Like spitting nail guns spinning loose, narcissist parents are hurt machines, creating havoc and damage in the lives of their children.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

To understand how and why narcissist parents hurt their kids, one needs to understand Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

A person with NPD is believed to have experienced a formative sense of invalidation when young (“narcissist injury”), typically involving neglect, abuse, or overvaluation (such as overpraising) by her parent(s). In some cases the injured child experiences rejection by one parent and smothering indulgence by another. Either way, the wounding is so profound that the child fails to form a resilient sense of self, and she overcompensates with a larger-than-life fabricated persona.

The Duality of the Narcissist Personality

The severe narcissist personality is a duality of two selves—his fundamentally worthless self and his grandiose overcompensating self. He shields his self-contempt by continuously asserting his superiority over others. His purpose in life, day to day, hour by hour, is not just to convince the world that he is superior, but to convince himself. That need overrides empathy for others and justifies transgressions large and small against family, friends, coworkers, and anyone else to cross his path.

The Narcissist’s Children Are Most Vulnerable to Abuse

Although spouses often suffer excruciatingly, the narcissist’s children are most vulnerable to her abuse because they

  1. are relatively helpless;
  2. are reliant on the narcissist parent for caregiving;
  3. are especially susceptible to the narcissist parent’s opinions; and
  4. are ready targets.

Narcissists are obsessive students of psychological warfare, and they carry an arsenal of weapons at the ready. Because narcissists don’t empathize with others, they do not follow the normal rules of engagement in their relationships. Put another way, they don’t play nice, or fair.

To support their sense of superiority and entitlement, narcissists use the following tactics to “win” in their ceaselessly manipulative game of bettering others:

  • criticism
  • terror
  • blame
  • shame
  • projection
  • lies
  • gaslighting
  • violating boundaries

They also use what appear on the surface to be “positive” tactics:

  • idealization
  • flattery
  • excessive attention
  • seduction
  • obsessive sexualization
  • idolized projection
  • exaggerated praise

“Golden” and “Scapegoat’ Children”

"If you're going through hell, keep going" quote by Winston ChurchillThe narcissist parent assigns roles to his children to serve his agenda. Typically there is a golden child and one or more scapegoat(s).

The golden child is the can-do-no-wrong favorite whose strengths and successes are celebrated and failings are overlooked or blamed on the scapegoat. Often the golden child is a projection of everything the narcissist parent wants to believe about himself—an idealized mirror image.

The scapegoat, by contrast, can do nothing right. The scapegoat is the receptacle of blame for the ills of the family, targeted with criticism and rage. No matter how hard the scapegoat tries or how capable s/he is, it is never good enough.

Both roles in the narcissist family are damaging false identities that deny and negate the child’s authentic self and assign heavy burdens that can last a lifetime.

The Golden Child’s Hurt

The narcissist parent’s assigned golden child is above reproach, idolized above all others in the family, and shielded from derision, shame, blame, and other abuses. The golden child is the narcissist’s beautiful promise fulfilled, her idealized image mirrored back to her. The narcissist’s enabler(s), a spouse and/or siblings, support her worship of the golden child, even while they may resent or even despise the golden child’s “unearned” status in the family hierarchy.

Along with intense privilege, the golden child carries heavy responsibility. The narcissist parent charges a high price for his favoritism: isolation. He “owns” his golden child, and he demands utmost loyalty. If that child attempts to break away from the narcissist’s control and/or form relationships of his own, he faces a battalion of punishments, from guilt trips to judgment, rejection to abandonment, or worse.

Beyond the narcissist’s grasp, the golden child’s most difficult challenges are establishing a separate identity, healthy independence, and an appropriate sense of self-importance in the scheme of things. Life’s realities are likely to run interference with the golden child’s confusing mix of arrogance and instilled helplessness. He may struggle with the cognitive dissonance of having felt his status was unearned or having others view him as ordinary when he has been told he is extraordinary.

The golden child’s ability to assert boundaries with his narcissist parent and form his own intimate relationships depend on his willingness to examine and move beyond his prescribed role in his family of origin.

The Scapegoat’s Hurt

As the family target, the scapegoat has it hardest, at least on the surface. The narcissist parent directs his wrath and self-loathing onto the scapegoated child. That child mirrors all that the parent hates about himself, often because the child is most like the parent, most aware of the parent’s shortcomings, and/or most questioning of or confrontational about the family’s unhealthy dynamics. Often the strongest child is the one scapegoated, because she is most apt to challenge the status quo and directly or indirectly threaten the narcissist’s lies about himself and others.

The scapegoated child’s awareness and strength trigger the narcissist parent’s deepest narcissist injury, activating her most violent defenses. The scapegoated child’s mere act of “seeing” causes the narcissist parent to lash out with projecting rage: The child is cruel, unfair, angry, rebellious, and disloyal. The narcissist’s abuses become the scapegoat’s misdeeds. The narcissist’s pain becomes the scapegoat’s fault.

In short, the narcissist parent uses his scapegoat as a catch-all for everything painful and threatening, as well as a reason to deflect accountability. As in all family dynamics, the narcissist enlists his enabler (and flying monkeys) to direct the family propaganda against the scapegoat and isolate her from family support.

Like the golden child, the scapegoat’s identity is distorted by the narcissist parent’s false projections. The scapegoat’s challenge is to believe in her own perceptions and truths—no small matter for someone who has been systematically psychologically undermined in a devastating smear campaign. This means dissecting the narcissist family system, recognizing its cruelties and lies, and nurturing the self who was never properly loved. But the scapegoat’s liabilities in the narcissistic family are also some of her best assets. As a questioner, fighter, and outlier, she is a survivor with the insight and grit to find a way out.

The Path to Healing

For both the golden child and scapegoat, breaking the narcissist family cycle is the path to healing. Replicating similar dynamics in their adult relationships is common and difficult to avoid. Often it takes repeating unhealthy patterns to begin to understand them and seek out truly nurturing friends and partners. As parents, adult children of narcissists (ACoNs) have the opportunity to achieve profound healing through giving the kind of unconditional love and authentic caretaking they never received.

Julia L. Hall is the author of the forthcoming memoir Carry You about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissist family. Read excerpts. Her articles on narcissism regularly appear in The Huffington Post.

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Featured image courtesy of keep_bitcoin_real, Creative Commons.