Narcissists can be a nightmare to talk to, especially when that narcissist is your parent. Try as you might, having a healthy, open, and mutually beneficial conversation with a narcissistic parent is rarely easy, and efforts to do so can be emotionally taxing.
If you live with a narcissistic parent or you’ve moved away but you’re still in contact, the good news is that there are some actionable steps you can take, starting today, to make sure you get your needs met and your voice and opinion heard.
In this article, we’ll help you figure out how to talk to a narcissistic parent without ending up feeling hopeless, powerless, exhausted, or generally bad about yourself. We’ll explore what it means to be a narcissist, the consequences of narcissistic behavior on family members, and how to deal with a narcissistic parent.
This article is for anyone who has felt lost, confused, or frustrated under a narcissist’s parenting style. So, read it and save it to come back to whenever you need it, and feel free to share it with a friend who may also be struggling to keep their sanity due to a narcissistic parent.
What is a narcissist?
A narcissist is someone who shows narcissistic tendencies or has a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Narcissists have an inflated sense of self and prioritize their own wants and needs above those of others to the point that others’ wants and needs are completely ignored or forgotten about.
Of course, we all should prioritize our own well-being and see to others after, just as you should put on your own oxygen mask on an airplane before helping anyone else. The important thing is that we do see others after and make sure we help those we love as much as we can. Narcissists see to themselves and even manipulate and take advantage of other people to meet their own wants and needs.
Narcissists experience a grandiose sense of self, but that sense of self is far more fragile than even they believe. If they don’t receive constant reassurance, admiration, and respect from others, they struggle to feel confident and self-assured.
As such, they are likely to put on a grandiose facade and build themselves up in front of others. They might exaggerate their achievements, ‘one-up’ others, and expect others to acquiesce to their ideas, preferences, and opinions.
The term ‘narcissist’ has its roots in Greek mythology. Narcissus, a hunter, known for his good looks, sees his reflection in a pool of water and becomes so obsessed with it that he neglects food and sleep to continue staring at and admiring himself in the reflection. He loses awareness of his surroundings and has no concern for anything but his reflection, which eventually leads to his death.
How to identify a narcissistic parent
The first step in dealing with a narcissist, whether they’re a parent or not, is identifying and understanding the signs of narcissism. Learning about the nature of narcissism helps you recognize when someone’s behavior is rooted in self-centeredness and self-absorption.
It also helps you differentiate that behavior from one-off instances of selfishness, poor listening, or poor communication, of which we are all a little guilty from time to time.
The most common traits of narcissistic people include:
- A grandiose sense of self
- A need for admiration and approval from others
- Deep discomfort when lacking attention and respect
- A distinct lack of empathy for other people
- Self-centeredness, self-absorption
What are the signs of a narcissistic parent?
It’s possible that your mother or father does not have a narcissistic personality disorder but still displays narcissistic tendencies. Even in cases when a parent is narcissistic but does have diagnosable NPD, the consequences of their behavior can have a lasting, damaging impact on their children.
We’ll explore more on the consequences of narcissistic behavior later. First, let’s take a look at the most common signs of a narcissistic mother or father.
- Always turning the conversation back around to themselves
- Exaggerates personal achievements, constantly retells stories of past success
- Places high demands on children to be successful
- Brags about children’ achievements to others but fails to offer emotional support, acknowledgment, or validation behind closed doors
- Aversion to taking responsibility and a tendency to blame clothes when things go wrong
- Friendly and confident mask in public but cruel, harsh, or overly critical in the home
- Projection of personal dreams and ideal lifestyle to children, even if they have other preferences
- Emotional immaturity
- Guilt-tripping – constantly reminds you of all they have done for you when they want something
- Makes you feel inferior or anxious
- Puts others down to make themselves feel superior
- Ignores what you have to say if they don’t like what you’re saying
How do narcissistic parents affect their children?
Unfortunately, children who a narcissist raised may develop a range of unhealthy, survival-based coping mechanisms to process the confusion and emotional injustice that comes from narcissistic abuse at the hands of a parent.
Narcissistic mothers and fathers may not fully realize the damage they’re causing to their children, but the damage happens regardless. Many aspects of the child’s life, from their self-esteem to their relationship with others, to their general view of the world, all take a hit when dealing with a narcissistic parent.
Ultimately, growing up with a narcissist in your life is toxic to your mental health. A narcissist might challenge your understanding of reality, especially when you bring up something that paints them in a negative light.
For example, if you remember a couple of times when they forgot to pick you up from an after-school hobby, they might completely deny it and claim they were always on time no matter what. In extreme cases, they might deny that you ever went to that after-school hobby.
Can you imagine how confusing and disorientating such behavior is to a child? The narcissistic parent wants to protect their self-image so much that they are willing to challenge their child’s reality and make them believe they have false memories.
A narcissistic parent might project their own ideas onto their children. They view their children as an extension of themselves and see them as something to manipulate and control, rather than the more healthy and growth-oriented outlook that would encourage a child to grow as they grow, and follow whichever life path feels right pat to them, with intermittent advice and guidance rather than frequent control and manipulation.
Since the parent wants to live vicariously through their child, they try to make them follow their ideals, and in the process, the child learns that the parent’s goals and dreams are more important than their own.
As such, the child of a narcissistic parent may develop people-pleasing tendencies and learn to prioritize others’ needs over their own, to the detriment of their mental and emotional health and well-being.
How to approach a narcissistic parent
If you’ve ever tried to confront a narcissist on their behavior, you know just how frustrating and challenging the experience can be. Narcissists don’t like to be called out on their selfishness or other wrongdoings because it challenges their fragile self-view.
They want to feel like they’re in the right and that their behavior is justified and will go to great lengths to preserve their superior self-image. As such, if you confront them, they’re likely to use a ring of manipulative or immature tactics to turn the focus away from themselves and onto your wrongs, or shortcomings.
Below you will find some tips and techniques to help you approach your narcissistic parent. Remember that if your father or mother is a narcissist, then you may have gone through years of emotional abuse and injustice, which are not overcome overnight. The following tips are useful, but they take some practice to become effective.
As you begin to challenge or confront the narcissist in your life or begin to distance yourself from them, you might elicit a strong reaction. They might notice that they’re losing their grip on you and resort to manipulative tactics to regain control.
Accept who they are
Accept that your mother or father has narcissistic tendencies and that communication may be difficult. You can try your best to change them, but you’ll likely have little luck and exhaust your mind and body in the process.
Accepting their narcissism does not mean that you have to support or even tolerate it. It simply means freeing yourself from the need to change them. They are who they are, and it is they who will have to deal with the ultimate consequences of their behavior.
Accepting who they are also means letting go of responsibility. You might have learned to please them or berate yourself for not meeting their expectations when you were younger, but now that you’re an adult, you can choose to let go of the expectations they placed on you.
Try to understand and accept that their disappointment, harsh criticism, or downright insults are a projection of their own issues and not a reflection of your worth or value as a person.
Narcissists are skilled manipulators. When you try to confront them, they may retaliate with comments and behaviors that make no sense. They might try to confuse or disorient you or quickly change the topic of conversation. They might even throw a tantrum, which can be difficult to watch in a parent.
Despite their efforts to deter the confrontation, try your best to stay grounded. See their behavior for what it is – self-centered, immature, and a mask for deeper feelings of insecurity – and remember why you chose to have a confrontation in the first place.
Take time out if you need to. Learn breathing exercises to keep yourself calm, and try not to lose your cool in the conversation, as that will give them more ammunition to work with.
Remember that a narcissist understands how to pull at people’s emotions. If they can’t find a way out of the confrontation, they might resort to victimization, implying that life is hard, everyone is against them, or nobody cares.
Naturally, you’ll feel some compassion for their suffering, but be mindful of the fact that self-victimization is another manipulative tactic.
When you’re dealing with a narcissistic parent, setting healthy, firm boundaries is a must. A boundary is a means of protecting your mental and emotional well-being by placing a distance or limit, physical or emotional, between you and another person.
If your parent is intrusive, shows up to your house uninvited when you ask them not to, tells your children things you don’t want them to hear, or clearly lies to you and your siblings, then you have an opportunity to set a boundary.
The boundary is yours to create. Some people need to completely cut contact with their narcissistic parents, while others can tolerate a phone call once a week. If your parents are intrusive and try to contact you all the time, let them know that there will be consequences.
The consequences might be no more contact, or it might be refused entry into your home. Remember that boundaries are yours to uphold. If they don’t listen and adhere to them, you need to follow through with the consequences to show them that you really mean it.
Know when to seek professional help
Years of emotional abuse and injustice at the hands of a narcissistic parent can leave a lasting, damaging impact on your sense of self. Narcissists teach their children to neglect their own authentic selves to serve their parents’ worldview, which leads to a compromised sense of self in the child.
That compromised sense of self does not heal automatically when we become adults. Its effects continue and permeate into all aspects of our lives, in particular our romantic relationships.
A therapist or counselor can help you better understand the nature and effect of narcissism. They can shed light on your narcissistic parent’s behavior and how they influenced your core values or beliefs about the world and help you regain a strong sense of self.
They can teach you healthy coping skills and grounding techniques for when your parent is overstepping a boundary. They can help you reorient your life to learn how to thrive independently rather than continue living your life in survival mode.