Children with perverse narcissism can cause considerable disruption to their families and others. They are often manipulative, liars, and frequently use guilt and shame to achieve their ends. Unfortunately, they can also be particularly imperious and difficult to understand.
In this article, I describe the characteristics of narcissistic children and the difficulties they face as adults. I will focus on the complex dynamic between an empathetic parent and a narcissistic child, while outlining effective strategies for managing their behavior and protecting oneself from the emotional impact of their actions.
Table of contents
- What is narcissism?
- Narcissistic Neurosis
- Characteristics of a narcissistic child
- Causes of narcissism
- What defines an ‘extreme’ narcissist?
- Difficulties in the relationship between an empathic parent and a narcissistic child.
- Can a narcissist recognise that they are a narcissist?
- Difficulty in setting boundaries
- What to do when a narcissistic child keeps blaming the parent?
- What are the main tools for getting out of such a relationship?
- Knowing how to set limits
- Find the strength to set boundaries.
- What can be the consequences for a parent when they set limits for their narcissistic child?
- Find activities that make you feel good
What is narcissism?
Narcissistic neurosis is a term used to describe a personality disorder characterized by an excessive need for attention and admiration, a lack of compassion for others and a high sensitivity to criticism. Narcissistic neurosis can be diagnosed by a mental health professional or a trained coach. People with this disorder often have an inflated ego and a constant need to validate their self-image.
Modern psychology tends to regard narcissism as a personality disorder rather than a neurosis. Neurosis is a term used in psychology to describe a state of mental or emotional suffering that can interfere with a person’s ability to function in their daily life. Neuroses can manifest in symptoms such as anxiety, depression, phobias, or obsessions.
Neuroses are generally considered to be adjustment disorders, i.e., mental disorders that develop when a person is unable to adapt effectively to the stresses and demands of daily life. Neuroses can result from past trauma, dysfunctional family relationships, social pressures, or genetic factors.
It is important to note that “neurosis” is more commonly used in historical or psychoanalytic contexts, less so in contemporary clinical psychology contexts. According to the DSM-5*, neuroses have been replaced by anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, etc.
Characteristics of a narcissistic child
Narcissistic children may have several distinctive features, such as
- A constant need for attention and admiration
- Arrogance and excessive self-esteem
- A lack of empathy for others
- A tendency to see themselves as superior to others
- Manipulative behavior to get what they want
- A tendency to blame others for their actions
- A tendency to lie and cheat to get what they want
- An inability to accept criticism or negative feedback
- A tendency to be hostile and vindictive towards those who bother them.
Causes of narcissism
Many factors can contribute to the development of narcissistic neurosis in a child, a personality disorder characterized by an excessive need for attention and admiration and a lack of compassion for others.
The family environment can play an essential role in developing a narcissistic neurosis. Children who grew up in families overprotected and overvalued or who experienced trauma may be more likely to develop narcissistic traits later in life.
Life experiences can also contribute to the development of narcissistic neurosis. People who have experienced trauma such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or witnessed violence or high levels of family conflict may be more likely to develop narcissistic personality disorders.
Genetic factors may also play a role in the development of narcissistic neurosis. Research shows a genetic component to all personality disorders, including narcissistic neurosis.
These factors do not necessarily cause narcissistic neurosis but may increase the risk of developing the condition.
Understanding the projective identification
Dealing with a narcissistic child or a narcissistic child who has become an adult can be tricky, but understanding the concept of projective identification can be helpful for parents. Projective identification occurs when a person unconsciously projects their feelings onto another person.
This projection can be particularly difficult for parents who are faced with it. Narcissistic children often project their insecurities onto others, starting with parents, and expect them to fulfill all their needs and desires. They may also think highly of themselves and their qualities and expect others to confirm their self-worth constantly.
So what can parents do to deal with this behavior?
Setting limits and taking care of oneself are essential. It may include limiting contact with the adult child, seeking support from others, and building a positive self-image outside the relationship.
Parents must remember that their adult child’s behavior is not their fault and are not responsible for the feelings or actions the adult continues to display.
To better understand how projective identification works, here are some examples of how a narcissistic child may project onto their parent:
– A child who is insecure about their intelligence may criticize the parent for not being smart enough.
– A child with identity issues may expect the parent always to know the correct answers and make the right decisions.
– A child who feels inadequate in social situations may expect his parents to be more outgoing and popular.
– A child who struggles with self-esteem may seek validation and attention from the parent.
Recognizing that the child is projecting their emotions onto the parent can help the parent empathize and understand while setting healthy boundaries. Parents need to prioritize their emotional well-being while remaining present for their children.
Although it can be difficult for a parent to accept and change this dynamic, setting boundaries and addressing narcissistic behaviors early on can benefit both parties’ emotional health.
What defines an ‘extreme’ narcissist?
The terms ‘narcissist’ and ‘extreme narcissist’ are often used interchangeably, but they may differ in degree depending on the source.
An extreme narcissist, or ‘pathological narcissist’, is a person who exhibits the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder more markedly and intensely.
These people may have a greater tendency to use manipulation and abuse to get what they want and can be very difficult to live with and manage. NPMs can also be very good at diverting the attention of others from their inappropriate behavior and can be very difficult to identify. They often have difficulties in establishing healthy emotional relationships.
Difficulties in the relationship between an empathic parent and a narcissistic child.
Empathetic parents may find it difficult to understand their child’s self-centred and manipulative behaviour, leading to feelings of frustration and disappointment.
On the other hand, the child may find it difficult to understand the empathic nature of their parent and see it as a weakness. This dynamic can lead to a strained relationship and a lack of mutual understanding and respect. As the child grows into an adult, the difficulties in this relationship may become more pronounced, making the situation difficult for both parties to manage.
Can a narcissist recognise that they are a narcissist?
It can be difficult for a person with narcissistic tendencies to recognise and admit their disorder, as they may not see it as a problem. Narcissistic people often have a high sense of their own importance and may not be able to understand how their behaviour affects others. It is possible, but unlikely, that a person with narcissistic personality disorder will be aware of their condition and seek help to understand and change their behaviour.
Difficulty in setting boundaries
One of the most difficult aspects of the relationship between an empathetic parent and their narcissistic child is the parent’s ability to set boundaries and say ‘no’ to their child’s constant demands. Narcissists often feel that everything is theirs and may make unreasonable demands of those around them. An empathetic parent may find it difficult to say no to their child’s demands, as they may feel guilty or want to avoid confrontation.
However, this can lead to the parent constantly giving in to their child’s demands, which can be detrimental to both the parent and the child in the long run. It is essential for the parent to set clear boundaries and enforce them firmly, even if it is difficult.
An empathetic parent can successfully say no to their child by learning to put themselves first and set clear boundaries. The parent needs to understand that their child’s emotional structure – especially if they are now an adult – is their own problem and that they are not responsible for their child’s worth.
The parent also needs to work on self-esteem to ensure that they do not feel guilty about saying no to their child. They can also seek professional help to manage complex relationships.
What to do when a narcissistic child keeps blaming the parent?
Blaming is one of the narcissist’s lethal weapons to get what they want, so it is essential to know how to avoid being manipulated. Here are some examples of phrases that can help you deal with your child’s blaming:
- “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’m not responsible for your feelings”
- “I understand that you are angry, but I don’t agree with your blame, and I won’t accept it”
- “I know you have needs, but I am not available for you all the time. I have to take care of myself too.”
- “I understand that you have opinions, but I have no intention of changing mine to please you.”
- “I’m sorry if I may have hurt you, but I don’t feel responsible for your emotions.”
- “I am willing to discuss this with you, but I cannot accept your blame and accusations. I’m going to end this conversation for now, and we can talk about it again later when we are both calmer.”
Remember that setting boundaries and being assertive with your child can be difficult and time consuming. Remember not to allow yourself to be manipulated and to continue to set those boundaries in a clear and direct way.
What are the main tools for getting out of such a relationship?
Using silence as a tool to manage relationships with a narcissistic child.
Silence is an effective tool for managing relationships with your narcissistic child. It can help reduce unnecessary or harmful interactions and avoid conflict.
Silence can avoid immediate conflicts, but it does not solve long-term problems. It is also essential to find sustainable solutions to manage the relationship and to combine them with other strategies.
For example, setting clear boundaries, practising assertiveness and seeking professional and friendly support to manage the relationship effectively are practical and easy to implement.
Here are some examples of phrases that can help set boundaries in a relationship with your child.
- “I don’t agree with what you are saying/doing, and it makes me uncomfortable”
- “I respect your opinion, but I don’t agree. I will continue to think differently.”
- “I am sorry, but I cannot do what you are asking. It goes against my limits.”
- “I understand that you have needs, but I am not available for you at all times. I also need to take care of myself.”
- “I understand that you are angry, but I will not tolerate name calling or verbal abuse.”
- “I am aware that this conversation is going nowhere, I will end it and we can talk about it later when we are both calmer.”
Remember that setting boundaries can be difficult, especially if you are used to giving in to your child’s demands. So it’s important to practise using these phrases and to be clear and direct when your boundaries are crossed.
Knowing how to set limits
There are a number of other tools that can help you get out of a harmful relationship with your child:
Setting clear boundaries
It is essential to define the limits of what you are willing to accept in a relationship as a parent and to make it clear that unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated.
Learn to say no
People with this emotional structure tend to want to have the last word and get what they want at any cost. You need to learn to say no and not give in to multiple pressures.
Focus on yourself
These relationships can be emotionally draining. It is essential to take care of yourself and spend time on activities that make you feel good.
Avoid justifying yourself
Narcissists tend not to listen to others and want to have the last word. It is not advisable to justify yourself to them.
Seek professional help
These relationships are often difficult to manage alone. Seeing a therapist or counsellor for support and advice can be very helpful.
Learn to protect yourself emotionally
To better cope with the intensity of the relationship, you should surround yourself with positive people and practice meditation, breathing or writing techniques to deal with the emotions.
Find the strength to set boundaries.
It can be difficult to set boundaries with your child after years of unacceptable behaviour, but here are some steps that can help you find the strength to do so:
Make a list of your boundaries
Take time to think about your child’s unacceptable behaviour and write it down on a list. This will help you to be clear about what you will no longer tolerate in your relationship.
Work on your self-esteem
Emotionally unstable people tend to undermine the self-esteem of those around them. It is essential to work on your own self-esteem to feel more secure and confident in setting boundaries.
It is essential to be assertive and say no clearly and directly when your boundaries are crossed.
It can be helpful to talk to a therapist or counsellor for support and advice on managing the relationship with your child.
It is important to remember that setting boundaries with your child can take time and perseverance. So don’t expect immediate results and keep setting boundaries.
Take care of yourself.
Take care of yourself by doing activities that make you feel good, spending time with positive people and giving yourself love and compassion.
What can be the consequences for a parent when they set limits for their narcissistic child?
When a parent sets limits for a narcissistic child, he or she can expect to encounter some resistance. The child may react negatively, by being aggressive, throwing tantrums or making threats to get what they want. They may also withdraw emotionally and ignore the limits set by the parent.
However, by setting clear limits and respecting them, parents can learn to manage their child’s excessive demands and better protect their own mental and emotional health.
In doing so, they can also help their child to develop their own capacity for independence, to respect the limits of others and to be more aware of the needs and feelings of others.
Fear that their narcissistic child will cut them off can be a major factor preventing a parent from setting boundaries with their child. Narcissists can be very good at manipulating others to get what they want, and they may use the threat of cutting off as a weapon to achieve their ends. The parent may feel trapped between the desire to maintain a relationship with their child and the need to set boundaries to protect their own mental and emotional health.
The fear of losing the relationship with the child may also make the parent more vulnerable to manipulation by the child, which may increase the child’s excessive demands and requirements of the parent. The parent may feel guilty about not being able to give the child everything he or she wants. They may feel responsible for their child’s happiness.
It is important to note that setting limits does not necessarily mean cutting off your child. Rather, it means setting clear boundaries and enforcing them firmly and respectfully through caring communication and conscious decision making. The parent can also explore therapeutic support options to help manage their own emotions and improve their relationship with their child.
Cutting the energy links between you and your child can be a useful approach. Imagine that you are cutting all the energetic ties that connect you to the narcissistic part of your child.
This does not necessarily mean that you cut off all contact with your child, but simply that you change the energetic dynamic between the two of you to create a healthier relationship in which you feel more comfortable. You may wish to consult someone who knows energy cleansing techniques to help you do this.
However, your child may cut you off when you decide to end this aspect of the relationship or set clear boundaries.
This can be difficult to deal with, but here are some steps that can help you deal with this situation:
Prepare yourself mentally
It is important to prepare yourself for the possibility that the person may cut you off. This will help you to be less caught off guard if this happens, especially if it is your child.
Don’t feel guilty
It is important to remember that the decision to cut ties is the person’s, for them, not yours. Don’t feel guilty about their behaviour.
Surround yourself with positive people
It is important to surround yourself with positive people who will support you through this.
Find activities that make you feel good
It is important to spend time doing things that make you feel good, such as reading, exercising or spending time with friends.
Get professional help
If you are struggling to cope, it may be helpful to see a therapist or counsellor for support and advice.
Learn to accept yourself as you are
Remember that you are a valuable person, worthy of love and respect, even if this person no longer wants you in their life, this does not define you as an individual.
The issue of the manipulative child is complex and requires a holistic approach tailored to each situation. Understanding that these behaviours may be the result of a difficult family or social context and that care must be directed towards helping the individual and the family is a crucial first step.
It is also important to work on prevention by making adults aware of these behaviours and teaching them how to deal with them. It is recommended to consult a psychologist or psychiatrist, depending on the degree of the behaviour, to assess the situation and set up an appropriate management strategy.
If your child is a teenager, or has become an adult, and persists in wanting what he or she wants and makes you feel guilty if you do not meet his or her demands, it is necessary to remain calm and firm in your responses.
You can say something like: “I have to take care of myself now. I have to put myself first.” Remind your daughter that you love her and will always be there for her, but that you have chosen to take care of yourself first.
Maintaining your boundaries and not feeling guilty, taking time for yourself, being happy and living your life is one of the most important keys to changing your situation and freeing yourself from this hold.
*The DSM-5(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5ᵉ edition) is a manual used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders. It is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used in the United States and many other countries.