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How to deal with narcissistic parents effectively

Narcissist woman
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When we think of narcissism, many of us think of the Greek namesake, Narcissus, a mythological man who fell so deeply in love with his own reflection that he couldn’t love anyone else. While this is a very dramatic tale, for those who suffer from a narcissistic personality disorder or love someone who does, the reality isn’t quite as poetic.

According to experts, narcissists are extremely insecure, and this often manifests in behavior and communication that lacks empathy. If the narcissist has children, this type of behavior can impart mental trauma to them, including PTSD, nightmares, anxiety, and guilt.

So how do you manage a relationship with a narcissist, and what is the best way to work through trauma caused by a narcissistic parent? We talked to two independent clinical experts to break it all down.

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What is narcissism?

According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissism is a recognized personality disorder, defined as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

Remember that one doesn’t need to match all of these characteristics to be diagnosed, and likewise, one can behave in these ways without having the disorder. If you have any questions or are concerned someone you love exhibits narcissistic personality traits, consult a mental health professional for further guidance.

How to identify a narcissist parent

Shemena Johnson, PsyD, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles, shares the telltale symptoms of parental narcissistic behavior:

By and large, when many people look back in their history, you often hear them describe their parents as selfish, difficult/challenging, controlling, invalidating, not empathetic or emotional, not present or neglectful. These are some of the adjectives that may point to growing up with a narcissistic parent.

According to Dr. Johnson, narcissistic parents may also exploit their child for their own benefit, abandon their child while in pursuit of attention or admiration from others, and stifle the child from separation or individuation.

How narcissist parents harm their kids

According to Leela Magavi, MD, an adolescent and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry in California, narcissistic parents can cause real and lasting trauma to their children:

Individuals who were raised by parents who repetitively shamed and manipulated them have significant difficulty confiding in and trusting others. This adversely affects their friendships, working, and romantic relationships, leading to debilitating feelings of loneliness. Narcissistic parenting adversely affects children’s sense of self and self-esteem.

This shame and manipulation often lead the child to feel they aren’t good enough, according to Dr. Magavi.

What to do about it

As always, addressing the problem with open and honest communication can be the most difficult step.

As Dr. Johnson puts it:

As soon as you can recognize the relational pattern involved with a narcissistic parent, you can start to learn how to manage your expectations…If you’re planning a visit with your parents, prepare in advance for those interactions by taking a mindful moment to check in with yourself on managing your expectations so that you’re aware of the little minefields of battle that await you.

Children of narcissistic parents are by no means powerless. Johnson suggests setting boundaries and limiting time spent with parents can help maintain a healthier relationship with them. Additionally, whenever possible, try to remember that narcissistic people are ultimately sick and in need of empathy. Dr. Johnson shares that individuals who suffer from mental illnesses should not be ostracized or shamed. Often, they suffered trauma themselves that resulted in their own selfish behavior. Therefore, with set boundaries, it may be possible to keep narcissistic parents in your life without sacrificing your own mental health.

Narcissists and those with narcissistic tendencies can and do impact their children and others around them. If you are struggling to manage your relationship with a narcissist or feel you may exhibit narcissistic tendencies yourself, don’t hesitate to reach out to the mental health professional for help.

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