems to assume children are better off with their fathers than their mothers, no matter what, but you can prove otherwise. Make sure you never say (or write!) anything negative about him to or in front of your children or any of their caregivers. Don’t make it difficult for him to see the children — I know you’re trying to protect them from him, but that makes you look bad in court and he’ll only wind up with more time with them if you go that route. Get them a good therapist with experience with parental alienation. If you really believe they’ve been sexually abused, take them to the doctor. Accept that your children are going to have to spend time with your ex. In this country even abusive fathers get time with their children. Your job is to look like you want them to have a good relationship with him (even if you don’t), and try to make that happen. If you don’t let him know how much all of this bothers you, he won’t be entertained by it and will eventually stop and go away. Try to make him think you’re happy he’s spending time with the kids so that you get a break — he might start skipping visits if he thinks they’re helping you. It’s awful and scary when you’re in the middle of this, but you can come out ahead.

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Anon says December 27, 2018

Kim,

Glad I found you, your insight and depth of narcissism is breathtaking. Keep up the good work.

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CeeLee says December 10, 2018

This article describes my mother exactly. I’m 55 years old and still have trouble trusting people and my own judgement. My mother made my whole family enablers to her ever changing moods and made us all feel we were failures because she was never satisfied with anything, except alcohol and later on with drugs. It has been a long climb to a place where I can trust my own feelings and perceptions of reality. I’m glad I never married nor had children, so that cycle of abuse ended with me.

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Corinne says November 13, 2018

My mother was a narc, and though I don’t think I am, I do have to admit that when my child was young I had some parenting behaviors that I learned from my mother. It took me a few years to recognize them. I needed her to be perfect in order to see myself as a good mother. Having left my career path for parenting, I needed to be graded and she was my report card. Sick, I know. And I apologize to her still for it. She is tired of that, and we’re very close (the decision to be close to me is hers, I do not force myself on her. That’s my check valve.) The truth is, she was my first child and I needed to do it right or I’d be a failure. That is too much put on a toddler. She’s so wonderful. I’ve learned to be a better listener, to see her for who she is, to encourage her, to back down, to give her space, but I never know what the balance should look like. She’s in therapy. She has anxiety. I wonder every day if I caused it.

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jackie says November 11, 2018

My mother is a narcissist, I grew up thinking i was the worst person on the planet and that she was a god because she was always right. She hated me and treated me with contempt. Everything in this article hit home. The sad part is that I didn’t realize that she was the sick, abnormal person and I was normal one and none of it was my fault until I was in middle aged. My problem now is that I really can’t stand her but she wants a relationship with me, I don’t know where to draw this line. I find it difficult to have a genuine loving relationship with her because I hate her. I only want to talk about surface stuff and don’t want her to know anything about me or what i’m doing in life.

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Elizabeth says October 29, 2018

I am currently trying to get out of a relationship with my daughter’s father. After months of no help from lawyers or the courts, I finally got him out of the house. I’m frustrated because I know he will fight for access to his daughter, but I know it’s more about punishing me than about having a relationship with her. How can we co parent in a healthy manner when he isn’t a healthy individual?

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    Anonymous says February 17, 2019

    Pretend you’re happy he’s spending time with her. If he sees it doesn’t bother you, he may fade out of the picture. Mine did.

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Alex says October 23, 2018

I have a friend that recently divorced from his narcissistic wife. He currently has custody of their two girls. However, he is still trying to recover from the trauma and constantly fails and attempts to return to her. Since they have children together, no contact will not be able to be done completely. What advice can you give on that or what articles do you have on that topic?

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Karen says October 22, 2018

What a powerful article! I identified with all of it so much, I had to read it twice. My narcissistic parents constantly gave or took away their “love” based on how I performed. It was devastating and it has continued on. I was always told “you don’t love US” or “how could you do this to US”, anytime I messed up in any way. I was expected to be perfect, to have zero flaws, to question nothing, and any feeling I had, was coldly denied. It has taken me to the age of 54 to realize what happened to me, and, would be continuing, if I hadn’t walked AWAY. Articles like these are life savers. Thank you!

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Michael says October 9, 2018

Hi Kim,

As a father who has just left a toxic relationship at the beginning of this month, I am concerned for my children since they will continue to live with my ex. How can I help them while they remain in that environment? They are both teenagers now, becoming more independant and following their own interests. They are not interested in moving back and forth between us and it doesn’t help that I am in an apartment which is significantly smaller than the house they are in. The apartment does not have separate bedrooms for each of them and I struggle to see how I can make it feel like home to them.

I feel like I am too late to help them. What can I do for them at this point?

Any advice will be appreciated. Take care, and thanks for everything you do!

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Karen says October 9, 2018

I wish i would have read this when my adult children were small. In reading this, I see my abuser doing these exact things but I’m also wondering if I did some of this as well.

I’m still trying to escape my abuser who now claims to be homeless, can’t understand why no one including his kids will help him, and does not know where he went wrong. I guess explaing again will be fruitless. I also know that I need to be strong and not let him back.

Escaping has been a long slow process, I know I have C-PTSD, but I am making progress. I’ve come a long way especially this past year.

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    Sue says October 12, 2018

    Dear Karen, please stay strong. If pee-wee is homeless, too bad, so sad ;/ such is, evidently, the outcome of his malicious behavior.

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Shirley Akpelu says October 9, 2018

I pray my son is able to discard the evil and cling to good deeds that he saw in our home. I did apologize to him for putting him through this abuse and asked forgiveness. I thought it was better to stay with the abuser for the sake of the children. Now I know that was wrong.

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    Paige says October 23, 2018

    Me. too.

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Helen Byrne says October 9, 2018

I was born into dysfunction.Both parents were narcs/sociopaths.one malignant covert other sadistic and cold.I have endured life long abuse,theres not much of me left.Dont even know who Helen was.x

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Anonymous says October 9, 2018

Hi Kim. I recently opened a past wound that my son have experienced from his narc father. I thought I needed to walk him through that situation again because I wasnt able to protect and defend him during that time he got brutally whipped and put inside a hen’s cage. Did I do the right thing? I am trying to correct and process that incident according to his understanding now that we’re almost a year out and free? I wasnt able to defend him because it happened in public having 2 other witnesses and felt that I might aggravate the situation. He’s been shouting at me not to interfere. I fear that I might be making my son relive that memory again and react differently in the long run. I assured my son that we wont be needing to go back to that old life again and that we are safe now.

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    Kim Saeed says October 14, 2018

    Hi Anon,

    It’s best to let a professional trauma therapist help your son. It may not be appropriate for him to relive the incident at this time. A trauma specialist would be able to help him process this incident, as well as the many others he endured while you were in that relationship.

    Kim

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Joyce Short says October 9, 2018

What a terrific and insightful post! Well done!

Unfortunately, a Narcissist parent who reads this is likely to think, nope, that wasn’t me. Hopefully; however, children who grew up with these issues will begin to secure the relief and understanding that can lead them onto a healing path.

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