How To Deal With A Narcissistic Parent: A Guide For Adult Children

how to deal with a narcissistic parent

Having a narcissistic parent can be incredibly challenging. Their self-absorption, lack of empathy, and controlling behaviors often leave a lasting impact on their children. Even as adults, many struggle to manage complex dynamics and forge a functional relationship.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the signs of a narcissistic parent, how their behaviors affect children, and most importantly, how adult kids can set boundaries and prioritize their well-being.

What Are The Signs Of A Narcissistic Parent?

Narcissism exists on a spectrum. Some parents may display a few mild narcissistic tendencies, while others have a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

According to the Mayo Clinic, key signs of pathological narcissism include:

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • A strong sense of entitlement and expectation of preferential treatment
  • An intense need for admiration and validation
  • A preoccupation with fantasies about power and success
  • A belief they are superior and special
  • A tendency to exploit others for personal gain
  • A lack of empathy
  • An inability to handle criticism or feedback
  • Arrogant, haughty behaviors

Narcissistic parents often see their children as extensions of themselves, rather than as individuals. They may try to micromanage their child’s life well into adulthood.

Other problematic behaviors can include picking favorites, shaming, guilt-tripping, and lashing out when they don’t get their way. Their needs always take precedence over others.

How Does A Narcissistic Parent Impact Children?

“Children adapt themselves to the limiting narcissistic parent in order to survive,” explains licensed clinical social worker Darlene Lancer.

Unfortunately, this leads to several maladaptive patterns that can plague kids well into adulthood. Common effects include:

Poor Self-Esteem: When a parent constantly criticizes, shames, or ignores a child’s needs, it deeply damages their self-worth. Their inner voice echoes the parent’s criticism.

People-Pleasing: Children of narcissists learn their needs aren’t important. They become conditioned to serve others at their own expense.

Difficulty Setting Boundaries: With no modeling of healthy limits, adult kids struggle to set boundaries in relationships. They feel guilty saying no.

Attachment Issues: Emotional neglect impedes a child’s ability to form secure attachments in adulthood. They may cling to partners or become isolated.

Depression and Anxiety: Continual narcissistic abuse often leads to mood disorders, due to high levels of stress.

Doubt In One’s Own Reality: Narcissistic parents use gaslighting techniques and distort the truth. Over time, children question their perceptions.

Relationship Issues: Growing up unable to trust one’s emotions or needs fosters dysfunctional relationship patterns in adulthood.

How To Set Boundaries With A Narcissistic Parent

Setting firm boundaries is essential for minimizing a narcissistic parent’s toxic impact.

“Have compassion for yourself and recognize you’re dealing with someone with a personality disorder,” advises Lancer. “You can love them, but love yourself enough to breathe and detach.”

Here are some boundary tips for coping with a narcissistic parent:

Limit Contact: You have the right to control how much contact you have. Minimizing time together helps lessen opportunities for manipulation or toxicity.

Refuse Guilt Trips: Narcissistic parents often use guilt to control adult children. Recognize that you aren’t obligated to give in to guilt-ridden demands.

Don’t Explain Your Choices: Narcissistic parents see explanations as openings for arguments. Stick to “I’m unavailable” without detail when declining requests.

Speak Calmly: Set an example through your own responses. Getting defensive or angry feeds their narcissistic supply.

Leave When Necessary: If tensions escalate, politely excuse yourself. “I can see we aren’t making progress. Let’s take a break and revisit this later.”

Allow Natural Consequences: Don’t shield them from the results of their actions. If they offend others at a party with rude comments, allow them to experience the natural social consequences.

Respond, Don’t React: Reacting with high emotion creates more chaos. Instead, respond thoughtfully in a way that honors your boundaries.

Should You Go No Contact With A Narcissistic Parent?

In some cases, limiting contact with a narcissistic parent isn’t enough. Completely cutting ties, at least temporarily, is necessary for your health and well-being.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Angela Grace, signs it’s time to go no contact include:

  • You dread interactions or visits with them
  • You feel upset or emotionally unsettled for days after contact
  • Your mental health suffers (severe anxiety, depression, panic attacks)
  • You turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like overeating or substance abuse
  • You apologize and fix things to “keep the peace”, even when you’re not at fault

“Your first responsibility is to take care of yourself and do what you need to build a healthy life,” says Grace. “If that means taking a break from the relationship, that’s okay.”

If going no contact isn’t feasible, keep interactions brief and superficial. Share minimally when asked about your life to give them less ammunition.

How To Handle Narcissistic Parents At Family Events

Maintaining boundaries with a narcissistic parent often proves challenging during family events like reunions or weddings.

“Anticipate having to interact with them and plan ahead,” Grace recommends. Having coping strategies ready helps lessen anxiety.

Tip #1: Set Expectations

Before the event, have a phone call to set expectations. “I want us both to be able to enjoy this wedding. Let’s agree to avoid discussing politics or rehashing old issues,” etc.

Tip #2: Bring An Ally

Having an empathetic family member or friend by your side provides crucial support. They can help deflect negative interactions or allow you to exit gracefully. (“Jenny needs help outside. Please excuse us.”)

Tip #3: Have An Escape Plan

Drive yourself so you can leave when needed. Identify calming areas or activities if tensions run high (walking outside, distracting yourself with a game on your phone).

Tip #4: Limit Alcohol

Drinking lowers inhibitions, so avoid overindulging around a narcissistic parent. You want full control of your faculties.

Tip #5: Connect With Supportive Relatives

Spend ample time chatting with relatives who bring you comfort. Don’t let the narcissistic parent monopolize your time.

Tip #6: Keep Interactions Brief

If cornered, politely chat briefly then look for an opening to move on. “I’d love to catch up more, but I need to check on Grandma. Excuse me.”

How To Handle Narcissistic Parents During The Holidays

Like weddings or reunions, holidays mean guaranteed extended time with family. When a narcissistic parent is involved, they can become an emotional minefield.

Below are some strategies to maintain equilibrium:

  • Share Limited Information: Don’t hand them fodder to use against you later. Keep conversation superficial.
  • Have An Exit Strategy: Drive yourself and book a hotel room nearby so can you leave and regroup as needed.
  • Enlist Help: Ask your partner or another family member for help running interference.
  • Prioritize Your Nuclear Family: Focus on your spouse and kids, not the narcissistic parent’s demands.
  • Express Appreciation: Praise your parent for small gestures. Narcissists love compliments.
  • Set Aside Private Time: Being constantly together breeds irritation. Take regular breaks to unwind alone.
  • Connect With Supportive Relatives: Make time to speak with family members who have your back.
  • Allow Others To Witness Behavior: It curbs their worst behavior if witnesses are present.
  • Limit Alcohol: Overindulging impairs judgment and reduces patience for managing narcissists.

Why Therapy Helps Adult Children Of Narcissists

Seeking counseling provides vital support for coping with the impacts of childhood narcissistic abuse. The perspective gained helps:

  • Resolve anxiety, depression, and relationship issues
  • Challenge negative core beliefs created in childhood
  • Develop healthier communication and boundary skills
  • Process feelings of grief, anger, and resentment
  • Reduce or stop people-pleasing and co-dependent behaviors
  • Cultivate self-care, self-esteem, and self-compassion

“Therapy is invaluable for understanding a narcissistic parent’s motivations and making sense of your past,” says Grace. “You develop clarity and strategies for moving forward in healthier ways.”

Support groups can also help reduce feelings of isolation. Sharing stories and advice with others raised by narcissists brings comfort and validation. It helps to speak with people who have walked similar journeys.

Tips For Validation When You Have A Narcissistic Parent

One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with a narcissistic parent is feeling invalidated. These tips can help you find the validation you need:

Talk To A Therapist: Therapy helps reframe distorted narratives and provides a consistent source of validation.

Join A Support Group: Support groups validate you’re not alone. Hearing similar struggles is validating.

Speak With Trusted Friends/Family: Chosen family who know your story can empathize and validate your feelings.

Write In A Journal: Journaling lets you validate yourself through your own words and lived experience.

Limit Time Together: The less contact, the fewer opportunities for invalidation.

Learn About NPD: Understanding it’s an illness beyond their control brings validation.

Separate Their Opinion From Truth: Remember their invalidating words reflect their disorder, not absolute truth.

Practice Self-Validation: Actively counter harmful self-talk by replacing it with kind, validating thoughts.

Reminisce On Your Accomplishments: Make a mental list of all you’ve achieved, in spite of having a narcissistic parent.

Spend Time With Your Kids: The unconditional love of your own children is deeply validating.

In Conclusion

Being raised by a narcissistic parent often burdens adult children with a complex range of issues, from chronic self-doubt to problems with intimacy. Seeking professional counseling provides the best avenue for untangling the past and discovering your self-worth.

While you can’t change a narcissistic parent, you can change your own responses through boundaries and detachment. With concerted effort, it’s possible to minimize their emotional damage and negativity, while still retaining some degree of contact.

Most importantly, be gentle with yourself. Recognize you’re healing from a profound wound. Give yourself permission to do whatever it takes to rebuild your sense of self. That might mean temporarily limiting contact or eliminating it entirely.

Despite the challenges, many adult children find life gets easier with time and distance. As you cultivate confidence and self-compassion, their hurtful words begin to lose their grip. You start reclaiming control of your happiness.

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