Was it really like that?
What is a narcissistic parent? How can it affect a child growing up in a home with a narcissist parent? Sometimes when clients talk to me about their childhoods, they are aware that for various reasons, their parents and their home environment were different to other people’s. Often however, they don’t truly appreciate how different their parents were until they have children of their own. Something in the experience of raising their own children broke through their longstanding denial and rationalisation – they are able to say “actually my parents were neglectful – they had no interest in meeting my emotional needs as a child.”
These reactions are very often deeply unsettling for them – it can be extremely hard for an individual to say anything critical about a parent – but at the same time, this can set the stage for self-understanding and even healing.
No parent is perfect
Our parents are the foundation of our first attachment to the world. As infants, we learn by their example how to bond with others. We derive our initial sense of our self-worth from how they care for us, nurture us, protect and shield us from harm.
Of course no parent is perfect and most do the very best they can for their children. The psychological needs of children can be neglected for all sorts of reasons, including parental addiction, family breakup, poverty, violence, and serious mental illness. However, it is becoming more widely accepted today that the effects of emotional neglect by a narcissistic parent are particularly deep rooted and difficult to acknowledge and can be challenging to overcome in adulthood.
In part, this is because the neglect is generally rationalised and normalised by the parent in ways that are extremely confusing to child. Such a child grows up believing that his or her needs were not important, and that the parent’s treatment was actually appropriate and loving. The child may even feel guilty themselves for feeling a lack of love and appreciation toward the (ostensibly caring) narcissistic parent.
A lack of empathy
As my previous blogs have stressed, narcissists lack empathy and so a narcissistic parent lack the empathy necessary to understand a child’s needs. They may feel disinterested in their child, while also feeling anxious at their inadequacy as a parent. They then project these feelings onto the child, who’s seen as overly needy, difficult, and unappreciative of the narcissist’s parenting efforts.
The developing child gradually becomes aware that the way that he feels is at odds with the way his parents tell him he should feel. Marsha Linehan (1993) has referred to this situation, in which the child’s own experiences and emotions are effectively labelled as wrong or off limits, as an “emotionally invalidating environment.”
How can it affect someone in their later life?
When the child reaches teenage and adult years, there are often issues with self image – they can feel unworthy, different to other people, a sense of isolation and not fitting in. There may even be a sense of not really existing at all. And of course highly charged, ambivalent feelings toward the parents.
As an adult, should I talk to my parents about it?
It is rarely useful for an adult who has a narcissistic parent still living, to approach them with a view to talking the whole thing over and finding resolution. Parents tend to produce a highly distorted picture of events, if they even remember them.
Can counselling help?
Counselling can help an individual resolve the conflicts naturally resulting from childhood trauma, can help them to piece together what was missing perhaps in terms of a sense of safety, of validation of their feelings, of love and nurturing. Some people find it hard to look after their own needs and are perpetual “people-pleasers”. Often they have trouble identifying their emotions and managing strong emotions. Eating disorders and addictions are common – as ways of self medicating or self soothing, to feel better. For some individuals who are now parents themselves, counselling can help them to trust themselves to be a more available, loving parent and role model to their own children.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!