Children of narcissist parents, particularly those targeted as scapegoats, experience brain alterations in response to a relentlessly stressful, changing, and unsafe environment.

Lacking empathy and constantly needing to bolster their unstable self-esteem at the expense of others, particularly their families, people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are disastrous parents who cause lasting emotional and physiological damage to their children.

Especially those who are targeted for abuse as scapegoats, children in a narcissistic home are under siege. They become hypervigilant to attack, whether emotional, psychological, or physical, and their body’s emergency response system (limbic system) is constantly turned on, a sustained condition that it is not designed for.

Often parentified—or made responsible for their parent(s)’ emotional and physical burdens beyond their maturity level—such children carry a heavy weight that dogs them throughout their lives. They may become hypersensitive, perfectionist, and overresponsible for others, struggling with healthy boundaries and deep wounds.

Children under such circumstances commonly develop complex PTSD, including

  1. difficulty regulating emotions;
  2. nightmares;
  3. insomnia;
  4. flashbacks;
  5. a harsh inner critic;
  6. hypervigilance;
  7. anxiety;
  8. avoidant behaviors; and
  9. difficulty trusting others.

Children of narcissists may also experience

  1. vulnerability to depression;
  2. anger or sublimated anger directed at self;
  3. compromised immune systems;
  4. a range of health problems, often mystifying to medical doctors;
  5. perfectionism; and
  6. vulnerability to addictions.

Brain influence of narcissist parentsSome children of narcissists develop NPD themselves. They experience fundamental invalidation of their authentic self, and, like their NPD parent(s), they fail to form a secure identity and empathy for others. Such individuals in many respects remain primitive young children who are profoundly self-centered and endlessly and ruthlessly demanding of attention at any cost to those around them.

But although some children of narcissists become narcissists themselves, most do not, just as the majority of abused people do not become abusers.

Although scapegoated children are typically hit hardest by narcissistic abuse compared to the narcissistic family’s golden child, they are also are more likely to resist the family patterns and break free. This can be because they are by nature more independent-minded, which threatened their narcissist parent(s) and therefore made them a target. It also may be because they have less investment in the family system, giving them more license and motivation to get out.

The scapegoats’ vulnerabilities are often also their most powerful strengths. They may become highly empathetic, having been trained to put others’ needs first. They also may become unusually self-reflective, seeking out insight and awareness to make sense of the abuse and cognitive dissonance they endured. Many are able to carry such awareness forward into healthy relationships, breaking the cycle of abuse with their own children.


Julie L. Hall is a writer at The Narcissist Family Files and the author of two forthcoming books: a memoir and a book on narcissistic family dynamics.

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Lead image courtesy of Sean MacEntee.